Beriberi is a disease caused by a deficiency of thiamine (vitamin B1) that affects many systems of the body, including the muscles, heart, nerves, and digestive system. Beriberi literally means "I can't, I can't" in Singhalese, which reflects the crippling effect it has on its victims. It is common in parts of southeast Asia, where white rice is the main food. In the United States, beriberi is primarily seen in people with chronic alcoholism.
Beriberi is fatal if not treated and the longer the deficiency exists, the sicker the person becomes. Most of the symptoms can be reversed and full recovery is possible when thiamine levels are returned to normal and maintained with a balanced diet and vitamin supplements as needed.
Beriberi puzzled medical experts for years as it ravaged people of all ages in Asia. Doctors thought it was caused by something in food. Not until the early 1900s did scientists discover that rice bran, the outer covering that was removed to create the polished white rice preferred by Asians, actually contained something that prevented the disease. Thiamine was the first vitamin identified. In the 1920s, extracts of rice polishings were used to treat the disease.
In adults, there are different forms of beriberi, classified according to the body systems most affected. Dry beriberi involves the nervous system; wet beriberi affects the heart and circulation. Both types usually occur in the same patient, with one set of symptoms predominating.
A less common form of cardiovascular, or wet beriberi, is known as "shoshin." This condition involves a rapid appearance of symptoms and acute heart failure. It is highly fatal and is known to cause sudden death in young migrant laborers in Asia whose diet consists of white rice.
Cerebral beriberi, also known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, usually occurs in chronic alcoholics and affects the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). It can be caused by a situation that aggravates a chronic thiamine deficiency, like an alcoholic binge or severe vomiting.
Infantile beriberi is seen in breastfed infants of thiamine-deficientmothers, who live in developing nations.
Although severe beriberi is uncommon in the United States, less severe thiamine deficiencies do occur. About 25% of all alcoholics admitted to a hospital in the United States show some evidence of thiamine deficiency.
Thiamine is one of the B vitamins and plays an important role in energy metabolism and tissue building. It combines with phosphate to form the coenzyme thiamine pyrophosphate (TPP), which is essential in reactions that produce energy from glucose or that convert glucose to fat for storage in the tissues. When there is not enough thiamine in the diet, these basic energy functions are disturbed, leading to problems throughout the body.
Special situations, such as an over active metabolism, prolonged fever, pregnancy, and breastfeeding, can increase the body's thiamine requirements and lead to symptoms of deficiency. Extended periods of diarrhea or chronic liver disease can result in the body's inability to maintain normal levels of many nutrients, including thiamine. Other persons at risk are patients with kidney failure on dialysis and those with severe digestive problems who are unable to absorb nutrients. Alcoholics are susceptible because they may substitute alcohol for food and their frequent intake of alcohol decreases the body's ability to absorb thiamine.
The following systems are most affected by beriberi:
Infants who are breastfed by a thiamine-deficient mother usually develop symptoms of deficiency between the second and fourth month of life. They are pale, restless, unable to sleep, prone to diarrhea, and have muscle wasting and edema in their arms and legs. They have a characteristic, sometimes silent, cry and develop heart failure and nerve damage.
A physical examination will reveal many of the early symptoms of beriberi, such as fatigue, irritation, nausea, constipation, and poor memory, but the deficiency may be difficult to identify. Information about the individual's diet and general health is also needed.
There are many biochemical tests based on thiamine metabolism or the functions of TPP that can detect a thiamine deficiency. Levels of thiamine can be measured in the blood and urine and will be reduced if there is a deficiency. The urine can be collected for 24 hours to measure the level of thiamine excreted. Another reliable test measures the effect of TPP on red blood cell activity since all forms of beriberi affect the metabolism of red blood cells.
An electroencephalogram (EEG), which measures electrical activity in the brain, may be done to rule out other causes of neurologic changes. Observing improvements in the patient after giving thiamine supplements will also confirm the diagnosis.
Treatment with thiamine reverses the deficiency in the body and relieves most of the symptoms. Severe thiamine deficiency is treated with high doses of thiamine given by injection into a muscle (intramuscular) or in a solution that goes into a vein (intravenously) for several days. Then smaller doses can be given either by injection or in pill form until the patient recovers. Usually there are other deficiencies in the B vitamins that will also need treatment.
The cardiovascular symptoms of wet beriberi can respond to treatment within a few hours if they are not too severe. Heart failure may require additional treatment with diuretics that help eliminate excess fluid and with heart-strengthening drugs like digitalis.
Recovery from peripheral neuropathy and other symptoms of dry beriberi may take longer and patients frequently become discouraged. They should stay active; physical therapy will also help in recovery.
Infantile beriberi is treated by giving thiamine to both the infant and the breast-feeding mother until levels are normal.
InWernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, thiamine should be given intravenously or by injection at first because the intestinal absorption of thiamine is probably impaired and the patient is very ill. Most of the symptoms will be relieved by treatment, though there may be residual memory loss.
Excess thiamine is excreted by the body in the urine, and negative reactions to too much thiamine are rare. Thiamine is unstable in alkali solutions, so it should not be taken with antacids or barbiturates.
Alternative treatments for beriberi deal first with correcting the thiamine deficiency. As in conventional treatments, alternative treatments for beriberi stress a diet rich in foods that provide thiamine and other B vitamins, such as brown rice, whole grains, raw fruits and vegetables, legumes, seeds, nuts, and yogurt. Drinking more than one glass of liquid with a meal should be avoided, since this may wash out the vitamins before they can be absorbed by the body. Thiamine should be taken daily, with the dose depending on the severity of the disease. Additional supplements of B vitamins, a multivitamin and mineral complex, and Vitamin C are also recommended. Other alternative therapies may help relieve the person's symptoms after the thiamine deficiency is corrected.
A balanced diet containing all essential nutrients will prevent a thiamine deficiency and the development of beriberi. People who consume large quantities of junk food like soda, pretzels, chips, candy, and high carbohydrate foods made with unenriched flours may be deficient in thiamine and other vital nutrients. They may need to take vitamin supplements and should improve their diets.
The body's requirements for thiamine are tied to carbohydrate metabolism and expressed in terms of total intake of calories. The current recommended dietary allowances (RDA) are 0.5 mg for every 1000 calories, with a minimum daily intake of 1 mg even for those who eat fewer than 2,000 calories in a day. The RDA for children and teenagers is the same as for adults: 1.4 mg daily for males over age eleven, and 1.1 mg for females. During pregnancy, an increase to 1.5 mg daily is needed. Because of increased energy needs and the secretion of thiamine in breast milk, breast-feeding mothers need 1.5 mg every day. In infants, 0.4 mg is advised.
The best food sources of thiamine are lean pork, beef, liver, brewer's yeast, peas and beans, whole or enriched grains, and breads. The more refined the food, as in white rice, white breads, and some cereals, the lower the thiamine. Many food products are enriched with thiamine, along with riboflavin, niacin, and iron, to prevent dietary deficiency.
During the milling process, rice is polished and all the vitamins in the exterior coating of bran are lost. Boiling the rice before husking preserves the vitamins by distributing them throughout the kernel. Food enrichment programs have eliminated beriberi in Japan and the Phillipines.
Like all B vitamins, thiamine is water soluble, which means it is easily dissolved in water. It will leach out during cooking in water and is destroyed by high heat and overcooking.