Beriberi is a disease that is caused due to a deficiency of vitamin B1. Also termed as thiamine deficiency, Beriberi causes the nerves to inflame and may lead to heart failure in extreme conditions. This disease is mostly common among people who consume a diet of refined carbohydrates.

Beriberi as a disease is traced back to various regions in Asia, like Japan, Indonesia, and China. Also known as Thiamine deficiency disorder or vitamin B1 deficiency disease, Beriberi occurs when there is a lack of thiamine in the body.

What is Beriberi? 

As discussed above, Beriberi is a nutritional deficiency disease caused by the deficiency of vitamin B1 or thiamine in the cells of your body. It can turn into a serious illness if not treated correctly and on time, especially in the advanced stages.

Thiamine or vitamin B1 is required in the body to help the food break down and digest. This process keeps your body’s metabolic health going smoothly and supports the nervous system to perform its job well. Hence, a lack of thiamine or being diagnosed with Beriberi can affect your body’s central nervous system and cardiovascular system or cause muscle paralysis, which can be critical at times.

In the West, where people have enough thiamine through their diet, Beriberi is a rare occurrence. However, in many Asian and other countries, this is a common disease.

What are its Types?

Beriberi is of two types – Wet Beriberi and Dry Beriberi      

1. Wet Beriberi:

Wet Beriberi is a disease that affects the circulatory system or the human body’s central nervous system, including the heart and other organs. In advanced and severe conditions, Wet Beriberi can even lead to a failure of the heart.

2. Dry Beriberi:

Dry Beriberi, on the other hand, causes extreme damage to the nerves and may lower the body’s muscle strength. It can further cause muscle paralysis in extreme cases and may disrupt motor functioning. It causes numbness and impaired reflexes in some people. However, dry Beriberi is easier to treat as compared to wet Beriberi.

What are the Symptoms of Beriberi?

Consuming thiamine-rich food lowers the risk of developing Beriberi among people. Beriberi symptoms may differ depending on the type of Beriberi that a person is diagnosed with.

Take a look at some of the common symptoms of Beriberi:

Common symptoms of Beriberi

    • Weakness
    • Fatigue
    • Muscle loss
    • Rapid heartbeat
    • Mental confusion
    • Chest pain
    • Fever
    • Nausea
    • Loss of sensitivity in the fingers or feet

Variations in Symptoms Based on Type

Symptoms of Wet Beriberi 

  • Breathlessness while doing any physical activity
  • Shortness of breath when you wake up
  • Heart rate becomes rapid
  • Lower legs get inflamed

Symptoms of Dry Beriberi

    • Paralysis (in extreme cases)
    • Reduced muscle function in the lower legs
    • Loss of feeling in hands and feet
    • Pain
    • Mental confusion
    • Vomiting
    • Reflex eye movement

How symptoms progress

As the condition progresses and the symptoms intensify, Beriberi may be associated with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. These two syndromes are two types of brain damage that are associated with the deficiency of thiamine.

Wernicke encephalopathy is a condition that damages some parts of the human brain called the thalamus and hypothalamus.

Below are some symptoms that are experienced under this condition:

  • Mental confusion
  • Loss of memory
  • Lack of muscle coordination
  • Visual conditions like double vision or rapid eye movements

Korsakoff syndrome, on the other hand, is caused as a result of enduring damage to some parts of the brain where memories are formed.

Symptoms include:

  • Memory loss
  • Unable to create new memories
  • Hallucinations

What are the causes of Beriberi?

Consuming a healthy diet lessens the worry of being diagnosed with this disease. Alcoholics or people who consume excess alcohol or are addicted to it are more prone to have thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency. This is because excess alcohol restricts the ability of your body to absorb thiamine.

Thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency 

Thiamine deficiency is caused among people who consume a diet that has only refined products like white flour, white sugar, and other processed carbohydrates.

Role of thiamine in the body

Thiamine, or vitamin B1, is one of the many B vitamins that help convert carbohydrates into glucose in your body. The body then uses this glucose to produce energy and support the body to absorb fats and protein.

Sources of Thiamine

Some good sources of thiamine are fish, beans, lentils, green peas, cereals, bread, noodles, rice, sunflower seeds, yogurt, whole grain pasta, etc.

Who is at Risk for Beriberi? 

Here is a list of people who are at risk of developing Beriberi disease: 

  • The disease affects breastfed babies from their mothers who lack thiamine
  • People who consume high and refined carbohydrates in their daily diet are prone to thiamine deficiency
  • People who participate in extreme physical activities may also be prone to thiamine deficiency
  • People who have hyperthyroidism that averts thiamine absorption are other categories of people at risk
  • Some kinds of digestive problems interfere with nutrient absorption. So, people who suffer from such digestive issues may be at risk, especially after a particular age
  • People who have undergone weight loss surgeries like bariatric surgery are also at risk
  • People who are constantly stressed may also be at risk

Beriberi Treatment – How to cure the disease?

To treat Beriberi, all you need is to include thiamine supplements in your diet. Doctors and healthcare providers may also prescribe pills or thiamine shots to patients. In some extreme cases, intravenous thiamine may also be administered. The follow-up blood test reports evaluate the level of thiamine in your blood and how well it is absorbed.

A thiamine-rich diet is the best way to cure the disease if a patient is diagnosed with Beriberi and the condition is not advanced. Below is a list of food items that you can consume in case of thiamine deficiency:

  • Sunflower seeds
  • Beans
  • Green beans
  • Fish
  • Yogurt
  • Fortified cereals
  • Rice or noodles
  • Lentils
  • Green peas
  • Cereals
  • Bread
  • Whole grains
  • Meat
  • Nuts
  • Diary
  • Other vegetables like asparagus, squash, brussels sprouts, spinach, and beetroots

Beriberi Prevention Strategies

The best strategy to prevent Beriberi is to eat a balanced, nutritious diet that consists of enough thiamine-rich ingredients, as mentioned above. Processing foods decreases their thiamine content. There are many infant formula foods containing thiamine available for babies. Thus, it is good to check the thiamine content in the level of the formula food that you use to feed your baby. Make sure to buy formula food from reliable brands only.

Alcohol consumption is also associated with thiamine deficiency. Hence, it is recommended to limit the intake of alcohol if you want to lower the risk of developing thiamine. Moreover, people with a history of excessive consumption of alcohol should have routine medical check-ups to check the deficiency of thiamine.

Identifying and managing risk factors for Thiamine Deficiency: 

Below are some risk factors that may aggravate thiamine deficiency in individuals:

    • ‌Alcoholism is the key factor that may cause thiamine deficiency
    • Gastric bypass surgery may also contribute the same
    • Genetic Beriberi, or the inability to absorb thiamine, is another contributor to the disease
    • Kidney disease may also cause a lack of thiamine
    • Starvation and poor diet are other causes
    • Limited access to nutritious foods is again a key contributor

Beriberi in Specific Populations

1. Beriberi in Infants:

Beriberi in infants occurs in many forms. It generally affects infants whose mothers had the disease, especially in their breastfed days during 1-3 months. Some symptoms include constipation among infants, always crying, and restless, etc.

Prevention and treatment

Eating a diet rich in vitamins by the mothers of breastfed babies can prevent Beriberi in the infant. Hence, nursing moms must include all vitamins in their diet. If the infant consumes formula food, look for a good brand that contains thiamine.

2. Beriberi in Pregnant Women:

Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding must be careful about their thiamine consumption. Pregnant ladies need to eat a vitamin-rich diet to prevent a lack of thiamine.

Complications of Untreated Beriberi

If untreated, Beriberi may intensify and cause Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which are two types of brain damage associated with thiamine deficiency. As already mentioned, Wernicke Encephalopathy damages some parts of the human brain, called the thalamus and hypothalamus, and causes conditions like mental confusion, memory loss, etc.

Korsakoff syndrome appears as a result of long-lasting brain damage in parts that form memories. It may cause memory loss, hallucinations, etc.

Lack of thiamine can affect the central nervous system and may cause muscle paralysis among people in extreme cases. It also affects the cardiovascular health of individuals and may cause neurological complications in the long run.

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Conclusion

The lack of thiamine or vitamin B1 causes Beriberi. Hence, it is important to include lots of vitamins in your diet to prevent Beriberi. Eating a nutritious and thiamine-rich diet will aid in controlling Beriberi as well as offering your body the required nutrition. Breastfed mothers and pregnant ladies should be extra careful about thiamine consumption. At the same time, infant formula foods should be checked for their thiamine content.

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FAQs: What is Beriberi?

Beriberi is caused by the deficiency of which vitamin?

Beriberi is caused by a deficiency of vitamin B1.

What diseases are caused by a deficiency of vitamin B1?

Beriberi is the primary condition caused due to the deficiency of vitamin B1.

What are some of the Beriberi symptoms?

Some symptoms include difficulty in walking, loss of sensation, paralysis of the lower legs, mental confusion, speech difficulties, and so on.

What is the best Beriberi treatment?

Consuming a diet rich in thiamine is the best beriberi treatment.

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