What Is the Connection between Thiamine and Alcoholism?

Cynde Gregory

Vitamin B1 is essential to tissues and organs throughout the human body. It is needed for proper functioning in the brain, heart, kidney and liver, and it works with certain enzymes to metabolize carbohydrates. This vitamin, which is also called thiamine, must be obtained through foods because the body can’t synthesize it. The link between thiamine and alcoholism is clear; about 80 percent of alcoholics don’t have enough thiamine in their bodies, and the resulting damage to their brains and other organs can be profound.

A drunk woman.
A drunk woman.

Among the jobs that enzymes utilize thiamine to accomplish include the protection of the body against free radicals, the creation of nucleic acids that compose genetic material and the creation of neurotransmitters that are necessary for brain chemical synthesis. Overall health is compromised as a result. Thiamine-rich foods include beans and peas, whole grains, meats and nuts, and because the importance of thiamine has long been known, many processed foods are fortified with it. Alcoholics are known to have poor nutrition, substituting the calories in beer, wine and spirits for those in healthy foods. The thiamine and alcoholism connection is self-perpetuating; the more the alcoholic drinks, the less thiamine is in the body, and the more that body deteriorates.

A banana bag containing thiamine, which is often given to alcoholics.
A banana bag containing thiamine, which is often given to alcoholics.

The cerebellum demonstrates particular vulnerability in the relationship between thiamine and alcoholism. This area of the brain controls physical coordination and is important to the learning process. Alcoholics frequently present with two related types of related brain disorders, which are known as a syndrome when the appear in tandem. Korsakoff’s psychosis is characterized by problems with learning and memory, and it is often found together with Wernicke’s encephalopathy, which is characterized by muscular discoordination and confused thinking. Both are the result of the lack of sufficient thiamine and alcoholism.

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Alcoholics who have Korsakoff’s psychosis might not be able to remember large portions of events that have just taken place, and they might stumble when walking, even when sober. Research has shown that treating them with thiamine as soon as the disorder presents can help support brain function against further deterioration. Also known as alcoholic amnesia, this disorder is found in eight out of 10 patients who are diagnosed with Wernicke’s encephalopathy, is a long-term condition and leads to mental deterioration that could cause an affected alcoholic to be unable to live alone safely.

An alcoholic who is suffering from Wernicke’s encephalopathy might complain about visual difficulties caused by paralysis in the nerves of the eye. Other classic symptoms of this short-term and potentially deadly disease include extreme confusion and severely affected ability to walk or perform other physical tasks that involve coordination. It’s important for diagnosticians to know that these so-called classic symptoms don’t necessarily always appear. This disease proceeds rapidly, so an early diagnosis is essential.

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