As one of the B-vitamins removed during the milling of refined grains, thiamine is required by law in Australia (but not in New Zealand) to be added to bread-making flours. Although severe thiamine deficiency is a thing of the past, even a moderate deficit has health consequences.
What it is?
An often overlooked but key member of the B-complex vitamin family, thiamine is known as vitamin B1 because it was the first B-vitamin discovered. Most people get enough thiamine in their diets to meet their basic needs, but experts believe that some people, especially older adults, are mildly deficient in this nutrient. Thiamine is available as an individual supplement, but it's best to get it from a B-complex supplement, because it works closely with the other B-vitamins.
What it does?
Thiamine is essential for converting the carbohydrates in foods into energy. It also plays a role in maintaining healthy nerves, and may be useful in treating certain types of heart disease.
In people with congestive heart failure (CHF), thiamine can improve the pumping power of the heart. Thiamine levels in the body are depleted by long-term treatment with diuretic drugs, which are often prescribed for CHF patients to reduce the fluid buildup associated with the disease. In one study, CHF patients who took frusemide (a diuretic) were given either 200 mg a day of thiamine or a placebo. After six weeks, the thiamine group showed a 22% improvement in their condition.
By helping to maintain healthy nerves, thiamine may minimize numbness and tingling in the hands and feet. This problem frequently plagues people with diabetes or other diseases that can cause nerve damage.
In combination with choline and pantothenic acid (also B-vitamins), thiamine can aid the digestive process and provide relief from heartburn. Some researchers think that thiamine deficiency is linked to mental illnesses, including depression, and that high doses of thiamine may be beneficial. Thiamine may also boost memory in people with Alzheimer's disease – but the evidence is far from conclusive. However, the confusion that is common in older adults after surgery may be prevented by additional doses of thiamine in the weeks before an operation. Doctors also use thiamine to treat the psychosis related to alcohol withdrawal. Antiseizure medications interfere with the vitamin's absorption, so people taking them may need extra thiamine. This may also reduce the fuzzy thinking that such drugs can cause.
- Stimulates energy production.
- Promotes healthy nerves.
- May improve mood.
- Strengthens the heart.
- Soothes heartburn.
- Reminder: If you have a medical or psychiatric condition, talk to your doctor before taking supplements.
How much you need?
To maintain good health and prevent a thiamine deficiency, the RDI of 1.1 mg a day for men and 0.8 mg a day for women is sufficient. However, higher doses are recommended for therapeutic use.
If you get too little:
Mild thiamine deficiency may go unnoticed. Its symptoms are irritability, weight loss, depression and muscle weakness. Severe thiamine deficiency causes beriberi, a disease that leads to mental impairment, muscle wasting, paralysis, nerve damage, and eventually death. Once rampant in many countries, beriberi is rare today. It is seen only in parts of Asia where the diet consists mainly of white rice, which is stripped of thiamine and other nutrients during milling.
If you get too much:
There are no adverse effects associated with high doses of thiamine, because the body is efficient at eliminating excess amounts through the urine.
How to take it?
Specific disorders can benefit from supplemental thiamine.
For congestive heart failure: Take 200 mg of thiamine daily.
For numbness and tingling: Take 100 mg of thiamine a day (50 mg as part of a B-complex supplement and an extra 50 mg of thiamine).
For depression: Take 50 mg daily as part of a B-complex.
For heartburn: Take 500 mg a day in the morning.
For alcoholism: Take 150 mg daily (50 mg as part of a B-complex and an extra 100 mg).
Guidelines for use:
Thiamine is best absorbed in an acidic environment. Take it with meals, when stomach acid is produced to digest food. Divide the dose and take it twice a day, because high doses are readily flushed out of the body in urine.
Lean pork is probably the best dietary source of thiamine, followed by whole grains, dried beans, nuts (especially Brazil nuts) and seeds. As well as breads, breakfast cereals, pasta and yeast extracts may be fortified with thiamine.
- Thiamine supplements may improve mood, according to a recent US study of young women who were not thiamine-deficient. More than 100 university-age women took either 50 mg of thiamine a day or a placebo for two months. Tests showed that energy levels, alertness and mood improved in the thiamine takers, but not in those receiving the placebo.
- Older people are often mildly deficient in thiamine. Another recent US study found that taking just 10 mg a day of this vitamin for three months led to lowered blood pressure, weight loss, better-quality sleep, and increased energy levels in people over the age of 65. No improvements were seen in those given a placebo.
Did you know?
You'd have to eat about 15 cups of shelled sunflower seeds to get a 50 mg dose of thiamine.