Everything you need to know about beriberi
Beriberi is a disease caused by a vitamin B-1 deficiency, also known as thiamine deficiency. There are two types of disease: wet beriberi and dry beriberi. Wet beriberi affects the heart and circulatory system. In extreme cases, wet beriberi can cause heart failure. Dry beriberi damages the nerves and can lead to decreased muscle strength and eventually, muscle paralysis. Beriberi can be life-threatening if it isn’t treated.
If you have access to foods rich in thiamine, your chances of developing beriberi are low. Today, beriberi mostly occurs in people with an alcohol use disorder. Beriberi from other causes is rare in the United States. Still, the disease can be seen in women who have extreme nausea and vomiting in pregnancy (hyperemesis gravidarum), in people with AIDS, and after bariatric surgery.
- Thiamine deficiency
Symptoms of beriberi
Beriberi’s symptoms can vary depending on its type.
Symptoms of wet beriberi:
- Increase in cardiac frequency.
- Lack of energy or constant fatigue.
- Difficulty breathing
- You wake up at night with trouble breathing.
- Swelling of the legs and feet
Symptoms of dry beriberi:
- Joint aches and pains
- Difficulty to walk
- Numbness in arms or legs
- Lower leg paralysis
In rare and severe cases of the disorder, this can cause a condition called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. This syndrome is caused by a severe thiamine deficiency, which causes brain damage.
A person with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome may experience other symptoms, including:
- Memory loss or inability to form new memories
- Common confusion
- Rapid eye movement
- Involuntary eye movement
- Blurred or double vision
- Loss of muscle coordination
Causes of beriberi
The main cause is a diet low in thiamine. The disease is very rare in regions with access to vitamin-enriched foods, such as certain breakfast cereals and bread. It is most common in regions of the world where the diet includes unenriched, processed white rice, which only has a tenth of the amount of thiamine as brown rice.
Other factors may cause thiamine deficiency, as well. These include:
- Alcohol abuse, which can make it hard for your body to absorb and store thiamine.
- Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid gland)
- Extreme nausea and vomiting in pregnancy
- Bariatric surgery
- Prolonged diarrhoea or use of diuretics (medication that makes you urinate more)
- Undergoing kidney dialysis
Breastfeeding mothers need daily thiamine in their diet. Infants drinking breast milk or formula low in thiamine are at risk for thiamine deficiency.
Diagnosis of beriberi
You will need a series of medical tests to determine whether or not you have this disease. Blood and urine tests will measure the levels of thiamine in your body. If your body has trouble absorbing thiamine, you will have a low concentration of thiamine in your blood and a high concentration in your urine.
Doctors will also perform a neurological exam to look for lack of coordination, difficulty walking, droopy eyelids, and weak reflexes. People with later stages will show memory loss, confusion, or delusions.
A physical exam will alert your doctor to any heart problems. Rapid heartbeat, swelling of the lower legs, and difficulty breathing are all symptoms of beriberi.
Treatment for beriberi
It is easily treated with thiamine supplements. Your doctor may prescribe a thiamine shot or pill. For severe cases, a healthcare professional will administer intravenous thiamine.
Your progress will be monitored with follow-up blood tests to see how well your body is absorbing the vitamin.
To prevent this disease, eat a healthy, balanced diet that includes foods rich in thiamine. These include:
- Beans and legumes
- Whole grains
- Certain vegetables, such as asparagus, acorn squash, brussels sprouts, spinach, and beet greens
Breakfast cereals that are enriched with thiamine.
Cooking or processing any of the foods listed above decreases their thiamine content.
If you give your infant formula, you should also check that it contains enough thiamine.
Always be sure to purchase infant formula from a reliable source.
Limiting alcohol consumption will reduce your risk of developing beriberi. Anyone who abuses alcohol should be checked routinely for a B-1 vitamin deficiency.