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On call: Niacin for cholesterol

January 1, 2007

On call

Niacin for cholesterol

Q. I hope you can clear up some family confusion. My doctor gave me a prescription for Niaspan, but my wife found the same medication, niacin, at the supermarket at a much lower price. Is it a drug or a vitamin?

A. Niacin is a natural substance — in fact, it's vitamin B3. Like other vitamins, it's required to keep the metabolism working properly. But the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for B3 is only 18 mg a day, far less than the amount needed to improve cholesterol levels. Still, any dose of niacin can be sold as a "dietary supplement" without a doctor's prescription and without FDA oversight.

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