Woman eating cereal

Excessive amounts of a vitamin found in some fortified cereals has been linked to heart problems (Image: Getty Images)

Our bodies rely on certain vitamins and minerals to keep them functioning to the best of their ability. And while we should be able to get all the nutrients we need by eating a healthy, balanced diet, sometimes a little top-up is required.

This can come in the form of tablet or powder supplements, or even fortified foods. Although adding these to your daily routine might seem like you are doing your body some good, new research has suggested it could be harmful in certain circumstances.

A study, published this week, found that high levels of vitamin B3 – also known as niacin – may raise the risk of heart disease by triggering inflammation and damaging blood vessels.

Vitamin B3 can be found naturally in many foods including liver, chicken breast, tuna, peanuts and avocado. Many cereals popular in the UK are also fortified with B3.

While B3 is needed to keep your nervous system, digestive system and skin healthy, the study revealed a previously unknown risk from consuming excessive amounts.

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Senior man sitting on sofa at home with chest pain

Researchers found that high levels of B3 could cause vascular inflammation (Image: Getty)

As part of the research published in Nature Medicine journal, the team analysed fasting blood samples from 1,162 patients who had come into a cardiology centre to be evaluated for heart disease.

The research resulted in the discovery of a substance in some of the blood samples that is only made when there is excess B3 – called 4PY.

Higher circulating levels of 4PY were strongly associated with development of heart attack, stroke and other adverse cardiac events in large-scale clinical studies.

The researchers also showed in preclinical studies that 4PY directly triggers vascular inflammation which damages blood vessels and can lead to atherosclerosis over time.

Study lead Dr Stanley Hazen, from the Cleveland Clinic in the US, said: “What’s exciting about these results is that this pathway appears to be a previously unrecognised yet significant contributor to the development of cardiovascular disease.

“What’s more, we can measure it, meaning there is potential for diagnostic testing. These insights set the stage for developing new approaches to counteract the effects of this pathway.”

The trial found that around a quarter of participants appeared to be getting too much B3, and had high levels of 4PY, which appears to contribute to cardiovascular disease development.

“For decades, the United States and more than 50 nations have mandated niacin fortification in staple foods such as flour, cereals and oats to prevent disease related to nutritional deficiency,” said Dr Hazen.

“The main takeaway is not that we should cut out our entire intake of niacin – that’s not a realistic approach.

“Given these findings, a discussion over whether a continued mandate of flour and cereal fortification with niacin in the US could be warranted.”

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Where to find certain vitamins in food (Image: Express.co.uk)

Dr Hazen also noted broader use of over-the-counter supplements made with different forms of niacin have also become popular because of presumed anti-ageing purposes.

He added that patients should consult with their doctors before taking over-the-counter supplements and focus on a diet rich in fruit and vegetables while avoiding excess carbohydrates.

The new findings also might help explain why B3 is no longer used as a treatment for lowering cholesterol.

It was one of the first treatments prescribed to lower LDL or “bad” cholesterol.

However, eventually B3 showed to be less effective than other cholesterol-lowering drugs and was associated with other negative effects and higher mortality rates in previous research.

“Niacin’s effects have always been somewhat of a paradox,” Dr Hazen said.

“Despite niacin lowering of cholesterol, the clinical benefits have always been less than anticipated based on the degree of LDL reduction.

“This led to the idea that excess niacin caused unclear adverse effects that partially counteracted the benefits of LDL lowering. We believe our findings help explain this paradox.

“This illustrates why investigating residual cardiovascular risk is so critical; we learn so much more than what we set out to find.”

But the study authors note that long-term investigations are needed to assess the effect of chronic elevation of 4PY levels on atherosclerosis and other phenotypes.

Dr Hazen added: “The average person should avoid niacin supplements now that we have reason to believe that taking too much niacin can potentially lead to an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease.”

The NHS recommends 16.5mg of B3 a day for men and 13.2mg a day for women. “You should be able to get all the niacin you need from your daily diet,” it says.

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