Vitamin B1 is particularly important for carbohydrate metabolism, mental balance, and the production of gastric juice, which is essential for your digestion. Deficiencies and poor utilization of the nutrient typically occur as a result of unhealthy diets, lack of magnesium, overconsumption of sugar, alcohol, and other stimulants, and regular use of birth control pills and diuretics. The reason why alcoholics can binge drink is chronic vitamin B1 deficiency and life-threatening brain inflammation, both of which are problems that require immediate attention, according to a new review article in StatPearls. It is also believed that large quantities of vitamin B1 may prevent mosquito bites, but is this really true?
Vitamin B1 is water-soluble and because we humans are only able to store limited amounts of the nutrient in our body, we need to consume on a regular basis. Good sources of vitamin B1 are coarse greens and whole grain, nuts, kernels, beans, and peas in particular. There is also vitamin B1 in meat, cod roe, fish, and dairy products. Heating destroys vitamin B1, whereas deep-freezing does not.
The recommended intake (also known as RI – or reference intake) for adults is 1.1 mg and 0.7 mg for children. Vitamin B1 deficiencies are normally seen with unhealthy diets, abuse of alcohol and other stimulants, and regular use of birth control pills, diuretics, and antacids. Vitamin B1 is needed for carbohydrate metabolism (including carbohydrates from alcohol), which means that excessive alcohol consumption may result in a vitamin B1 deficiency that is difficult to correct. Low vitamin B1 levels may result in impaired energy production, reduced enzyme activity, and changes in the functions of mitochondria, which are the cellular powerhouses. This may affect many different cells and organ systems and is especially likely to affect the neurons that require a lot of energy.
Minor deficiencies affect the nervous system and the digestive system
In the case of minor vitamin B1 deficiencies, one or several of the following symptoms are likely to occur: Fatigue, irritability, despair, insomnia, persistent nausea, lack of appetite, weight loss, heart rhythm disturbances, chest tightness, and tingling and prickling in the arms, legs, and skin.
Beriberi – the classic deficiency disease
In the 1920s, Umetaro Suzuki, a Japanese scientist, discovered that rice hulls contain vitamin B1. They were therefore able to cure beriberi, the classic deficiency disease that was quite common in Asia. In our part of the world, beriberi is typically seen among alcoholics, but the disease may also be caused by other things. Early symptoms of the disease are described as being a part of minor deficiencies. As the disease progresses due to a chronic vitamin B1 deficiency, wet or dry beriberi may occur. Wet beriberi leads to a weak heart and water retention. Left untreated, this condition may lead to heart failure. Dry beriberi typically affects the nervous system and gives symptoms such as nerve infection, numbness, muscle weakness, and gait disturbances.
Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS) is another common complication of chronic vitamin B1 deficiency. WKS affects the central nervous system, which means the brain and the spinal cord. The underlying causes include long-term drug or alcohol abuse. Technically, WKS consists of the following two syndromes:
Wernicke encephalopathy is an acute life-threatening disease that is caused by a vitamin B1 deficiency in the brain. Symptoms include reduced consciousness, speech difficulty, gait disturbances and death in worst case. If Wernicke encephalopathy is not treated, it may be accompanied by Korsakoff syndrome that is characterized by delirium and permanent memory damage. Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome require immediate therapy with high-dosed vitamin B1 injections. The treatments should also be given together with or before glucose administration in order to ensure enough energy for the neurons.
Vitamin B1’s functions and collaboration with magnesium
Vitamin B1 is water-soluble and can be absorbed directly from the blood in the digestive tract. The vitamin is able to circulate freely in the blood without carrier molecules. All cells with a natural energy metabolism need vitamin B1, which is also able to cross the blood-brain barrier.
The body is able to store small quantities of vitamin B1 in the liver but not for longer than 18 days. Once vitamin B1 is absorbed in the blood, it is converted from the provitamin, thiamin, to its active form, thiamine pyrophosphate (TTP). This chemical reaction requires magnesium as a co-factor. TTP is now a coenzyme that can be used for cellular energy turnover via several mechanisms. It is TTP that is determining for the energy turnover and the production of ATP, for cellular viability and the different functions of the neurons.
How to measure and treat vitamin B1 deficiency
It is best to measure vitamin B deficiency by means of so-called erythrocyte transketolase activity. It is also possible to measure vitamin B1 levels in blood and urine. However, these measurements do not include the amount of vitamin B1 that is stored in the liver
The best way to get vitamin B1 is by eating a balanced diet with coarse greens and without too much sugar and alcohol.
People who are decidedly vitamin B1-deficient may be instructed to take up to 50 mg of B1 daily, which is considerably more than the RI intake level. This is in order to obtain a faster effect and the vitamin cannot be overdosed. Oral vitamin B1 supplements should never be taken at the same time as antacids. In more serious cases, it is possible to give injections with as much as 50-100 mg of vitamin B1 three to four times daily.
There are normally good results with vitamin B1 therapy, unless the deficiency has turned into a serious deficiency in the central nervous system. Repeated injections may cause allergic reactions in rare cases. Also remember that the activation of vitamin B1 requires magnesium, another nutrient that many people lack.
Does vitamin B1 keep mosquitoes and other leeches away?
According to a study from the 1960s, large quantities of vitamin B1 can prevent mosquitoes and other bloodsuckers from biting. However, a more recent study published in Journal of the American Mosquito Control Association contradicts this trial. The theory is that large quantities of vitamin B1 increases the excretion of the nutrient in the skin, and mosquitoes and other blood-sucking insects do not like the smell. The same is supposed to be the case with garlic. There are mixed messages when it comes to the different supplements, but it is harmless to experiment with these two ingredients in the case that you are bothered by mosquito bites.
Factors that increase your need for vitamin B1
Juliana L. Martel; David S. Franklin. Vitamin B1 (Thiamine). StatPearls 2019
Ives AR et al. Testing vitamin B as a remedy against mosquitoes. J Am Mosq Assoc. 2005
Search for more information...