Are there any alternatives to niacin?

In the Track Your Plaque program, we tend to rely a great deal on niacin. When used properly, 90-95% of people will do just fine and achieve their lipid and lipoprotein goals with the help of niacin, along with their other efforts.

Unfortunately, around 5% of people simply can't take niacin without intolerable "hot flush" effects, or occasionally excessive skin sensitivity--itching, burning, etc.

Why does this happen? These 5% tend to be "rapid metabolizers" of niacin, i.e. they convert niacin (nicotinic acid, or vitamin B3) into a metabolite called nicotinuric acid. Nicotinuric acid is the compound responsible for the skin flush. Most people can slow or reduce the effects of nicotinuric acid by:

--Taking niacin with dinner, so that food slow tablet dissolution.

--Taking with plenty of water. Two 8-12 oz glasses usually eliminates the flush entirely in most people.

--Taking with an uncoated 325 mg tablet of aspirin in the first few weeks or months. Eventually, you will need to revert back to a better stomach tolerated dose of 81 mg, preferably enteric coated. But a full 325 mg uncoated can really help in the beginning, or when you have any niacin dose increases, e.g., 500 mg to 1000 mg.

But even with these very effective strategies, some people still struggle. That's when the question arises: Are there any alternatives to niacin?

Well, it depends on why niacin is being used. If you and your doctor are using niacin for:

Raising HDL--Then weight loss to your ideal weight; reduction of processed carbohydrates, especially wheat products; avoidance of hydrogenated ("trans") fats; a glass or two of red wine per day; dark chocolates (make sure first ingredient is chocolate or cocoa, not sugar), 40 gm per day; fish oil; exercise; other prescription agents (fibrates like Tricor; TZD agents for diabetes; cilostazol (Pletal)). Niacin is by far the most effective agent of all, but, if you're intolerant, raising HDL is still possible through a multi-faceted effort.

Reduction of small LDL--The list of effective strategies is the same as for raising HDL, but add raw almonds (1/4-1/2 cup per day), oat bran and other beta-glucan rich foods like oatmeal. Reduction of processed carbohydrates is especially important to reduce small LDL.

Reduction of Lipoprotein(a)--This is a tricky one. For men, testosterone and DHEA are effective alternatives; for women, estrogen and perhaps DHEA. Hormonal preparations of testosterone and estrogen are stricly prescription; DHEA is OTC. I have not seen the outsized benefits on lipoprotein(a) claimed by Rath et al by using high-dose vitamin C, lysine, and profile, unfortunately. We are clearly in need of better alternatives to treat this difficult and high-risk disorder.

Reduction of triglycerides/VLDL/IDL--I lump these three together since they all respond together. If you're niacin intolerant, maximixing your fish oil can be crucial for reduction of these patterns using doses above the usual starting 4000 mg per day (providing 1200 mg EPA+DHA). Reduction of processed carbohydrates, eimination of processed foods that contain high-fructose corn syrup, and weight loss to ideal weight are also very effective. "Soft" strategies with modest effects include green tea (>6 cups per day) or theaflavin 600-900 mg/day; raw nuts like almonds, walnuts, and pecans; exercise; soy protein.

Reduction of LDL--Lots of alternatives here including oat bran (3 tbsp per day), ground flaxseed (3 tbsp per day), soy protein (25 grams per day), Benecol butter substitute (for stanol esters), soluble fibers like pectin, psyllium, glucomannan; raw nuts like almonds, walnuts, and pecans.

In future, should torcetrapib become available (by prescription), this will add to our available tools for these areas when niacin can't be used. Until now, the alternatives to niacin depend on what you and your doctor are trying to achieve. In the vast majority of cases, HDL, small LDL, triglyceride, etc. goals for heart scan score control can be achieved, even when niacin is not well tolerated.