If you have ever taken the time to look at a box of cereal, you will likely notice that it has been fortified with several vitamins and minerals. One of those vitamins is Vitamin B1 or what is commonly referred to as thiamine or thiamine hydrochloride. While not widely known, it is actually a common nutritional deficiency that used to be responsible for thousands of deaths which led to companies fortifying their foods with it.

Functions Within the Body

So what exactly does Vitamin B1, or thiamine, do in the body? Specifically, Vitamin B1 has four different roles that it plays. First, it generates a chemical called acetylcholine. This is a neurotransmitter that allows the nervous system to communicate with the heart or the brain and spinal column to talk to organs and muscles.

Secondly, this nutrient helps to produce or regulate blood pyruvate and blood lactate levels. Without regulation, high levels of these may lead to muscle pain and can even affect cardiac tissue. Third, thiamine helps in the production of myelin sheathing, also affecting the nervous system. Lastly, Vitamin B1, like many of the B vitamins, helps to generate energy from the food that is consumed.

Sources of Vitamin B1

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Finding sources of thiamine in food can be quite easy; however, special attention must be given to how food is made or processed. Animal meat such as beef and pork, and specifically meat from the organs of animals, along with almonds, peas, and spinach are all great options for obtaining this vitamin. But, overcooking these foods to the point of burning them, frying them (including air frying), or setting them under a radiation light, as seen in many restaurants, can destroy the thiamine. 

Additionally, processing these foods with sulfites or an alkalinizing agent can also ruin this nutrient. For example, many dried vegetables and fruits are processed using sulfites. These neutralize the thiamine and therefore provide very few of the nutrients one assumes to be intaking.

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Symptoms of Deficiency

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Symptoms of a thiamine deficiency are far-reaching and may manifest in several different ways in the body. These could be in the form of depression, anxiety, muscle pain, neuropathy, epileptic seizures, and fatigue. 

Even more concerning, a deficiency can cause high blood pressure, an elevated heart rate, chest pains, and even congestive heart failure, which also results in edema. A Vitamin B1 deficiency is often referred to as beriberi and is categorized as either wet or dry. Wet beriberi is a form of deficiency which affects the heart, while dry beriberi affects the nervous system.

Causes of Vitamin B1 Deficiency

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Apart from not ingesting enough Vitamin B1, there are actually several causes of deficiency. These include: 

  • Alcohol – Alcohol-induced thiamine deficiency can cause neuropathy and Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. This can result from drinking as few as two glasses of wine per evening.
  • Consuming high levels of processed food – Highly processed foods often destroy any thiamine that may have been in them.
  • Excess carbohydrates and sugar – Diets high in carbohydrates and sugar require additional Vitamin B1 in order to break down these foods and convert them into energy. 
  • GI Damage – Damage to the gut through medication, gluten sensitivity or Celiac Disease affect the absorption of this nutrient which is taken in through the small intestine.
  • Crohn’s Disease or Ulcerative Colitis – These cause chronic diarrhea, allowing for few nutrients to be absorbed.
  • Excessive coffee and tea – Consuming two or more cups of coffee or tea a day creates diuresis which depletes the body of thiamine.
  • Surgery – Surgeries, like gastric bypass, reduce the transit time of food and the ability to break it down, therefore reducing the ability to break down and absorb vitamins.

vitamin b1

Medications Causing Deficiency

vitamin b1

Along with the causes above, there are several medications that can cause a Vitamin B1 deficiency. These medications include: 

  • Diuretics – These are often prescribed to patients with chronic heart failure. Similar to consuming too much coffee or tea, these deplete the body of thiamine. 
  • Antiseizure medication – This type of medication is linked to B1 and B12 deficiencies.
  • Oral Contraceptives – Additional estrogen depletes the body of several of the B vitamins, as well as zinc. 
  • Antibiotics – This type of medication eliminates the gut flora. The gut flora helps to produce B vitamins and can greatly impact B1 stores when destroyed. Antibiotics can also affect how one digests food and obtains thiamine.
  • Metformin – This form of diabetic medication improves blood sugar or insulin sensitivity, but in turn knocks out the stores of B vitamins.

Medication is often prescribed to treat symptoms. These symptoms, however, are often the direct result of a vitamin or mineral deficiency. Therefore, it is more beneficial to pinpoint the cause of the symptom, rather than to simply mask it with medication.

Testing and Supplementation

If an individual suspects that he or she may be deficient in Vitamin B1, the first step to take is testing. While many doctors will order a blood test, this will often provide an inaccurate result. There can be a normal thiamine level in the blood, but the work is actually done in the cell; therefore, the best form of testing is done at the intracellular level.

If a deficiency is present, the first step is to make dietary changes. If that is not enough, or there is another issue, like malabsorption, supplementation may be necessary. If deficient in several B vitamins, taking a complex is fine; however, if it is just a Vitamin B1 deficiency, supplementing that individual vitamin is a better solution.

Stop the Cycle

Vitamin B1

When the body starts to break down, society would have you believe that medication is the only answer for healing. The reality, however, is that most symptoms are a sign that the body is lacking in important vitamins or nutrients. 

Medicating the symptom hides the root problem and can lead to further deficiencies and more prescribed medications, establishing a vicious and never-ending cycle. If your body starts to fail, get tested for deficiencies, do research, and discover how changing your diet and implementing natural supplements can improve not only your physical health but your mental health as well.

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