Vitamin B1: Benefits, Sources, Deficiency

Roger, an eight-year-old, would vomit continuously and his behaviour started showing signs of carelessness. His appetite had gone down and he also suffered from diarrhoea. 

The worried parents took him to a doctor and were told that he had a mild deficiency of Vitamin B1, or thiamine, as it is scientifically known.

Thiamin, or thiamine, is also known as Vitamin B1 and is one of the eight B vitamins. It is the first of the water-soluble vitamins discovered. Many years ago, a series of experiments by several surgeons revealed that food contained something more than proteins, carbohydrates, fats, salts and water. 

And this led to the discovery of vitamins, which were until then an unknown entity. The credit for the discovery can be shared by Kanehiro Takaki, a Japanese surgeon, Christian Eijkman, a Dutch doctor, and his associate Gerrit Grijns—although the compound was actually given its name by Polish biochemist Casimir Funk.

While he was on a sea voyage, Takaki concluded that beriberi could be controlled by replacing a diet containing only white rice with one also containing barley, meat, milk, bread, and vegetables. 

He was successful in almost eliminating the disease, but his proposed dietary change for the Japanese Navy was rejected because of the extra expense it would involve, so people continued to die of beriberi. 

It was only in 1905 when an anti-beriberi factor was discovered in rice bran and brown barley rice. Takaki was given due credit for his discovery and was affectionately called the Barley Baron.

During the same period (1897), Eijkman’s research on fowls proved that the death of these birds could be reversed by discontinuation of rice polishing. He hypothesized that beriberi occurred due to a nerve-poisoning substance found in the endosperm of rice. 

His associate, Gerrit Grijns, could co-relate the consumption of polished rice and beriberi in 1901, and concluded that an essential nutrient in the outer layers of the rice grain is removed during the polishing process.

Eijkman won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1929, as his observations had helped in the discovery of vitamins. These compounds were later named by the Polish biochemist Casimir Funk in 1911 by combining the words vital and amine.

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Benefits of Vitamin B1

All living organisms utilize thiamine, but unlike bacteria, fungi and plants, where it is synthesized, animals need to procure it from their diets. It is an essential nutrient, and insufficient intake may lead to many diseases, although statistics show that few of them prove to be fatal.

Vitamin B1 is needed for the following:

a) Energy production: Vitamin B1 converts sugar into energy. It is a coenzyme needed for oxidizing sugar to produce energy needed for the smooth functioning of the body organs, especially the heart, brain, lungs, and kidneys.

b) Cardiovascular functions: This vitamin produces acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter needed for transmitting messages to the muscles and nerves. Deficiency of vitamin B1 causes irregular heartbeat. Congestive heart failure is caused due to severe deficiency of thiamine.

c) Eye health benefits: Vitamin B1, along with essential fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6, prevents the formation of cataracts.

d) Improves brain function: The smooth functioning of the brain is ensured by the regular intake of Vitamin B1. It also helps improve memory and concentration, in addition to relieving stress. It also helps strengthen the nerves. The progression of multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, cirrhosis, and other infections can be controlled by Vitamin B1.

e) Development of myelin sheaths: The protective covering of the nerves, (myelin sheaths) get weakened due to the deficiency of vitamin B1. Vitamin B1 ensures the development of myelin sheaths and improves nerve functioning.

Sources of Vitamin B1

Sources rich in Vitamin B1 are sunflower seeds, oats, black beans, dried peas, barley, pinto beans, navy beans, green peas, lentils, lima beans, fish (trout), pork (lean), macadamia nuts, bread (wheat), acorn squash and cooked asparagus. Thiamine is also found in a variety of other foods in low concentrations.

Vegetables like cauliflower and potatoes contain ample amounts of Vitamin B1. Brown rice is also a good source of thiamine.

Deficiency of Vitamin B1

Our nervous system is highly dependent on the intake of thiamine for oxidative metabolism. Its intake is equally necessary for the proper functioning of other organs.

The deficiency of Vitamin B1 can lead to beriberi, which can be fatal. Alzheimer’s disease, optic neuropathy, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, cataracts, and heart failure are other disorders that can be associated with the deficiency of Vitamin B1.

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