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8 Signs You’re Suffering From a Thiamine Deficiency

Krista H December 17, 2018

8 Signs You’re Suffering From a Thiamine Deficiency

An essential micronutrient, thiamine or “vitamin B1” plays a critical role in energy metabolism, impacting cell growth, development, and function. Although naturally found in a range of foods, there are specific groups who are at risk of thiamine inadequacy in the United States — including alcoholics, seniors, and diabetics.

That is why it’s imperative that you’re aware of the most common warning signs so that you can intervene. When left untreated, the health consequences can be severe. If you’re concerned that you or a loved one may be at-risk of thiamine inadequacy, please be aware of the following eight warning signs.


The Link Between Thiamine and Optimal Health

Thiamine is a water-soluble vitamin that is utilized by nearly every cell in the human body, supporting a healthy metabolism and optimal energy levels. Since your body cannot produce thiamine, you must ingest it in order to avoid a potential deficiency. This will ensure that all of your body’s tissues are functioning properly.

Overall, thiamine supports:

  • The flow of electrolytes in and out of your muscle and nerve cellsthiamine
  • The metabolism of carbohydrates, protein, and lipids from the foods you eat (converting food into energy)
  • Coenzyme function, including reactions that involve pyruvate dehydrogenase (PDH)
  • Digestive secretions (i.e. acid secretion in the stomach)

Related: What Does Healthy Cellular Function Mean?

In the United States, it is said that the population consumes approximately half of their required intake from foods that naturally contain thiamine. The rest is typically obtained from fortified foods and/or supplements. Since thiamine is not stored in the body for extended periods, you need a continuous supply.

In doing so, you will help prevent potential complications in your nervous system, as well as in your stomach, intestines, brain, heart, and muscles. More specifically, you will help prevent associated diseases, such as beriberi — which impairs your circulatory system and nerves.

Today, in developed nations, thiamine deficiencies are most commonly seen in alcoholics, which is referred to as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. This is why physicians often recommend thiamine supplement to help treat individuals who undergo major alcohol withdrawal.

However, a number of groups face an increased risk, including HIV, dialysis, anorexia and Crohn’s patients, as well as those who have undergone bariatric surgery. In this case, a lack of thiamine will begin to impact your heart, brain, and other critical organs.

Additionally, it is believed that thiamine deficiency is actually underdiagnosed. Some experts agree that there is a need for improved hospital protocol in order to better recognize and treat this condition so that at-risk patients can avoid more serious complications.


8 Signs of Thiamine Deficiency — And What You Can Do About It

Thiamine deficiency is a serious condition that requires immediate intervention. Although this deficiency is more common in the developing world, at-risk individuals in developed countries also need to be aware of the inadequate nutritional intake and/or absorption of thiamine.

The following eight warning signs do not mean that you are, in fact, dealing with thiamine deficiency. However, they do warrant a professional medical opinion, especially if you experience numerous symptoms long-term.


1. Low energy

If you associate with one of the at-risk groups listed above and often feel tired, you may be suffering from a thiamine deficiency. The level of fatigue you experience may range from a slight decline in energy to extreme, overwhelming exhaustion — and can occur either suddenly or gradually.

Please note: Fatigue is a vague symptom with many possible causes. This is why it is often overlooked. If you suffer from hypothyroidism or inflammatory bowel disease, it is important to note that thiamine deficiency may exacerbate feelings of exhaustion. One key study, published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, found that high-dose thiamine therapy improved this debilitating symptom.


2. Lack of appetite

This is generally an early symptom, as researchers believe that thiamine plays a critical role in satiety — which is the state of feeling completely full This is because thiamine influences the hypothalamus of your brain, which is the area of the brain that controls appetite.

Once a deficiency occurs, this satiety center will not function as it should. In turn, you may feel full, even when you are not, reducing your overall appetite. This study found that when mice were fed a thiamine-deficient diet for a total of 16 days, they began to eat less. After 22 days, their food intake decreased by a 69 and 74 percent for male and female mice, respectively.

3. Muscle weakness, cramps, and pain

Although thiamine is found in your brain, heart, and other tissues, it is mainly concentrated in your skeletal muscles, supporting the process of muscle contraction. While you may experience muscle strength loss and/or discomfort, if left unchecked, your heart’s muscle tissue can become damaged.

If you experience generalized muscle weakness, this symptom can often be difficult to diagnosis on its own. However, you should not ignore such symptoms. Although common short-term, if you suffer from persistent muscle weakness without a clear reason, thiamine deficiency may be to blame.

4. Changes in mood

If you are feeling much more irritable, agitated, and frustrated than normal, this may be due to a psychological, physical, or medical condition. Another early warning sign of thiamine deficiency, increased irritability may surface within days or weeks of deficiency.

Researchers are now also studying the link between thiamine deficiency and depression. This study found that poorer thiamine nutritional status was linked to higher odds of depressive symptoms among older Chinese adults independent of other risk factors for depression.


5. Tingling sensation in limbs

Have you been experiencing an abnormal sensation in your arms and legs? This burning, tingling, or feeling of “pins and needles” may be linked to the dysfunction of your peripheral nerves. Since these nerves heavily rely on thiamine, neuropathy may result when you are deficient.

Tip: If you are diabetic, neuropathy is one of the most common complications. Since you are already at risk of thiamine deficiency, this is something you should discuss with your physician. Numerous studies have shown that thiamine supplementation can improve a range of symptoms in diabetics, including poor vascular function and numbness/tingling, caused by dysfunction of one or more peripheral nerves.


6. Loss of balance

When it comes to thiamine deficiency, clinically referred to as Wernicke’s Encephalopathy, it is typically diagnosed based on the identification of three key signs, including changes in mental status, eye movement abnormalities, and poor balance.

These warning signs are known as the “classic triad” of symptoms. In this case, you would like take short steps and display apparent unsteadiness. Ataxia, which is a degenerative disease of the nervous system is typically present in 23 to 60 percent of patients.

7. Increased confusion

Unfortunately, thiamine deficiency can cause confusion and even delirium. When a lack of thiamine is to blame, symptoms can range from confusion to hallucinations. As stated by neurologists at Loyola University Medical Center, if left untreated, irreversible brain damage can result.

Please note: Alcoholics and AIDS patients are particularly at risk and this diagnosis is missed in 75 to 80 percent of cases. That is why you should address the earliest symptoms as soon as possible.

8. Poor vision

Most commonly reported in severe cases, thiamine deficiency can result in blurry or double vision. This is often caused by swelling of the optic nerve. This is also why researchers have focused on a form of vitamin B1 to treat one of the world’s most common causes of blindness, uveitis.

Treating a possible thiamine deficiency

In serious cases, once identified, thiamine is administered intravenously. Following this treatment, oral administration continues until the nutritional risk factor is present. However, since thiamine supports various physiologic functions, including healthy digestion, muscle, and nerve function, as well as metabolic processes, it can also be taken as part of your supplement regimen.

Considered to be safe and nontoxic, even at high doses, a regular intake of thiamine will ensure that optimal levels are reached and that normal healthy cells are provided with the support they need.

Eager to learn more about B vitamins and how they impact your health?

If so, please refer to the following guides:

Krista H
Krista majored in psychology and neuroscience, focusing on degenerative conditions, including Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. As she continued her research, she began to study the complex relationship between lifestyle variables and neurological health, including the impact these variables have on mood disorders and general wellness. She currently specializes in all aspects of neurological and physiological health, especially in relation to nutrition.
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