What is beriberi?

Quick Answer
A nutritional disease resulting from thiamine deficiency.
Expert Answers
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Causes and Symptoms

Thiamine, one of the B vitamins, plays an important role in energy metabolism and tissue building. When there is not enough thiamine in the diet, these basic energy functions are disturbed, leading to problems throughout the body. There are two major manifestations of thiamine deficiency, cardiovascular disease (wet beriberi) and nervous system disease (dry beriberi). Each can be caused by chronic alcoholism, malnutrition, diuresis, dialysis, and high carbohydrate intake.

The accompanying symptoms of thiamine deficiency may include weakness, irritability, nausea, vomiting, tingling, or loss of sensation in the hands and feet (peripheral neuropathy). Progressed symptoms include mental confusion and difficulties speaking or walking; these are often the precursor symptoms leading to coma and/or death.

Treatment and Therapy

Thiamine hydrochloride is the initial treatment of choice for beriberi. Successful treatment reverses the deficiency and alleviates most of the symptoms. Severe deficiencies may be treated with high doses of thiamine given by muscular injection.

Alternative treatments stress a diet rich in foods that provide thiamine and other B vitamins, such as brown rice, whole grains, raw fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, and yogurt. Additional supplements of B vitamins, a multivitamin and mineral complex, and vitamin C are also recommended. A balanced diet containing all essential nutrients will prevent thiamine deficiency and the development of beriberi. People who consume large quantities of soda, pretzels, chips, candy, and high-carbohydrate foods made with unenriched flours may also need vitamin supplements to avoid thiamine deficiency.

Perspective and Prospects

The first clinical descriptions of beriberi were conducted by the Dutch physician Nicolaes Tulp around 1652. Tulp treated a young Dutchman who, upon returning from the East Indies, suffered from what the natives of the Indies called beriberi, or “the lameness.” Not until the early twentieth century did scientists discover that rice bran, the outer covering of white rice, actually contains something that prevents the disease, thiamine. In the 1920s, extracts of rice polishings were used to treat the disease.

Beriberi is fatal if left untreated. Most symptoms can be reversed, and full recovery is possible when thiamine levels are returned to normal and maintained with a balanced diet and vitamin supplements as needed.


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