Beriberi is a disease also known as thiamine deficiency or vitamin B1 deficiency. Just like the name suggests, it is caused by abnormally low levels of vitamin B1 or thiamine.
There are two main types of beriberi - dry and wet beriberi. Wet beriberi affects the cardiovascular system, while the dry beriberi and Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome affect the nervous system.
There is also genetic beriberi, that is passed down through families, in which the body is genetically unable to absorb thiamine properly.
Beriberi is today rare in developed world, because most of the foods are vitamin-enriched and because a reasonably healthy diet provides enough thiamine for the body. However, beriberi can occur due to a number of factors, among which the most common one is malnutrition, diseases causing absorption problems and heavy drinking.
Beriberi is treated with thiamine supplements, which in severe cases may have to be administered intravenously.
Symptoms of beriberi
As there are two types of beriberi, they have different symptoms. The symptoms of dry beriberi include difficulty walking, loss of feeling in hands and feet, decreased muscle function or paralysis in the lower extremities, confusion, difficulty speaking, pain, tingling sensation, vomiting and strange eye movement.
Wet beriberi causes waking up at night due to shortness of breath, rapid heart rate, shortness of breath due to physical activity and swelling of feet, ankles and calves.
People who have beriberi may show signs of congestive heart failure, such as enlarged heart, edema, protruding veins on the neck and fluid in lungs.
Prevention of beriberi
Naturally, the prevention of beriberi consists of providing sufficient amounts of thiamine, through diet and vitamin supplements. Thiamine or vitamin B1 can be found as an individual supplement or as a part of the B complex vitamin supplement. Doctors usually recommend taking other vitamin supplements along with thiamine.
However, it is much better to take the vitamins the natural way, through diet. Thiamine can be found in small amounts in many food sources. Yeast, yeast extract and their products, such as Marmite or Vegemite, as well as pork meat, are considered to be the best natural sources of thiamine. This vitamin is also found in cereals, particularly in whole grain ones, much more than in refined ones. Other food sources include flaxseed, oatmeal, sunflower seeds, brown rice, asparagus, potatoes, kale, cauliflower, oranges, eggs and beef, pork and chicken liver.
People who have recently been ill, who exercise vigorously or strain the body in any way, as well as those who drink heavily, are advised to increase their intake of thiamine-rich foods and to consider taking thiamine or B complex supplements.