Beriberi is a deficiency of thiamine, more commonly known as vitamin B1. Your body needs thiamine to break down and digest the foods you eat, to keep your metabolism going, and help your muscles and nervous system do their jobs effectively. Beriberi can affect the cardiovascular system or central nervous system.
The condition is rare in western countries, where most people get enough thiamine in their diet, but the condition is relatively common elsewhere in the world.
To treat beriberi, doctors typically focus on reintroducing enough thiamine into the diet, but more serious cases may require extensive medical intervention. Beriberi can be dangerous in its advanced stages — even causing heart failure or muscle paralysis — so it's important to treat the deficiency before it gets worse.
Who’s Most At Risk for Beriberi?
If you eat a varied and healthy diet, you probably won’t have to worry about being diagnosed with beriberi. People who drink a lot of alcohol or struggle with alcohol addiction are more likely to be deficient in thiamine. Excess alcohol can interfere with the body’s ability to absorb thiamine.
Other people at higher risk for developing beriberi include:
- Breastfed babies whose mothers are thiamine-deficient
- Those who eat a high-carbohydrate diet, especially refined carbs
- People engaged in extremely high amounts of physical activity or exercise
- Anyone with hyperthyroidism, which might prevent thiamine absorption
- People with certain digestive problems that can interfere with nutrient absorption, particularly as they age
- People who've had bariatric surgery for weight loss
- Anyone with high levels of stress
Symptoms of Beriberi
There are two types of beriberi that affect different parts of the body. Both can be dangerous:
- Wet beriberi affects the cardiovascular system. Since it involves the functioning of the heart, it's a life-threatening medical emergency that needs immediate treatment.
- Dry beriberi can damage the central nervous system (CNS). It disrupts motor functioning (the movement of the muscles). It can also cause impaired reflexes and numbness in the extremities, but it’s generally easier to treat than beriberi that impacts the heart.
Other possible symptoms of beriberi include:
- Weakness and muscle loss
- Mental confusion
- Tingling or loss of sensitivity in the fingers or feet
- Rapid heart beat
- Chest pain
- Nausea or vomiting
If these symptoms aren’t attended to when they first appear, beriberi may progress into Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a kind of encephalopathy, which refers to damage or disease that affects the brain. Extensive damage to parts of the brain, particularly the thalamus and hypothalamus, may cause severe confusion and memory loss, one of the main signs of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.
This is a rare but serious condition and is not reversible once the damage sets in. It's important to see a doctor as soon as possible when you first start showing signs of thiamin deficiency to avoid the possibility of the condition advancing to Wernicke-Korsakoff.
Treatment for Beriberi
Good nutrition is the first line of defense against beriberi. Once beriberi is diagnosed and, assuming it isn’t too advanced, doctors will try to correct the deficiency by recommending a thiamine-rich diet. That means adding more of the following foods to your daily diet:
- Thiamine-fortified cereals
- Thiamine-enriched rice or noodles
- Sunflower seeds
- Green beans
Advanced cases of beriberi need more than a diet change. Certain types of medication will be prescribed. Daily thiamine infusions, delivered either orally or intravenously as many as three times daily, have been successful in treating beriberi.
Even when beriberi progresses to the level of a medical emergency, such as in wet beriberi, the situation can quickly be brought under control with prompt intervention.
Preventing beriberi comes down to your diet. Lack of thiamine, or vitamin B1, in the diet will lead to beriberi, no matter where you live in the world. You need a daily intake of thiamin-rich foods, which can be easily accomplished with a varied diet. While your body stores thiamine in the liver, it doesn't hold enough to prevent a deficiency.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of thiamine is 1.2 milligrams daily for men and 1.1 milligrams for women. The RDA during pregnancy rises to 1.4 milligrams to account for the increased risk of deficiency during that time.