Beriberi: symptoms of thiamine deficiency in the body

Beriberi is a pathology that can affect multiple structures in the body and cause severe complications. Fortunately, people can prevent its occurrence by making simple changes to their diet.

Last update: 05 November, 2021

The body needs vitamins to function properly, so the deficiency of these compounds generates the appearance of multiple conditions. Beriberi is a pathology that appears as a result of a deficiency of vitamin B1, which can be fatal if not treated in time.

Vitamin B1 or thiamine is a compound that belongs to the B complex vitamins. This substance plays a fundamental role both in obtaining energy from carbohydrates and in muscle contraction.

Beriberi can affect the cardiovascular and nervous systems. Children from underdeveloped countries are very prone to suffering from the pathology.

Beriberi symptoms

The main symptoms of vitamin B1 deficiency will depend on the form of presentation of the disease. In general terms, There are 3 types of beriberi and each of them affects different organs or ages.

1. Wet beriberi

This form of manifestation is characterized by affecting the cardiovascular system. In fact, studies show that wet beriberi is capable of generating congestive heart failure.

The main symptom presented by people with wet beriberi is edema in the lower limbs. The edema is usually soft, depressible, not painful, and without redness.

In addition, it can affect the whole body in the most severe cases. Other of the most common clinical manifestations of this form of presentation are the following:

  • Palpitations
  • incrise of cardiac frecuency.
  • Chest pain.
  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Chronic fatigue or sudden tiredness.
The wet form of the disorder presents with accumulation of fluids in the body in the form of edema.

2. Dry beriberi

Symptoms of dry beriberi are related to a nervous system condition. This form of presentation is capable of causing degeneration of the nerves, so that people have muscle atrophy and loss of reflexes.

Other frequently referred clinical manifestations are the following:

  • Loss of sensation in affected limbs.
  • General pain
  • Decreased muscle tone.
  • Paralysis in the legs.
  • Confusion.
  • Vomiting

3. Children’s beriberi

Childhood beriberi tends to affect children between 2 and 6 months of age. The pathology appears due to an insufficient supply of thiamine through breast milk.

Babies develop dyspnea and cyanosis in the acute phase. Also, they may have heart failure.

Secondly, babies often have aphonia in the chronic phase. In this sense, the child makes movements to cry, but does not make any sound.

Causes of the disorder

The main cause of this pathology is a insufficient supply of thiamine through the diet or systemic alterations that prevent its absorption. Beriberi is a very rare pathology in developed countries, since most of the commercialized foods are fortified with vitamin B1.

Multiple studies show that the population most at risk is chronic alcoholics. Alcohol is capable of altering the functioning of the gastrointestinal system and preventing the correct absorption of thiamine present in food. There is also a genetic condition that prevents the absorption of thiamine, causing genetic beriberi.

Other groups that are at great risk of developing it are the following:

  • People whose main source of food is rice and ground cereals.
  • Seniors.
  • Patients with HIV / AIDS, diabetes or hyperthyroidism.
  • People who have undergone bariatric surgery.
  • Pregnant with profuse diarrhea and vomiting.

Possible consequences

The complications or consequences of beriberi appear when the initial symptoms are not treated in a timely manner, so the damage to the affected organs progresses. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is the most severe complication of the central nervous system.

Studies show that the syndrome in question encompasses two different pathologies: Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s syndrome. Wernicke encephalopathy damages certain brain regions known as thalamus and hypothalamus, which can cause the following symptoms:

  • Loss of memory.
  • Confusion.
  • Visual problems.
  • Loss of muscle coordination.

For its part, Korsakoff encephalopathy permanently damages the memory-related area of ​​the brain. In this sense, the main symptom presented is retrograde or antegrade amnesia.

Beriberi treatment

The goal of beriberi treatment is increase the concentration of thiamine in the body. In this sense, doctors will indicate the administration of the vitamin exogenously, through tablets or injections.

People should have blood tests periodically throughout treatment, in order to monitor thiamine levels. Doses of vitamin B1 should be decreased gradually as the blood level approaches normal.

Possible complications presented by vitamin B1 deficiency should be treated symptomatically. Fortunately, damage to the heart and peripheral nerves is usually reversible.

Foods rich in vitamin B1 are varied, but there are also countries that fortify commercial flours and milk with the nutrient.


The best way to prevent the appearance of beriberi is increase your intake of foods rich in thiamine. The recommended daily intake of vitamin B1 for men is 1.2 milligrams, while for women it is 1.1 milligrams.

People should increase their intake of the following products:

  • Red meat
  • Nuts and dried fruits.
  • Yogurt.
  • Grains and legumes.
  • Dairy products.
  • Fish and seafood.

Secondly, mothers should ensure that their children’s formula contains adequate levels of thiamine. To do this, it will only be necessary to review the label in detail and read all the components of the product.

Beriberi: a rare and deadly pathology

The incidence of beriberi worldwide is low because most of the commercialized foods are fortified with thiamine. However, some people, such as chronic alcoholics, are more likely to develop the disturbance.

The symptoms of beriberi affect both the heart and the nervous system, so irreversible damage can be caused if it is not treated in a timely manner. In this sense, it is important to seek specialized medical assistance as soon as possible if there are indicative symptoms.

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