Vitamin B1

The B vitamins are important for many reasons, not the least of which is its thiamin (B1) content.  This vitamin helps the body convert the carbohydrates in food into energy it can use.  With an adequate supply of thiamin the body can nourish the brain and the nervous system and keep the heart pumping smoothly.

Why People Need Vitamin B1

The body goes through an extremely complex process to turn the food that is consumed into energy.  While all the B vitamins are involved in every one of those steps, one particular step in the process has to have an enzyme called thiamin pyrophosphate or TPP to work.  The enzyme can't be made without thiamin.  Without the enzyme, the process comes to a stop.

The B vitamins (including thiamin) are also necessary to keep the nervous system and the brain fueled.  The brain runs on glucose, a sugar that is made from the carbohydrates a person eats.  Thiamin helps the brain and the nervous system absorb enough glucose.  Without thiamin, the body only gets about half of the glucose it needs.  When the brain does not get enough fuel a person begins to feel tired, forgetful, depressed and apathetic.

This important vitamin also keeps the heart muscles elastic and working the way they are supposed to, which keeps the heart beating with just the right heartbeats, strongly and evenly.

Vitamin B1 Requirements

The RDA varies for the different B vitamins.  However, the human body only needs a small amount of the all-important thiamin daily for good health, just 1.2 mg.  It is important to take in 0.5 mg of thiamin for every 1,000 calories a person eats. 

When the Body is Deficient

In the early 1800s, Asia's rice mills began removing the brown outer covering of the grains of rice.  This process was called polishing and it produced white rice that cooked very quickly and tasted good as well.  However, the people who then ate a lot of white rice and not much else developed a disease called beriberi.  Millions of people lost muscle strength, had paralysis or leg spasms, and became confused mentally.  For many years some people thought there must have been a type of germ in the white rice that was making them sick.  It was not until the late 1890s that researchers began to realize the people who ate mostly brown rice did not come down with beriberi.  It was obvious that something in the husk of the brown rice was clearly important to human health but it was not until 1911 that the thiamin connection was made.

In our modern world, beriberi still occurs in the less-developed areas, but it is very rare in developed societies.  Thiamin can usually be found in today's typical diet, making few people seriously deficient.

Symptoms of Vitamin B Deficiencies

Because the B vitamins and thiamin are commonly found in an ordinary diet, not many people become deficient.  However, one very large exception to that statement is people who abuse alcohol.  Because so many people in the developed countries do abuse alcohol, a vitamin B and thiamin deficiency can be the most common vitamin deficiency of all.  Alcoholics also tend to eat poorly so their vitamin intake is below par.  This group of people does not consume enough thiamin and the alcohol destroys most of what is taken in.  The alcohol in their systems also makes them excrete more thiamin.  Thus, chronic alcoholics need large amounts of thiamin supplements (anywhere from 10 to 100 mg per day).

After a prolonged period of time, thiamin deficiency from alcoholism can also cause a kind of nerve damage called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.  The severity of the symptoms can be alleviated by giving up alcohol and eating a proper diet, but the syndrome usually worsens and leads to premature death if the abuse of alcohol continues.

Another group who commonly have a vitamin B and thiamin deficiency are elderly people. Nearly half of all elderly individuals who end up in the hospital may have a thiamin deficiency.  Some health care professionals believe that many of the complaints of the elderly, such as confusion, irritability and poor sleeping habits, could be due to a mild deficiency of thiamin.

Other people who suffer from special health problems can also become deficient in thiamin.  A mild deficiency of the B vitamins and thiamin can also cause muscle weakness, tiredness, pins-and-needles sensations in the legs, constipation and depression. 

People could also be deficient if:

  • They diet a lot. People eating less than 1,500 calories a day eat only a few foods and may not be getting the B and thiamin they need.

  • They are pregnant or breastfeeding.  A lot of vitamin B1 can be passed on to the baby and mother's need is about 0.5 mg more every day.

  • They fast often. People need thiamin every day.

  • They have kidney disease or on dialysis. 

  • They are ill, particularly with something like a chronic infection that causes frequent fevers.  Fever can make the body run faster, so it needs more vitamin B1.

Foods Containing Vitamin B1

Bagels and brown rice may not seem to have anything in common, but they are both good sources of vitamin B1. Thiamin is added to lots of foods such as flour, pasta, breads, and breakfast cereals.

Thiamin can also be found in wheat germ, sunflower seeds, whole grains and all kinds of nuts.  Other sources include raisins, oranges, asparagus, cauliflower, milk, potatoes and whole-wheat bread.  Among meats, vitamin B1 can be found in beef, chicken, pork and beef liver.



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  4. Holford, P. (2004). The optimum nutrition bible. London : Piatkus
  5. Holford, P & Lawson, S.(2008). Optimum Nutrition Made Easy How to achieve optimum health. London : Piatkus
  6. Lieberman, S. & Bruning, N. (2003). The Real Vitamin & Mineral Book. New York : Avery
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  10. Werbach, M. (1993). Nutritional Influences on Illness. 2nd ed. Los Angeles: Third Line Press

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