Thiamin (vitamin B1) is widely available in the diet. It is essential for the processing (metabolism) of carbohydrates (to produce energy) and for normal nerve and heart function. Thiamin is not toxic.
Thiamin deficiency often occurs with other B vitamin deficiencies. It may result from a deficiency in the diet, as may occur in young adults with severe anorexia or in people whose diet consists mainly of highly processed carbohydrates (such as polished white rice, white flour, and white sugar). Polishing rice removes almost all of the vitamins.
Alcoholics, who often substitute alcohol for food and thus do not consume enough thiamin, are at high risk of developing this deficiency. Also, alcohol may interfere with the absorption and metabolism of this vitamin.
Thiamin deficiency may also result from disorders or conditions that increase the body's need for thiamin. Examples are thyroid disorders, pregnancy, breastfeeding, strenuous exercise, and fever. Liver disorders may interfere with the metabolism of the vitamin. Having diarrhea for a long time may prevent thiamin from being absorbed, causing a deficiency.
Early symptoms are vague. They include fatigue, irritability, poor memory, loss of appetite, sleep disturbances, abdominal discomfort, and weight loss. Eventually, a severe thiamin deficiency (beriberi) may develop, characterized by nerve, heart, and brain abnormalities. Different forms of beriberi cause different symptoms.
Nerve and muscle abnormalities develop. Symptoms include a prickling (pins-and-needles) sensation in the toes, a burning sensation in the feet that is particularly severe at night, and leg cramps and pain. Muscles may become weak and waste away (atrophy).
Heart abnormalities develop. The heart pumps more blood and beats faster. Blood vessels widen (dilate), making the skin warm and moist. Because the heart cannot continue to work at this level, heart failure eventually develops. As a result, fluid accumulates in the legs (as edema) and in the lungs (as congestion), and blood pressure may fall, leading to shock and death.
Thiamin deficiency causes brain abnormalities primarily in alcoholics. Brain abnormalities may be present without causing any symptoms until something happens to worsen the thiamin deficiency, such as an alcoholic binge. Brain abnormalities can also cause symptoms after an alcoholic is given carbohydrates intravenously. Symptoms occur because these extra carbohydrates further increase thiamin requirements. These brain abnormalities are called the Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (see Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome), which has two parts:
This form occurs in infants (usually by age 3 to 4 wk) who are breastfed by a mother who has a thiamin deficiency. In these infants, heart failure may occur suddenly. They may lose their voice (aphonia) to some degree, and they may not have certain reflexes.
The diagnosis is based on symptoms. Tests to confirm the diagnosis are not readily available. Blood tests to measure electrolyte levels are usually done to exclude other possible causes. The diagnosis is confirmed if thiamin supplements relieve symptoms.
All forms of the deficiency are treated with thiamin supplements. They are usually given by mouth. They are given intravenously if symptoms are severe. Because thiamin deficiency often occurs with other B vitamin deficiencies, multivitamins are usually given for several weeks. People are encouraged to eat healthily and are advised to consume 1 to 2 times the daily recommended intake of vitamins. They should not drink any alcohol.
Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a medical emergency, is treated with high doses of thiamin given intravenously or by injection into a muscle (intramuscularly) for several days. Use of alcohol should be stopped. When people who may be alcoholics must be fed intravenously, they are given thiamin supplements first because they are likely to be deficient in thiamin. Giving them thiamin can prevent Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome from developing or worsening.
With treatment, most people recover completely. In some people with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, some brain damage is permanent. Symptoms of beriberi may recur years after apparent recovery.
Last full review/revision October 2014 by Larry E. Johnson, MD, PhD