Thiamine or vitamin B1: why do we need it?

Jun 10




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This article is about thiamine or vitamin b1. Reading it will help you understand why you should eat foods rich in this vitamin.


The B complex is a group of vitamins designated as B1,Thiamine or vitamin B1: why do we need it? Articles B2, B3, B5, B6, B8, B9 and B12. This article is dedicated to vitamin B1 or thiamine and by reading it you will learn why we need to consume this vitamin in our daily diet to stay healthy.

Discovery of vitamin B1

Vitamin B1 was discovered in 1910 by Umetaro Suzuki (Japan) in research on the treatment of beriberi with rice bran. 

Suzuki called the discovered substance aberic acid, but did not determine its chemical composition.

In 1926 Jansen and Donath isolated vitamin B1 from rice bran and named it aneurin because of its properties for treating neuritis, a disease characterized by inflammation of the nerves and whose symptoms are pain, paralysis and muscular atrophy and loss of reflexes.

The chemical composition of vitamin B1 was discovered by Robert Williams and co-workers in 1935, who named it thiamine to indicate its chemical structure consisting of a sulfur group and an amino group.

Thiamine has also had other names: mood vitamin, vitamin F, antineuritic factor and antiberiberi vitamin.

Functions of vitamin B1

Thiamine functions as a coenzyme in the metabolism of branched-chain amino acids and carbohydrates. It also regulates muscle tone in the gastrointestinal system and helps maintain normal nervous system activity.

Thiamine protects cells from high glucose levels. For this reason, diabetics should be vigilant in maintaining a diet rich in vitamin B1.

Foods rich in vitamin B1

Foods rich in vitamin B1 are brewer's yeast, enriched or unrefined cereal grains, lean pork (close to the loin), legumes (beans, chickpeas), nuts, sesame, peanuts and potatoes.

Also viscera (heart, kidney and liver) are foods rich in vitamin B1.

Thiamine deficiency

Vitamin B1 or thiamine is soluble in water, but it is not soluble in alcohol. This characteristic is very important to explain the prolonged deficit of the vitamin in alcoholic persons, which can cause Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.   

Prolonged vitamin B1 deficiency can also cause beriberi in adults or in newborn children of mothers with vitamin B1 deficiency.

The origin of the word for this disease is not clear. Some claim that it comes from the translation of the Sinhalese phrase "I can't, I can't" and others that it is related to an Arabic phrase whose translation means "sailor's asthma".

If we were asked to choose a single word to express the essence of this disease, we would choose the word weakness. 

Beriberi in adults can be either wet or dry. Wet beriberi primarily affects the heart due to heart failure and weakness in the capillary walls. 

Signs and symptoms of wet beriberi are breathing difficulties (dyspnea), edema and tachycardia.

Dry beriberi manifests as neuritis with partial paralysis. Its main signs and symptoms are vomiting, clonic spasm of ocular motor muscles (nystagmus), sensory disturbances (paresthesias), weakness when walking, and loss of muscle tone, mental confusion and pain.

Signs and symptoms of infantile beriberi include pallor, facial edema, irritability and abdominal pain.

Infants with this disease may suddenly present with cyanosis (blue coloration of the skin and mucous membranes) with dyspnea and tachycardia. If they do not receive prompt medical treatment, they may die within hours.

Causes of thiamine deficiency

The main causes of vitamin B1 deficiency are:

  • Consumption of foods low in thiamine.
  • Prolonged consumption of foods containing thiaminase.
  • Alcoholism.
  • Prolonged renal dialysis.
  • Intravenous feeding.
  • Chronic febrile infections.

Vitamin B1 deficiency due to diet can be supplied by taking vitamin supplements containing thiamine.

Thiaminase is an enzyme that splits the thiamine molecule and thus inactivates it. Regular consumption of foods containing this enzyme causes thiamine deficiency. Thiaminase is destroyed by the heat of cooking.

Raw freshwater fish are rich in thiaminase, but when cooked, thiaminase is destroyed. Ferns, raw crustaceans and beverages such as tea and coffee also contain this enzyme.


Vitamin B1 or thiamine is necessary for life because it is involved in metabolism, in the functioning of the nervous system, the digestive system and the musculoskeletal system.

The consumption of a diet low in thiamine and the action of other factors can cause thiamine deficiency and serious diseases.