Ancient civilizations knew that the addition of certain foods cured certain diseases. A case in point, Egyptians eating liver to treat night blindness. By the turn of this century, we had established that the term "certain foods" is called a vitamin and night blindness was due to a deficiency of vitamin A. Liver was replete with it and hence consumed to treat night blindness. Science continued to advance and reaffirm the old belief that lack of certain dietary ingredients caused diseases and dietary supplementation of these ingredients known as vitamins cures these diseases and is generally safe and appropriate. Consuming vitamins both naturally and packaged in pills has been an accepted way of life for years and years.
Whether prescribed by our doctor or not, we self-medicate with vitamins, feed it to our loved ones including children and elderly parents. So one day during a clinic visit, when our cardiologist is concerned about our cholesterol and prescribes a vitamin to treat the abnormal cholesterol levels, it appears to be the most natural thing in the world. No eyebrows are raised. We complied with our doctors’ instructions for many reasons. Familiar name, ease of availability and affordability rendered the use of niacin both attractive and reassuring. The medical community was happy with the lowering of bad cholesterol levels (LDL) and the increase in the levels of the good cholesterol (HDL) in response to niacin. Pharmaceutical companies were ecstatic as annual niacin prescriptions of close to a $1 billion were written.
However, a perfect storm was brewing. After close to half a century of singing praises of niacin, 2 studies from Europe and China come out with a vengeance against niacin and compel doctors to view the dark side of niacin. The dark side of niacin thus revealed was not only severe and serious in its side effects but also proved to be deadly in certain cases. 50% of the diabetic population on niacin had uncontrolled blood sugars resulting in increased risk for hospitalizations. 30% of the population prescribed niacin had become diabetics within three to four years of its use. Also noted, were other side effects including gastric ulcers requiring transfusions or in some cases bleeding to death.
Billion dollars spent annually for a mere promise of benefit and favorable outcome in heart related diseases went down the drain. With no significant reduction in heart attack, strokes or TIAs, the doctors cried foul to the routine use of niacin.
Now it is the general consensus that routine use of niacin is both unacceptable and unsafe. However, only for certain patient population where there is intolerance to other cholesterol lowing medications and risks for heart attacks and stroke are prohibitive, the cardiologist may prescribe niacin only on a case to case basis.