Thiamine is an essential nutrient that plays an important role in the healthy function of several vital organs.
A thiamine deficiency, however, is common among people with alcohol use disorder, also known as alcohol abuse or alcohol addiction.
Without treatment for thiamine deficiency and a drinking problem, this condition can have serious consequences, including brain impairment and Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.
What Is Alcohol-Induced Thiamine Deficiency?
An alcohol-induced thiamine deficiency refers to a low level of vitamin B1, also known as thiamine, that is directly influenced or caused by heavy alcohol use.
Thiamine is an essential vitamin that is not produced in the body naturally. It is obtained through a person’s diet, by eating foods that naturally contain vitamin B1 or are vitamin B1-enriched.
Some foods containing thiamine include:
- whole-grain carbohydrates (e.g. rice, bread, pasta, flour)
- legumes and peas
- fruits and vegetables
- some dairy products
- nuts and seeds
- some red meats (e.g. beef, pork)
Why Is Thiamine Important?
Thiamine converts the carbohydrates, fats, and proteins that you consume into energy — which supports the healthy function of vital organs like the heart and brain.
A lack of thiamine can be a sign of beriberi, a disease that’s characterized by low thiamine, as well as a poor diet, malnutrition, or alcohol abuse.
What Causes An Alcohol-Related Thiamine Deficiency?
Alcohol can disrupt the body’s process of absorbing thiamine correctly. This can lead to a mild to severe vitamin B1 deficiency.
It’s also common for people with alcohol use disorder to neglect their diet, and replace food with alcohol instead, thereby reducing their intake of thiamine.
Replacing food calories with alcohol can be a sign of an eating disorder — sometimes referred to as “drunkorexia” — which can have a range of negative health consequences.
What Are Other Risk Factors For Thiamine Deficiency?
Alcohol abuse is not the only way that someone can develop a thiamine deficiency.
Other risk factors include:
- poor diet
- older age
- reduced ability to absorb food properly (malabsorption)
- bariatric (weight loss) surgery
- diabetes (and dialysis)
- genetic predisposition
- heart failure
- very high thyroid hormone levels
- extreme nausea during pregnancy
- cancers that spread throughout the body
Heavy drinking, however, is a common cause. According to the Alcohol and Drug Foundation, up to 80 percent of people with chronic alcoholism develop this deficiency.
Complications Of Alcohol-Related Thiamine Deficiency
Chronic, heavy drinking can disrupt how the body absorbs alcohol, due to ethanol’s effects on the gastrointestinal absorption of this nutrient, as well as stores of thiamine in the liver.
A lack of thiamine can have serious consequences, if chronic and left untreated.
Signs of a thiamine deficiency can include:
- loss of appetite
- short-term memory loss
- muscle weakness
- shortness of breath
- vision changes
- nausea and vomiting
- reduced reflexes
Low thiamine levels and continued alcohol abuse can also lead to the development of a condition of cognitive impairment that’s known as “wet brain.”
That’s a brain disorder clinically referred to as Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome, or Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS).
Alcohol Abuse And Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome
Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome are two stages of WKS. Both develop as a result of brain damage caused by a lack of thiamine, or vitamin B1.
Alcohol use disorder is a leading cause of this neurological disorder. Wernicke encephalopathy develops as a result of brain damage in the thalamus and hypothalamus.
Korsakoff syndrome, on the other hand, develops as a result of permanent damage to parts of the brain involved with memory.
Korsakoff syndrome develops after WE symptoms have gone away.
Signs And Symptoms Of Alcohol-Induced Wernicke Encephalopathy
Wernicke encephalopathy is the first stage of the condition known as “wet brain,” and can be life-threatening.
Symptoms of this can include:
- abnormal eye movements (nystagmus)
- double vision
- eyelid drooping
- loss of muscle coordination
- leg tremors
- alcohol withdrawal symptoms
Signs And Symptoms Of Alcohol-Induced Korsakoff Syndrome
Left untreated, or in severe cases, Wernicke encephalopathy can progress into Korsakoff syndrome, also known as Korsakoff psychosis.
Symptoms of Korsakoff syndrome include:
- memory loss
- making up stories
- being unable to form new memories
- seeing or hearing things that aren’t there (hallucinations)
Loss of consciousness and coma can also occur due to complications of heavy, chronic alcohol consumption.
Treatment For Alcohol-Induced Thiamine Deficiency
Chronic alcohol abuse, and its consequences, will require a treatment program that can offer both medical care and behavioral healthcare for a holistic recovery.
Treatment for thiamine deficiency might include:
- alcohol detox
- vitamin B1 supplements
- a nutritious diet (i.e. increased thiamine intake)
- medical monitoring
- hospitalization (for severe cases)
If you have alcohol use disorder, stopping your alcohol use may require seeking help through an alcohol treatment provider, such as an alcohol rehab center or counselor.
Alcohol detox can help prevent further loss of brain function, nerve damage, and get you to a place where you can work through a troubled relationship with alcohol.
Find An Alcohol Treatment Program Today
At DetoxRehabs.net, our staff can help you or a loved one find an alcohol addiction treatment program, including inpatient and outpatient options, that are capable of meeting your needs.
Don’t wait. Call our helpline today to find a quality alcohol detox program near you.Article Sources
- Alcohol and Drug Foundation — Alcohol related thiamine deficiency
- U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH): Office of Dietary Supplements — Thiamin - Health Professional Fact Sheet
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus — Beriberi
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus — Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome