Thiamine: A vitamin workhorse

Thiamine is an essential nutrient that all tissues of the body need to function properly. Thiamine was the first B vitamin that scientists discovered. This is why its name carries the number 1. Like the other B vitamins, thiamine is water-soluble and helps the body turn food into energy. You can find it in:

  • foods
  • individual supplements
  • multivitamins

The body needs thiamine to make adenosine triphosphate (ATP). This is a molecule that transports energy within cells.

A thiamine deficiency can impact many different functions of your body, including those of the:

  • nervous system
  • heart
  • brain

Thankfully, thiamine deficiency is uncommon in the developed world. Thiamine deficiency is rare in healthy adults. It’s more common in people with specific medical conditions. Conditions that can impair thiamine levels include:

People who are undergoing dialysis for their kidneys or taking loop diuretics are also at risk for thiamine deficiency. Loop diuretics are prescribed for people with congestive heart failure. They can flush thiamine out of the body, possibly canceling out any health benefits. The heart relies on thiamine to function properly. People who take digoxin and phenytoin should also be careful.

Thiamine deficiency can lead to two major health problems: beriberi and Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Beriberi affects breathing, eye movements, heart function, and alertness. It’s caused by a buildup of pyruvic acid in the bloodstream, which is a side effect of your body not being able to turn food into fuel.

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is technically two different disorders. Wernicke’s disease affects the nervous system and causes visual impairments, a lack of muscle coordination, and mental decline. If Wernicke’s disease is left untreated, it can lead to Korsakoff syndrome. Korsakoff syndrome permanently impairs memory functions in the brain.

Either disease can be treated with thiamine injections or supplements. This may help with vision and muscular difficulties. However, thiamine can’t mend the permanent memory damage caused by Korsakoff syndrome.

In the United States, alcoholics are the most at risk for developing these diseases. Severe alcoholism can lead to thiamine deficiency. Doctors use thiamine supplements to treat people going through major alcohol withdrawal.

Scientists have looked at thiamine as a possible treatment for:

Most people can get all the thiamine they need from food. There are no real risk factors associated with thiamine consumption. You can find thiamine in:

  • pork
  • poultry
  • peas
  • nuts
  • dried beans
  • soybeans
  • whole grain cereals
  • lentils
  • legumes
  • bread
  • rice
  • yeast

Many whole grain products are fortified with thiamine, such as:

  • cereal
  • bread
  • rice
  • pasta

Certain foods and dietary practices can cancel out the body’s usage of thiamine and lead to deficiency. These include:

  • drinking lots of coffee or tea, even decaffeinated
  • chewing tea leaves and betel nuts
  • regularly eating raw fish and shellfish

Make sure you consult your doctor before starting a vitamin regimen, especially when using thiamine to treat a deficiency. To keep a balance of B vitamins in your system, doctors often suggest B complex vitamins over individual B supplements for healthy adults.

All tissues of the body need thiamine to function properly. Most people get enough thiamine from food. Certain medical conditions and dietary practices can cancel out the body’s usage of thiamine. This can lead to deficiency. In these cases, supplements may be necessary. Talk to your doctor before taking any thiamine supplement. It’s key to ensure that you have the right balance of B vitamins in your body.