Thiamine, also known as vitamin B1, is one of the B vitamins, a class of essential nutrients that are important for cell metabolism and synthesis. It is a water-soluble vitamin that ensures skin, muscles, bones, internal organs, and nervous system health.
Thiamine is absorbed into the bloodstream from the gastrointestinal tract. Although small amounts of thiamine are stored in the liver, heart, kidneys, and brain, it takes a relatively short time (7-18 days) to get removed from the body.
Thiamine plays an essential role in metabolizing proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, as well as in the processes of nerve excitation. It can help prevent retinopathy (damage to the back of the eye or retina) and neuropathy (damage to the peripheral nerves located outside the brain and the spinal cord).
This article gives key information about thiamine.
Role of thiamine in the body
Thiamine is necessary for the normal function of several bodily processes.
Thiamine speeds up energy production by helping to change carbohydrates into energy. It is also a neurotropic vitamin, which helps maintain neuronal variability, protects neurons against damaging environmental influences, and provides energy for the whole nervous system. Furthermore, thiamine plays an essential role in normal cardiac function, and a deficiency of this vitamin can cause heart failure.
Thiamine also acts as an antioxidant and protects cells against free radicals, premature aging, and the toxic effects of tobacco and alcohol. Thiamine is vital in treating non-alcoholic fatty liver disease: it reduces fat levels in the liver, lowers blood sugar levels, and increases liver glycogen levels.
Thiamine is also beneficial for people with diabetes and impaired glucose tolerance. It helps to keep blood sugar at healthy levels and prevents complications from chronically high blood sugar.
However, some studies have also shown that thiamine supplementation may contribute to a higher rate of tumor cell survival, proliferation, and chemotherapy resistance.
Recommended dietary allowance of thiamine
The recommended daily dose of thiamine for people over 18 years of age is 1.2 mg for men and 1.1 mg for women.
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During pregnancy and breastfeeding, this amount increases to 1.4 mg/day.
For children, the amount varies by age:
From birth to 6 months of age – 0.3 mg/day.
From 6 months to 1 year of age – 0.4 mg/day.
From 1 to 3 years of age – 0.7 mg/day.
At 4 to 6 years of age – 0.9 mg/day.
At 7 to 10 years of age – 1.0 mg/day.
For adolescents under 18 years of age, the recommended daily dose constitutes 1.3 mg.
Thiamine is a water-soluble vitamin. As such, it is not readily stored in the body. Instead, excess thiamine is excreted from the body in the urine. Therefore, ensuring that you get the right amount of thiamine daily is crucial.
Thiamine deficiency primarily affects the nervous system, brain, and heart. Symptoms of vitamin deficiency appear as early as 2-4 weeks after stopping consuming foods containing thiamine. They include problems with short-term memory, sleep disturbances, weakness, irritability, loss of appetite, and weight loss.
If the deficiency progresses, the immune system deteriorates, sensitivity in the hands and feet decreases and even completely disappears, and the skin appears ‘marbled’ due to pallor and vein translucency. Those affected may suffer from heart pain, palpitations, shortness of breath, swelling in the feet and hands, muscle weakness and tingling, and dizziness.
Infants are also susceptible to thiamine deficiency. It can occur if the mother does not take enough thiamine during pregnancy and breastfeeding or if the baby is fed formula not fortified with vitamin B1.
Thiamine deficiency in children manifests in a typical set of symptoms:
- swelling of the arms and legs;
- stool disorders;
- hoarse cries;
In addition, increased tendon reflexes can also indicate nervous system disorders caused by thiamine deficiency.
Prolonged and severe thiamine deficiency leads to the development of beriberi disease. This disease has several distinct forms.
Dry beriberi is associated with Peripheral Neuropathy.
It causes the wasting or thinning of muscle mass, as well as muscle weakness, decreased limb sensitivity, and limb dysfunction. Prolonged dry beriberi damages the peripheral nerves, causing these symptoms to become chronic.
This is a form of dry beriberi. The common symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy are nausea and vomiting, paralysis of the eye muscles, retinal hemorrhage, impaired coordination of movements, and inability to keep balance.
The progression of the pathological process leads to Korsakoff syndrome, a disorder characterized by impaired memory, loss of motor control (ataxia), and vision changes.
Wernicke’s encephalopathy is acute and reversible. Korsakoff syndrome is often a chronic condition and is usually irreversible or partially reversible.
Wet beriberi affects the cardiovascular system, damaging blood vessels and weakening the heart. In extreme cases, wet beriberi leads to heart failure. It is a life-threatening medical condition and requires swift intervention.
Causes of thiamine deficiency
Thiamine deficiency is rare in developed countries, where most people get enough thiamine in their diet, but it is relatively common elsewhere in the world.
Deficiency may also be detected in specific populations due to increased losses of thiamine or due to insufficient intake and/or absorption in the gastrointestinal tract.
The most common causes of thiamine deficiency are:
- Unbalanced diet.
- Kidney disease.
- Chronic alcoholism.
- Parenteral nutrition.
- Surgical intervention to reduce the volume of the stomach.
- Malabsorption syndrome.
- Congenital metabolic disorders.
- Frequent diarrhea and vomiting.
- Diabetes mellitus.
- Immunodeficiency disorders.
Treating thiamine deficiency
The diagnosis of thiamine deficiency is symptom-based. The most common symptoms are:
- loss of appetite;
- blurry vision;
- coordination problems;
- tingling arms and legs;
- muscle weakness;
- rapid heartbreak;
If you are experiencing these symptoms, we recommend immediately consulting with a doctor.
Thiamin deficiency is easy to correct, so most negative symptoms disappear when the deficiency is eradicated. However, if the chronic deficiency has led to Korsakoff’s syndrome, symptoms may persist even after complete correction of the deficiency. As such, the best approach to thiamine deficiency is prevention. Eating thiamine-rich foods can help prevent the development of negative symptoms.
Top thiamine-rich foods
The following is a selection of thiamine-rich foods we recommend adding to your meals:
- Rice bran oil.
- Flax seeds.
- Sunflower seeds.
- Hemp seeds.
- Cilantro and coriander.
- Sesame seeds and flour.
- Macadamia nuts.
- Black beans.
- Poppy seeds.
- Kidney beans.
- Goose and duck liver.
- Brown long-grain rice.
- Trout and salmon.
Getting thiamine from food
Water-soluble vitamins are vulnerable to food processing, and thiamine is considered one of the most unstable vitamins when subject to food processing and storage.
This means that it is not enough to know which foods contain thiamine (listed as vitamin B1). It is also essential to prepare food in a way as to preserve the thiamine for consumption.
This can be achieved by:
- Using less water when boiling vegetables and cereals. This is because thiamine dissolves in water so it can be lost through boiling. Instead, try microwaving, steaming, roasting, or grilling them.
- Cooking foods quickly.
- Leaving the skin on vegetables intact when cooking.
- Avoid cutting thiamine-rich vegetables before cooking: the whole product is less exposed to temperature, water, and air, and the loss of vitamins is reduced.
- Saving the nutrient-laden cooking water for soup stock.
Following the advice in this article, you can ensure a healthy amount of thiamine in your diet daily and prevent the complications associated with thiamine deficiency.