What Causes Beriberi?

A Kaminsky
A Kaminsky
Eating legumes, like beans, can help prevent beriberi.
Eating legumes, like beans, can help prevent beriberi.

Not many vitamin-deficiency disorders occur in the U.S. any more. For all the faults in the American diet, most people escape such disorders as scurvy, rickets and beriberi. Beriberi is the disorder caused by a lack of thiamine, or Vitamin B1, in the diet. This vitamin helps convert carbohydrates into energy and aids in heart, muscle and nervous function.

Brown rice contains thiamine.
Brown rice contains thiamine.

Beriberi has probably been around for millennia, but has only been given a name in the past few hundred years. The name is Sinhalese for “I cannot, I cannot,” probably referring to the fatigue and lassitude often experienced by those with the disorder. Two Dutch physicians, Bontius and Nicolaas Tulp, wrote the first clinical descriptions of the disease in 1642. However, it was 200 or more years later that the disorder was recognized as related to diet.

Chronic drinking depletes the body of thiamine and other essential vitamins.
Chronic drinking depletes the body of thiamine and other essential vitamins.

Beriberi was first most commonly seen in Japan and in other countries where a diet of white rice was the staple food. Polishing the husks from rice destroys the B1 component. In that day and age, poor people mixed their rice with barley, and so escaped beriberi. It was largely a disease of the white-rice-eating upper class. Asian sailors ate mostly white rice every day, and they were also prey to beriberi. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that scientists and doctors understood that beriberi was the result of a vitamin deficiency and that it was easily treated.

Chronic alcoholics may develop beriberi when their livers no longer process B1.
Chronic alcoholics may develop beriberi when their livers no longer process B1.

Beriberi comes in two forms, “wet,” which affects the heart, and “dry,” which affects the nerves. Beriberi can cause heart failure and paralysis when left untreated. Happily, it is easy to add thiamine to the diet. Consumption of fresh vegetables and fruit, legumes and meat will all help to keep the disorder from developing. Vegetarians or vegans can easily add thiamine to their diets by eating brown rice.

Chronic alcoholics sometimes develop beriberi when their livers no longer process B1. These are about the only cases a U.S. physician will ever see, although the disease can be genetic as well. However, genetic beriberi is extremely rare.

Symptoms of beriberi include fatigue and lassitude that make everyday activities difficult.
Symptoms of beriberi include fatigue and lassitude that make everyday activities difficult.

Vitamin B1 supplements are available, but with thiamine-enriched cereals and bread on the market, to say nothing of the many fruits and vegetables available, supplements are not usually necessary. Beriberi is a condition that few doctors in developed countries ever treat.

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Discussion Comments

anon262470

My wife sees a cardiologist yearly as she has a non threatening heart condition. She usually has palpitations which are quite severe at times. She also has pernicious anemia. I heard about Beriberi and looked up the symptoms, and I am advising my wife to go back to the cardiologist!

rugbygirl

I've actually heard that developed countries are seeing more and more vitamin deficiencies and malnutrition these days. I guess beriberi disease remains incredibly rare because even a bad diet is likely to include some, but people in developed nations but with low socioeconomic status often eat diets that are very high in fat and refined carbohydrates, but low in fruits and vegetables. In fact, there might not be many places in their neighborhood to buy fruits and vegetables.

The surprising result can be a person who is overweight or even obese but who has malnutrition!

And, of course, there's vitamin D deficiency. That can affect people in any socioeconomic bracket if they don't drink a lot of fortified milk and don't spend much time outside.

anon170271

Glad you mentioned the barley with the white rice; helps in preparation of soups with barley or eating brown rice as opposed to white rice.

anon111369

this was very helpful. thanks very much!

anon80489

Thank for the info. It helped a lot with my project!

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    • Eating legumes, like beans, can help prevent beriberi.
      Eating legumes, like beans, can help prevent beriberi.
    • Brown rice contains thiamine.
      Brown rice contains thiamine.
    • Chronic drinking depletes the body of thiamine and other essential vitamins.
      Chronic drinking depletes the body of thiamine and other essential vitamins.
    • Chronic alcoholics may develop beriberi when their livers no longer process B1.
      Chronic alcoholics may develop beriberi when their livers no longer process B1.
    • Symptoms of beriberi include fatigue and lassitude that make everyday activities difficult.
      Symptoms of beriberi include fatigue and lassitude that make everyday activities difficult.
    • Eating fresh fruits and vegetables can help stave off beriberi, as these foods add thiamine to one's diet.
      Eating fresh fruits and vegetables can help stave off beriberi, as these foods add thiamine to one's diet.