Beriberi disease is a nutritional disorder that occurs when you have low levels of vitamin B1 (thiamine). Vitamin B1 plays a crucial role in propagating your nerves’ impulses, so low levels can destroy the nervous system and heart. Beriberi is one of the most common deficiency diseases.
Keep reading to learn all about beriberi — from the symptoms of this condition to how it’s treated.
What Is Beriberi Disease?
The name “beriberi” comes from the Sinhalese word meaning “extreme weakness”. Beriberi occurs as a result of insufficient thiamine or thiamine deficiency. Vitamin B1 is a water-soluble vitamin that is present in meat, pork, beef, whole grains, nuts and legumes. It’s involved in energy production and the propagation of nerve impulses, and it also plays a key role in:
- digestive acid production
- glucose production
- muscle contraction
- breaking down of the carbohydrates
When your levels of vitamin B1 are insufficient, the body can’t perform these functions the way it should. Beriberi can affect the nervous, cardiovascular and immune system.
There are two types of beriberi: wet beriberi and dry beriberi.
The first type of beriberi is wet beriberi, which commonly affects the heart. This causes poor circulation and fluid build-up in the tissues. The symptoms of wet beriberi include:
- fast heart rate
- shortness of breath during physical activity
- waking up short of breath
- swelling in the lower legs
The second beriberi type is dry beriberi, which commonly affects the nervous system. Dry beriberi symptoms include:
- reduced muscle function, particularly in the lower legs
- difficulty speaking
- loss of feeling in the hands and feet
- tingling in the limbs
- involuntary eye movement
- mental confusion
The beriberi disease is usually caused by a diet low in thiamine (vitamin B1). The condition can also occur if your body can’t process thiamine. Beriberi is not common in developed countries.
In the UK and United States, most people consume bread and cereals, which are rich in thiamine. This makes the risk of beriberi very low.
People who consume alcohol are more at risk of beriberi. As much as 80% of the people abusing alcohol will eventually develop the condition. That’s because alcohol prevents the body from processing and absorbing thiamine.
Also, if you have thiamine deficiency while pregnant or lactacting, then your baby is more likely to develop beriberi. This can also happen if the formula you’re feeding your baby lacks thiamine.
Some people suffer from genetic beriberi, a rare condition that blocks the absorption of thiamine.
These are the groups who are more at risk of developing beriberi:
- older adults
- diabetic people
- HIV patients
- people who have had bariatric surgery
Beriberi symptoms vary depending on the type of beriberi you have. The most common wet beriberi symptoms are:
- rapid heart rate
- constant fatigue or lack of energy
- breathing difficulties
- sleeping difficulties due to shortness of breath
- swelling in the lower legs and feet
People with dry beriberi will experience:
- movement difficulties
- body aches
- mental confusion
- numbness in the feet and hands
- paralysis of the lower legs
Beriberi disease can lead to a rare condition called the Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS). Symptoms of WKS include confusion, double vision and loss of muscle coordination.
Diagnosing beriberi involves measuring the levels of thiamine in your bloodstream. Your doctor might also perform a physical exam to check for neurological or heart issues.
In case of nerve damage, the signs of beriberi will also include:
- walking difficulties
- difficulties maintaining your balance
- weak reflexes
- lack of coordination
Your doctor will test your heart rate and breathing to check for heart problems. He might also check for swelling in the lower limbs.
How is beriberi treated?
Increasing thiamine levels in the body is the most common beriberi treatment. Most of the time, your doctor will prescribe high-dose oral supplements. If your levels of thiamine are very low, he might also prescribe thiamine injections.
During the treatment, you will have regular blood tests to track your vitamin B1 levels. The treatment will stop once your thiamine levels return to normal. Sometimes, you might need to continue taking a supplement after finishing your treatment. This is to ensure that beriberi disease doesn’t reoccur.
Your doctor will also treat complications such as nerve damage or heart problems. However, if you’ve had the condition for a long time, some symptoms might not go away even after the treatment.
The easiest way to prevent beriberi is to ensure you’re getting plenty of vitamin B1 from your diet. Some foods that are rich in thiamine include:
- nuts and seeds
- beans and legumes
- dairy products
Foods like bread, cereals and baked goods also contain thiamine.
Pregnant and lactating women should be especially vigilant about their vitamin B1 intake. The recommended daily amount of thiamine during pregnancy and lactation is 1.4mg.
Also, avoiding excessive alcohol consumption can help to prevent beriberi.
If you’re experiencing any signs of beriberi disease, seek medical advice from your GP as soon as possible. If left untreated, beriberi can cause serious and lasting nerve damage. It can also lead to congestive heart failure.
Early detection and treatment can reverse any such damage and prevent complications. However, some people continue to experience beriberi symptoms even after completing treatment.
The best way to prevent beriberi disease is making sure you’re eating a balanced diet. You can also take a vitamin B complex supplement to ensure you’re meeting your thiamine RDA. Always speak to your doctor before taking thiamine supplements.
READ ALSO: Vitamin B1 Dosage: Always Stick to Your RDA