Better Me

How to Tell if You’re Getting the Thiamin You Need to Stay Healthy

If you’re trying to choose a healthy diet, there’s a lot to keep in mind. You’ll want to make sure you’re getting enough of the vitamins and minerals your body needs to function at its best. One of the vitamins you’ll want to watch for is called thiamin. Rachel Harrison, a Banner Health registered dietitian, answered our questions about this essential nutrient.

What is thiamin?

Thiamin, also called thiamine or vitamin B1, is a water-soluble (carried to the bodies tissues but not stored in the body) vitamin. You need thiamin to metabolize carbohydrates—it helps your body get energy from food, and you need it in tissues throughout your body. 

What are the signs of a thiamin deficiency?

Most people get enough thiamin in their diet. However, if you’re deficient in thiamin, you may experience certain symptoms that affect your nervous system, brain and heart:

  • Confusion or memory loss
  • Balance difficulties
  • Eye movements or double vision
  • Irritability or mood swings
  • Seizure
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swelling or lack of feeling in the legs

Of course, many different health conditions could trigger these symptoms, so you should talk to your health care provider about your concerns. “I would say, for any symptoms that are not what you are normally used to, you should seek medical attention,” Harrison said.

A thiamin deficiency can also lead to several medical conditions:

  • Dry beriberi, where you may have weakness and loss of feeling in your arms, hands, legs or feet.
  • Wet beriberi, which has the same symptoms as dry beriberi, plus heart failure and swelling in the lower legs.
  • Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, where you may have altered mental status, impaired balance and involuntary eye movement. If symptoms are not treated quickly, they can progress to permanent cognitive impairment.

How can you make sure you are getting enough thiamin?

You can get the thiamin you need through thiamin-rich foods such as:

  • Whole-grain cereals and bread
  • Lentils
  • Peas
  • Potatoes 
  • Pork
  • Brown rice
  • Beans
  • Legumes

Eating citrus fruits and other foods that contain vitamin C can help your body absorb thiamin. You can also better absorb thiamin by limiting alcohol, caffeine, refined flour and added sugar.

Should you take thiamin supplements?

Most people don’t need thiamin supplements since they eat enough thiamin-containing foods. Deficiencies are uncommon unless you have certain medical conditions. A supplement might be a good idea if:

  • You drink alcohol every day, because often, when you drink alcohol, you replace nutritious calories with empty calories.
  • You’ve had weight-loss surgery, which makes it harder for your body to absorb nutrients.
  • You take diuretics regularly—for example, to treat heart failure or kidney disease. Since thiamin is water-soluble, diuretics can make you excrete it in your urine.
  • You are on dialysis.
  • You have Crohn’s disease or anorexia.

“If there’s reason to suspect you have a thiamin deficiency, you can talk to your primary care provider about testing your levels,” Harrison said. If you take a supplement, the dosage is usually five to 30 milligrams per day, based on why you need additional thiamin.

The bottom line

“Most people do not need to worry about being deficient in thiamin,” Harrison said. She often orders it for people she sees in the hospital, since they may be malnourished. Otherwise, you should get sufficient thiamin from your diet.

If you would like to review your diet with a health care professional to make sure you’re making nutritious choices, reach out to Banner Health.

Other useful articles