Whole grains. You have likely heard time and time again the value of eating whole grains, whole grain flour, and brown rice instead of white rice… but why do nutritionists and other health professionals harp on eating the whole grain, including the bran (outer coating) and germ (inner coating), so intensely? What are we losing when we refine and polish grains?
The short answer is – a lot. When a grain is refined or processed the bran and germ are removed and with them critical micronutrients such as minerals and vitamins- especially B vitamins- are lost. Soon after humans began refining grains, new diseases such as beriberi (vitamin B1 deficiency) and pellagra (vitamin B3 deficiency) began to surface. Ultimately, scientists dug deep to find the cause of these devastating micronutrient deficiency diseases that were affecting millions of people, and the rest is history. Read on to learn more about the first discovery of a B vitamin, why vitamin B1 is such a critical nutrient for your health, how you can nourish your nerves with thiamine in your food, reduce thiamine depletion in your daily life, and how to supplement safely.
What is Thiamine?
Beriberi, known today as thiamine deficiency, is a potentially deadly disease that was widespread during the 19th and early 20th centuries- particularly in Asia, including the Dutch East Indies. Symptoms could include rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, and nerve problems as well as muscular and gastrointestinal symptoms. Some suffered paralysis, and hundreds of thousands died. In an effort to solve this mysterious problem, Dutchman Christiaan Eijkman published an article noting that chickens fed white rice often developed the condition (beriberi), but chickens fed brown rice did not. In 1912, in light of that article, Casimir Funk isolated a substance he called thiamine that seemed to prevent beriberi. In fact, Funk coined the term “vitamine” as a substance required for life (vital) that contained an amino group (amine). He also hypothesized that there was a vital substance that could prevent rickets (vitamin D deficiency) and scurvy (vitamin C deficiency) before those vitamins were isolated. While he was wrong that vitamins, as they would later be known, contained an amine group, he was certainly correct about thiamine belonging to a essential group of micronutrients that were at the root of these widespread diseases!
According to the USDA about 82% of Americans eat sufficient thiamine in their diets, meaning 1 in 5 do not meet their requirements of this critical nutrient, whose deficiency is responsible for heart and nerve problems. Because thiamine is a water-soluble vitamin and must be supplied daily in your diet because your body does not store substantial amounts, some may choose to supplement the RDI for thiamine and avoid potential deficiency, especially those on diets that restrict thiamine-rich foods- such as those who are on low calorie, gluten-free, and/or dairy-free diets!
B1 : Bringing the Buzz and Brimming with Benefits
Thiamine is too important to miss out on! Here are some of its brain, bone, and energy-supportive functions:
- Brings the Buzz. If you breathe oxygen, you need thiamine in your cells to burn your food for energy. You use thiamine pyrophosphate (TPP), the biologically active form of vitamin B1, to support two very important steps in the conversion of carbohydrate, fat, and protein into usable energy.
- Balances Blood Sugar. Thiamine supports your pancreatic production of hormones that regulate blood sugar, such as insulin and glucagon.
- Supports your Stress Response. Your adrenal glands, which make the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, require vitamins B1 and B5 to function properly. You may not need a great deficiency in the B vitamins to set in before you notice the chinks in your armor, either. According to a study conducted by Mayo Clinic, subjects given just half the daily requirement of B1 became irritable, depressed, uncooperative, and argumentative in a short period of time.
- Cholesterol Conversion. Thiamine helps you convert cholesterol into hormonal products, such as the sex hormone progesterone or the stress hormone cortisol.
- Helps your Heart Beat Rhythmically and Nourishes Nerves. Thiamine is required for you to make acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that is important for relaying messages between your nerves and muscles- including your heart. Challenges with heartbeat, energy production, and nerve signaling is at the core of beriberi, or severe thiamine deficiency. When this function breaks down, deficiency can become deadly. You also use thiamine to make the myelin sheaths around your nerves (the insulation around the wires) that support healthy nerve signaling.
- Supports Visual Health. Thiamine plays a meaningful role in protecting the lenses of your eyes, reducing risk of cataracts.
- Empowers Protein Production. Thiamine helps you convert amino acids into proteins, hormones, and enzymes.
- Boosts Bone Building. Thiamine supports stomach acid production, which you in turn need to more easily absorb B vitamins such as thiamine itself as well as minerals such as calcium and magnesium needed to build bone. Furthermore, you require thiamine to use branched-chain amino acids properly in bone-building functions.
As you can see, vitamin B1 is critical for your metabolic health. Research shows that becoming and maintaining sufficiency in thiamine can help prevent and support the treatment of acne, alzheimer’s disease, anxiety, arthritis, cancer, heart disease, cataracts, chronic fatigue, constipation, impaired immunity, muscle aches and cramps, and even thyroid problems.
Vitamin B1 Deficiency Increases Disease Risk
Symptoms of Vitamin B1 depletion include: 
- Loss of appetite
- Numbness in legs and/or feeling of “pins and needles”
- Calf muscle soreness and general muscle tenderness
- Depression, Irritability, and Memory Loss (especially in the elderly)
- Heart palpitations, increased pulse rate, and/or edema (fluid build up)
- Eye Pain
- Thyroid problems
Thiamine deficiency can also cause brain damage such as Wernicke encephalopathy (damage to the thalamus and/or hypothalamus) and/or Korsakoff syndrome (permanent brain damage affecting memory).
Let’s focus for a moment on three common conditions that can be deeply affected by thiamine deficiency:
- Cardiovascular Disease. By reducing acetylcholine production, vitamin B1 deficiency compromises nerve impulses to heart muscle and directly antagonizes a safe heart rhythm. Secondarily, vitamin B1 deficiency can compromise energy availability to the heart (and other crucial organs) and your intake of minerals (such as calcium and magnesium) needed for heart muscle to contract.
- Thiamine supports both stomach acid production, a prerequisite for adequate mineral absorption, and helps with bone-building from protein directly. Building better bone takes a village of nutrients, as we have learned from Mira’s direct experience reversing her osteoporosis!
- Fatigue. Many B vitamins, thiamine included, play critical roles in energy production. Thiamine’s role in stomach acid production to help absorb B vitamins effectively make it doubly important as both an upstream and downstream contributor to fatigue if deficient.
Who is likely to be deficient in vitamin B1?
While consuming refined grains has historically caused thiamine deficiency, we now fortify refined grains to avoid this issue (though we haven’t completely solved the problem of refined grains having reduced levels of several micronutrients). Contemporarily, those who may be deficient include:,
- Alcoholics: This is the primary risk factor for thiamine deficiency. Alcoholics require 10 – 100 times the normal intake of thiamine because alcohol causes severe B1 depletion.
- Chronic and low-calorie dieters, including those on dairy-free and gluten-free diets
- People who eat highly processed, refined foods, especially those high in sugar
- People who have had bariatric surgery (malabsorption), especially gastric bypass
- People with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge eating disorder
- People with recurrent vomiting and/or chronic diarrhea
- People with pancreatitis
- People with cancer
- People with kidney disease
- People with acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS)
- People with thyrotoxicosis
- People with diabetes
- People who smoke cigarettes
Even if you are not on this list, and especially if you are, let’s break down how to boost your B1 from foods, lifestyle choices, and supplementation.
Be in Balance with B1
STEP ONE – FOOD: Choose both animal and plant foods rich in vitamin B1.
- Choose foods rich in vitamin B1. Due to its role in energy production, all plant and animal foods contain at least very low levels of thiamine. Animal foods rich in B1 include lamb, pork, turkey, chicken, eggs, salmon, tuna, organ meats, and brewer’s yeast. Plant foods rich in vitamin B1 include green peas, asparagus, whole wheat (found in wheat germ), romaine lettuce, spinach, mushrooms, and blackstrap molasses.
- Focus on Food Quality. Remember, beriberi was coined in the era of refined grains.
- Skip the sugary, processed foods. Choose a diverse diet, ideally from both plant and animal foods, that emphasizes whole foods.
- Demand high quality dairy. Pasteurization, which heat-treats milk to extend its shelf life, kills most of the friendly bacteria in milk and reduces its vitamin and mineral content. For example, unpasteurized (also known as “raw”) milk contains up to 60 percent more vitamin B1 and B6, up to 100 percent more vitamin B12, and up to 30 percent more vitamin B9 (folate) than pasteurized milk. It also contains more calcium and phosphorus.
- Go for grass fed. A joint research study between the USDA and Clemson University found that compared to grain-fed beef, grass-fed beef has higher amounts of vitamins B1 and B2 as well as calcium, magnesium, and potassium. Pork is particularly high in thiamin, so consider pastured meats other than just beef.
- Cook Conservatively. Vitamin B1 is unstable and easily damaged by heat, acid, and other chemicals. Cooking, storage, and processing reduce the thiamine content of foods (as noted above in the case of grains or dairy). This is why whole grains matter- even fortified grains have undergone processing that reduces thiamine content by more than 50 percent! Moreover, food preservation techniques often involve sulfites and nitrites that deactivate vitamin B1.
- Avoid Excessive Alcohol. Alcohol directly depletes thiamine and also decreases your pancreatic secretion of digestive enzymes, which can prevent you from absorbing not only fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K), but also vitamin B12 and amino acids. Excessive alcohol can damage your gut lining, further reducing your ability to absorb B vitamins, particularly vitamins B9 (folate) and our vitamin of interest, B1.
- Avoid Antinutrients. Sprouting and soaking your grains, nuts, and seeds can reduce the anti-nutritive effect of lectins, found in all plant foods to some extent. The worst offenders are rice, wheat, spelt, rye, barley, soy products and other legumes, seeds, nuts, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, hot peppers, and bell peppers. Tannins, another plant nutrient, also deplete thiamine. Be mindful not to overdo it with high tannin foods such as coffee, tea, red wine, rhubarb, pomegranates, berries, apples, grapes, red beans, lentils, chocolate, barley, nuts, and most spices.
STEP TWO – LIFESTYLE: Consider your digestion, medications, and overall health to support your vitamin B1 status.
- Live a Low-Lead Lifestyle. Lead persists in soils, paint, and other sources. Especially for developing children, lead poses several risks, and vitamin B1 deficiency, which can lead to brain damage, is a critical consideration. Heavy metals are so damaging that we spare no expense with quality testing for our POWER whey and plant proteins, guaranteeing you low levels of arsenic, lead, mercury, and cadmium.
- Mind your Medications. Many medications can deplete thiamine levels. If you are on any of the medications below you may want to concider a quality multivitamin that contains thiamine pyrophosphate (TPP), the biologically active form of vitamin B1.
- Antacids such as Gaviscon, Gelusil, Maalox, and Mylanta
- H2 inhibitors / H2 blockers such as axid, pepcid, mylanta, tagamet, and zantac
- Proton Pump Inhibitors such as lansoprazole (Prevacid), omeprazole (Losec, Prilosec), rabeprazole (Aciphex), and pantoprazole (Pantoloc, Protonix, Nexium).
- Beta blocker such as atenolol (Tenormin, Senorman), carvedilol (Coreg), nadolol (Corgard), and metoprolol (Lopressor, Toprol XL)
- Loop diuretics such as bumetanide (Bumex, Burinex), ethacrynic acid (Edecrin), furosemide (Lasix), and torsemide (Demadex)
- Cardiac glycosides such as digoxin (Lanoxicaps, Lanoxin)
- Biguanides such as metformin (glucophage)
- Conjugated Estrogens such as estrogen replacement therapies (Alora, Cenestin, Climara, Estinyl, Estrace, Estraderm, Estratab, FemPatch, Menest, Ogen, Premarin, Premphase, Prempro, Vivelle); and estrogen and progesterone–containing oral contraceptives (Ovral, Lo/Ovral, Low-Ogestrel)
- Nucleoside metabolic inhibitors such as 5-fluoracil (Efudex, Adrucil, Carac, Fluoroplex)
- Anticonvulsant barbiturates such as carbamazepine (Carbatrol, Epitol, Equetro, Tegretol), primidone (Mysoline), and phenytoin (Di-Phen, Dilantin, Phenytek)
- Sulfonamides, sulphonamides, or sulfa drugs such as sulfadiazine, sulfamethizole (Thiosulfil Forte), sulfamethoxazole (Gantanol), sulfasalazine (Azulfidine), and sulfisoxazole (Gantrisin)
- Macrolide antibiotics such as amoxicillin (Amoxil, Trimox), erythromycin (Robimycin), azithromycin (Zithromax), and clarithromycin (Biaxin)
- Fluoroquinolone antibiotics such as ciprofloxacin (Cipro), enoxacin (Penetrex), gatifloxacin (Tequin), levofloxacin (Levaquin), lomefloxacin (Maxaquin), moxifloxacin (Avelox), norfloxacin (Noroxin), ofloxacin (Floxin), sparfloxacin (Zagam), and trovafloxacin
- Munch Mindfully. Giving your body time to eat makes a huge difference in the production of digestive juices (acid, enzymes, and bile) that can do the hard work of digesting food and supporting your intake of this and other critical vitamins. With inadequate stomach acid, you will have trouble absorbing thiamine. Take your time.
- Love your Lungs. If you smoke, find a way to stop- not just to avoid lung cancer directly, but to stop the deadly depletion of thiamine and other critical micronutrients. While you may have no control over the air quality where you live, you can avoid first and second-hand smoke.
- Soothe Stress. Because your adrenal glands that help you deal with stress require thiamine, overworking them can quickly deplete this micronutrient. Make time for yourself to rest, digest, and relax.
STEP THREE – SUPPLEMENTATION: Be right on target with your B’s.
- Avoid micronutrient competition and take the bioavailable forms of vitamin B1 (and other B vitamins). The reality is that most supplemental B vitamins are served up in a cocktail- such as in a B complex or multivitamin. As multivitamin producers and micronutrient researchers specializing in the competiton between vitamins and minerals, we are particularly mindful of this reality. For instance, did you know that when vitamins B1 and B2 are combined in the same formula vitamin B2 can oxidize vitamin B1 (making it useless) when B1 is in the form of thiamin hydrochloride? Or that your body has to convert thiamin hydrochoride (thiamin HCL) into the biologically active form of thiamin called thiamin pyrophospate in order to use it, and that this can be difficult for some pepole to do? Both are true. To responsibly deal with these issues, in our multivitamin nutreince, we separate vitamins B1 and B2 into our AM and PM formulas and take it one step further by providing you with the biologically active form of B1, thiamine pyrophosphate. This eliminates the competition issue and give you the quality you deserve. Another issue with typical B-complexes and multiviamins is that science is now finding out that more than 40% of the population (as high as 60%) have a genetic mutation known as 5-MTHFR. This means that these people (Mira and I both have this mutation) have a hard time absorbing regular vitamin B9 (folate or folic acid). Instead they need a methylated form of folate known as 5-MTHF (nutreince contains 5-MTHF, the biologically active, methylated form of folate, not folic acid, avoiding this problem as well). Furthermore, just like vitamin B9 comes in a methylated, biologically active form so does vitamin B12. Nutreince contains methylcobalamin (the methylated form of B12) rather than the synthetic cyanocobalamin form of B12. And lastly, because vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid) and B7 (biotin) compete for absorption pathways, it is important to take these two essential vitamins separately. Most B-complexes and multivitamins put B5 and B7 in the same formula, potentially negating many of their positive benefits. Nutreince eliminates this competition by separating our B5 and B7 into different AM and PM formulas and provides the most bioactive form of B5 (pantethine) and the highest quality, natural form of vitamin B7 (d-biotin).
- Roll with the Recommended Daily Intake (RDI). The adult RDI for vitamin B1 is 1.2 mg, the amount we provide in nutreince. Because most people can obtain vitamin B1 from a healthy diet and gastrointestinal tract, supplementing daily with the RDI is a good insurance policy and more should not be necessary to obtain micronutrient sufficiency! While there is no set upper intake level for thiamine, we recommend sticking with the RDI for supplementation to avoid compromising your status of other B vitamins, as noted above. Consider that our ancestors would have had to eat 100 cups of rich-in-thiamine-asparagus to get 25 mg of thiamine, the amount found in many B complexes nowadays. Does that sound rational to you? We don’t suggest creating new problems by over-supplementing. We recommend the amounts that should benefit you the most in balance with other micronutrients.
In short, thiamine (vitamin B1) is a potent bringer of the buzz, bone builder, stress soother, nerve nourisher, muscle mover, and heart-helper. We highly recommend you don’t forget this essential micronutrient when considering your current challenges, bone-building abilities, and long-life goals, especially if you suffer from chronic fatigue or diabetes! Like all B vitamins, thiamine is required, everyday, as a critical part of your diet, and we recommend you supplement if you are on a diet that restricts it or need an insurance policy to cover your bases in the midst of the madness of modern living.