Thiamine (also known as vitamin B1) was the first of the B-vitamins to be discovered, and works synergistically with the other vitamins in the B-complex family. It helps to convert food into energy and supports healthy skin, hair and nails. It is also used to calm nerves, often referred to as the "anti-stress" vitamin.
Vitamin B1 interacts with enzymes to produce energy from the aerobic processing of sugar. Without B1, this processing would not be possible, which is why a deficiency causes feelings of weakness and lethargy.
The myelin sheath that covers our nerves and allows for proper transmission of nerve impulses relies on thiamine for its health and maintenance. If there is inadequate intake, the sheath may break down, causing a prickling sensation and deadening of the nerves, and some patients suffering from multiple sclerosis (a degeneration of the myelin sheath) have found it useful in treating their symptoms.
Another disease that can be caused by a thiamine deficiency is beriberi, which affects the peripheral nervous system. Its name stems from the Sinhalese word "beri", which means "weakness," and was a disease common in parts of Asia around the turn of the last century. It is now a rare disease in developed countries due to the fortification of breads and cereals, which is necessary because most of the thiamine in the flour used in these products is lost in converting whole grains to white flour. The B-vitamins are concentrated in the germ and bran, both of which are removed during processing.
Thiamine has also been found to be a useful treatment for reversing early stage kidney disease in those with Type 2 diabetes. A team of researchers from Warwick University in the UK studied 40 diabetic patients who were supplemented with thiamine. After three months of treatment with 300 mg of thiamine taken orally each day, one third of patients returned to normal protein excretion in their urine. It is estimated that between 70 and 90 percent of those suffering from diabetes are thiamine deficient, and oral supplementation is a simple and inexpensive way of helping to treat some symptoms.
Thiamine is found in a wide range of foods in small amounts, so consuming a varied diet will ensure you are getting sufficient amounts of the vitamin. It is found in greatest concentrations in yeast and pork, though it is also found in whole grains, green leafy vegetables, mushrooms and eggs. Unfortunately, thiamine is highly unstable, being easily damaged by heat, acidity, refrigeration and processing, so eating raw or minimally processed fresh foods is important in order to maintain a healthy supply of B1 in the body.