Alcohol use damages the body and mind in many complex ways, including the depletion of vital vitamins and minerals. The lifestyle of heavy drinkers can contribute to nutrient deficiency, as can the decreased function of organs and bodily systems that must work efficiently to maintain health. Thiamine, also known as Vitamin B1, has various critical functions throughout the body including the processing of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates to be used as energy by the heart and brain. Alcohol use causes thiamine deficiency in a few different ways, and if allowed to become severe, it can lead to a potentially life-threatening condition called beriberi. Understanding the ways in which alcohol use can deplete thiamine levels and lead to this condition may help those suffering from alcohol addiction and those in recovery to recognize the symptoms in themselves, or prevent this condition from occurring.
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What is Thiamine?
Thiamine is a B vitamin that does not naturally occur in the human body. This means that we must ingest it in our diets to maintain a healthy quantity in our body at all times. Thiamine plays an integral role in the brain, digestive system, and central nervous system. By helping to synthesize acetylcholine in the brain, thiamine prevents memory loss. In order to pull nutrients and energy from our food, thiamine assists in the production of stomach acid and maintains the efficiency of all digestive organs. This includes the regulation of metabolism and the prevention of constipation. This essential vitamin is also involved in the delivery of electrolytes to muscle and nerve cells, regulating nerve function and maintaining balance in the body.
Thiamine can be found in many foods such as whole grains, eggs, nuts, and some meats. If you experience a thiamine deficiency or have trouble getting enough thiamine into your diet, you can supplement with pure thiamine, multi-vitamins, or B-complex vitamins that deliver the many B vitamins your body needs to function efficiently. Unfortunately, even with the addition of supplements, heavy alcohol use can deplete the body’s thiamine to dangerous levels. Thiamine deficiency can cause several serious conditions and even lead to death if left untreated.
Studies that looked at the brains of chronic alcohol abusers after death found that a significant percentage did not have adequate levels of thiamine. Alcohol use causes thiamine deficiency in two major ways. One way this occurs is through a lack of nutrition from an inadequate diet. Many people with alcohol use disorder tend to neglect their dietary needs, sometimes skipping meals and other times binging on highly processed foods. The second way that heavy drinking leads to thiamine deficiency is by damaging the stomach lining. Alcohol can cause a variety of digestive issues, including inflammation and erosion in the stomach and digestive tract. This damage makes it difficult for the body to properly absorb vitamins and nutrients from food.
The first signs of thiamine deficiency often include lack of appetite, constipation, weakness, and fatigue. If the body continues to experience a lack of thiamine absorption, it can lead to a condition called beriberi. There are two types of beriberi, one that affects the heart and circulatory system, and another that causes nerve and muscle damage. Symptoms from either version of beriberi can become severe, and in some cases lead to paralysis. In the most extreme scenarios, beriberi is associated with two types of brain damage commonly observed in alcohol-dependent people. Research is continuing to confirm the importance of thiamine availability for brain function, and thiamine deficiency can cause alcohol-induced dementia in heavy drinkers. The first signs of this complication may include delirium and confusion.
Treating Thiamine Deficiency in Heavy Drinkers
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, approximately 13 percent of people who abuse alcohol will experience thiamine deficiency. Unfortunately, thiamine deficiency often goes untreated until symptoms become extremely severe. If thiamine deficiency is detected early on, treatment may include oral supplements to be administered daily. However, if the underlying cause of the body’s inability to absorb thiamine is an addiction to alcohol, the most important step in reversing the damage is finding a way to quit drinking. For those who suffer from addiction, becoming and staying sober will likely require the help of professionals.
If you believe you or someone you love may be experiencing a vitamin deficiency due to heavy alcohol use, now is the time to seek help. A holistic treatment center will be able to treat the underlying causes of addiction while also addressing dietary and nutritional needs. Many treatment programs incorporate the use of nutritionists to assess your eating habits and help you insert more thiamine into your diet if you are experiencing a deficiency. By better educating yourself about the role of thiamine in the body and alcohol’s ability to block absorption, you can take steps towards a healthier lifestyle.