Vitamin B1 (also known as thiamine) is a water soluble vitamin and is part of the B complex vitamins (a group of eight B vitamins that were initially thought to be the singular vitamin B). The discovery of vitamin B1 is heavily linked with a condition called beriberi. During the late nineteenth century a beriberi epidemic broke out in Asia. This prompted increased research into both the cause of beriberi and a cure.
The Dutch physician Christiaan Eijkman was the first person to discover the link between vitamin B1 and beriberi when he realised that feeding chickens unpolished (brown) rice could cure beriberi. He concluded that the skin on unpolished rice contained an anti-beriberi factor (which would later become known as vitamin B1). In 1935 the chemist Robert Williams finally made the key breakthrough and isolated the substance thiamine aka vitamin B1.
The main function of vitamin B1 is to act as a catalyst in the reaction which converts blood sugar into energy. So in other words it helps your body’s cells get energy from the food you eat. However, it also has other important functions which include:
– Helping the body produce fats.
– Helping the body to break down proteins.
– Improved mental function and possible protection against Alzheimer’s disease (a condition which leads to memory less and reduced mental function according to How Stuff Works).
– Maintaining a healthy nervous system.
The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for vitamin B1 is 1mg for men and 0.8mg for women. One of the best sources of vitamin B1 is enriched whole grain products such as brown rice, whole grain bread and whole grain cereals. Pork and green vegetables are also a good source of this vitamin. However, if you are getting your vitamin B1 from green vegetables make sure that you take extra care during preparation. Since it is a water soluble vitamin it is destroyed by high heats and can also leak from the vegetables into the cooking water. My recommendation is to get a steamer. They provide you with a quick, convenient way to prepare your vegetables whilst removing minimal amounts of vitamin B1. Plus, I always find that vegetables have a fresher, more satisfying taste when steamed.
A serious vitamin B1 deficiency is rare in developed Western countries. However, there are exceptions to this rule. Alcoholics and heavy drinkers are often deficient in vitamin B1, particularly when they go for long periods without food. People who have a poor diet that is rich in highly processed junk foods are also likely to be lacking vitamin B1.
Not getting enough vitamin B1 ultimately leads to beriberi, the condition discussed at the beginning of this article. There are two main forms of beriberi; dry beriberi and wet beriberi. Dry beriberi is a nervous system disorder which can lead to pain, loss of feeling in your extremities, muscle weakness and in the worst cases brain damage and death. Wet beriberi is a cardiovascular disorder which can enlarge your heart, increase your heart rate and in the worst cases cause heart failure.
Since vitamin B1 is water soluble any excess is excreted when you urinate. Therefore, overdosing on vitamin B1 is rare, particularly when it is taken orally. However, if injected the amount of vitamin B1 in your body can potentially reach toxic levels. The symptoms of a vitamin B1 overdose can include nausea, sweating, difficulty breathing and blue coloured skin.
Getting adequate levels of vitamin B1 from your diet should really not be a problem. As I have already mentioned vitamin B1 deficiencies and overdoses are rare. However, if you feel you are currently not getting enough of this important vitamin simply add some more whole grain products to your diet. whole grain bread, cereal, pasta and rice are all great choices to help you get your RDA of vitamin B1. Throw in some green vegetables on top and you should be fully topped up and virtually immune to beriberi.