At WiseGEEK, we're committed to delivering accurate, trustworthy information. Our expert-authored content is rigorously fact-checked and sourced from credible authorities. Discover how we uphold the highest standards in providing you with reliable knowledge.
Thiamine, also commonly referred to as vitamin B1, is an organic compound found in certain foods or available man-made as vitamin tablets, that is used by the body during the metabolizing process. When a person consumes food, the body must separate the nutrients in the food that are needed for the various body systems to run properly from the other unnecessary ingredients. The main function of thiamine is to metabolize sugar so that the body can effectively perform many key processes involving the nervous system, muscles, and digestive system.
People who have conditions that cause thiamin deficiency are generally prescribed the tablet form of the vitamin. Beriberi is an illness that is the result of a lack of thiamine, either from an imbalanced diet or an inherited genetic disorder in which the body cannot absorb the nutrient. Since one function of thiamine is to aid the nervous system through the process of metabolizing sugar, thiamine deficiency from beriberi can cause short-term nervous system symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, abnormal heartbeat, and trouble walking, as well as severe permanent damage to the nervous system. Other conditions that can occur as a result of thiamine deficiency may affect the brain and include Wernicke's encephalopathy, which causes changes in vision, and Korsakoff syndrome, which can cause memory loss and hallucinations.
In addition to malnutrition and genetic disorders, excessive consumption of alcohol can inhibit the function of thiamine. People with addictions to alcohol may have a more difficult time with their body absorbing the nutrients in food. Since the body does not naturally produce thiamine, if a person is not able to absorb the thiamine he or she consumes from food, it can lead to a deficiency and contribute to beriberi, Wernicke’s encephalopathy, or Korsakoff syndrome.
If a person is suffering from a condition that affects the function of thiamine in the body, he or she may be advised by a doctor to take thiamine supplements. These vitamin supplements are not thought to cause any potentially fatal side effects, even if more than the dosage amount is taken. In addition to the vitamin supplements, a doctor may also recommend a change in diet in order for the person to consume higher amounts of foods rich in thiamine. Commonly recommended foods to help increase the amount of thiamine in the body include beans, pork, liver, nuts, potatoes, peas, and whole grain versions of cereal, pasta, or bread.