Pellagra (Vitamin B3 Deficiency): Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

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Vitamin B3 DeficiencyVitamin B3 deficiency poses serious health risks as we depend on the B complex vitamin for proper functioning. Once a fatal disorder for many Americans, this condition, also known as pellagra, is currently most common among those in developing countries. The deficiency directly affects our skin and nerve cells, our digestive system, and our mental capabilities. We will look at causes, symptoms, and prevention and treatment of pellagra.

Pellagra occurs when the body lacks an adequate amount of vitamin B3, also known as niacin and tryptophan. This is essential for glucose production, the breakdown of fats and proteins, regulating blood circulation and cholesterol levels, and the production of stress and sex-related hormones. It is regarded as the disease of the four Ds, in reference to the outcomes of diarrhea, dermatitis, dementia, and death. Those living on an undernourished diet of mainly rice and corn face a high risk, but pellagra also affects alcoholics as many suffer from malnutrition as well.

What Causes Pellagra?

Pellagra can be split into two categories: primary and secondary. Each type carries different causes.

1. Primary Pellagra

This form of vitamin B3 deficiency is related to a lack of nutrition, such as not getting enough eggs, meat, seafood, or green vegetables in your diet. Alcoholism is often a factor with primary pellagra, for the reason highlighted above.

2. Secondary Pellagra

Those who regularly consume sufficient amounts of vitamin B3 may still deal with this condition. Secondary pellagra is the result of improper absorption of the nutrient, whether as a whole or partially. This is observed with gastrointestinal diseases that do not accept the niacin.

Other pellagra causes can be linked to a decrease or deficiency of amino acids tryptophan and lysine.

Symptoms of Pellagra

Pellagra symptoms vary, and sufferers may experience one or a combination of the following factors.

  • Diarrhea
  • Insomnia
  • Skin lesions
  • Red skin
  • Hair loss
  • Inflammation of mucous membranes
  • Aggression
  • Light sensitivity
  • Confusion
  • Nerve damage
  • Bloating
  • Edema
  • Paralysis

Diagnosing Vitamin B3 Deficiency

For a proper pellagra diagnosis, a doctor will review your medical history along with any persisting symptoms. Another major factor to consider is your eating habits, which will help approximate a daily vitamin B3 intake. You may also be asked about any other supplements or vitamins you may be taking.

A physical examination will expose any red rashes or skin lesions. A tell-tale sign is rashes on the arms, hands, feet, or face. It may appear similar to sunburn.

Further testing will help isolate the specific cause of the symptoms. You may have a 24-hour urine collection test to detect niacin levels. Blood samples may also be needed.

With a pellagra differential diagnosis, the intent is to distinguish between the condition and others with mimicking symptoms. These include, but are not limited to, the disorders and episodes of atopic dermatitis, contact dermatitis, pemphigus, porphyria, and neurological disorders.

Treating and Preventing Pellagra

For good body functioning, the recommended daily allowance of niacin is 16 milligrams for men 19 and older, while women 19 and older require 14 milligrams. The underlying condition responsible for pellagra must first be treated to help reverse any complications of vitamin B3 deficiency. There are natural pellagra treatments and lifestyle choices for pellagra prevention.

To naturally boost the levels of niacin and tryptophan, our daily diet should include food choices such as wheat, yeast, peanuts, poultry, and organ meats. And by using these niacin-enriched foods, you may be able to prevent an occurrence of pellagra. If vitamin B3 foods are an issue to digest, there are also natural B3 supplements to help balance your levels.

It should be noted there are existing health conditions, such as diabetes, that can prevent the absorption of vitamin B3 from foods. Antibiotic medications may also block niacin absorption.

Pellagra can be a serious condition if not monitored and controlled. We need vitamin B3 to assist our cardiovascular system, balance our blood cholesterol levels, stimulate brain function, and maintain healthy skin cells. There is an in depth diagnosis process as many other health conditions present similar symptoms. A nutrient deficiency such as pellagra can be treated with natural sources of B3 in most cases.

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After raising a son on her own, Tina knew it was time to find herself again. She moved from a small New Brunswick village to Toronto to pursue her first love: writing. With her journalism diploma and past reporter experience, she set out to make her mark on the world. Along with more than 25 years of experience in the financial, health, and business fields, Tina brings a wealth of knowledge and a nose for research to the Doctors Health... Read Full Bio »