The human body relies on 13 different vitamins to function properly. Of these, eight are B vitamins, which are involved in brain health, cognitive function, and the nervous system. And vitamin B1 plays a particularly important role in our everyday lives.

Here, we’ll explain exactly what vitamin B1 is, why we need it, and how to make sure you’re getting enough.

What is vitamin B1?

What is vitamin B1?

Vitamin B1 (also known as thiamin or thiamine) is one of the eight essential B vitamins. It plays a key role in several important health functions including energy production, growth and development, and cellular function. All body tissues require vitamin B1 to function properly.

Like all other B vitamins, thiamine is water-soluble. This means it dissolves in water and therefore can’t be stored in the body – so you need to consume it daily to stay healthy. In fact, research shows that the body can store only 20 days worth of thiamine at any given time.

Why is vitamin B1 important for health?

Why is vitamin B1 important for health?

Vitamin B1 is an essential vitamin because it’s involved in the normal functioning of the heart, kidneys, liver, brain, and skeletal muscles – among other things.

Let’s take a look at some of the most impressive health benefits of vitamin B1 below…

Vitamin B1 is important for a healthy metabolism

Vitamin B1 plays an important role in energy production because it converts the carbohydrates we eat into glucose. Glucose is the body’s preferred source of energy to keep our metabolism running smoothly.

We also need vitamin B1 to create adenosine triphosphate (ATP) – the body’s main energy-carrying molecule.

Vitamin B1 can boost our immune system

Because of its involvement in various health functions, vitamin B1 is key in boosting the immune system.

For example, B1 plays a role in maintaining muscle along the walls of the digestive tract, where a significant percentage of our immune system is located. A healthy digestive tract means the body receives all of the nutrients it needs to boost our immunity, which reduces our chances of becoming ill.

According to studies, vitamin B1’s effect on the immune system can reduce the risk of health conditions like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, kidney disease, cancer, mental illness, and neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s.

Vitamin B1 can protect and boost brain function

Research has found that B1 deficiency can negatively impact the cerebellum – which is the region of the brain responsible for cognitive functions including attention, language, fear regulation, and procedural memory.

Procedural memories are when skills learnt by repetition become subconscious – for example, driving or cycling.

However, upping your intake of vitamin B1 has been shown to improve the brain-body connection and help protect against a form of brain damage known as cerebellar syndrome. It does this by supporting the development of the myelin sheath – an insulating layer made of protein and fatty substances that wrap around nerves to protect them from damage.

B1 has also been noted for its ability to improve brain functioning – particularly concentration and memory.

Vitamin B1 may help to treat and prevent Alzheimer’s disease

More recently, it’s become clear that diet and lifestyle play a significant role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. And, according to experts, making sure that your diet contains enough B vitamins is one of the most important dietary decisions you can make when it comes to preventing the disease.

Vitamin B1 is key for brain health because the brain needs it to turn glucose into energy – without energy, brain cells will begin to die. The brain also needs B1 to make acetylcholine – the main neurotransmitter that Alzheimer’s patients are deficient in.

Research has suggested that sufficient intake of vitamin B1 could help to treat, slow down, or even prevent memory decline associated with Alzheimer’s.

Vitamin B1 may help to treat and prevent Alzhiemer’s disease

Vitamin B1 can support people with diabetes

The body needs vitamin B1 to convert carbohydrates into glucose, so having low levels of B1 can impact glucose control. This explains why people with diabetes often have lower levels of vitamin B1, because high blood sugar levels cause the kidneys to excrete the vitamin at a rate 25 times higher than normal.

As a result, research has revealed that people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes have around 75% lower levels of vitamin B1.

However, there’s evidence that increasing your intake of vitamin B1 could help to reverse microalbuminuria. Microalbuminuria is a common complication of diabetes and an early sign of kidney disease where albumin protein passes through the kidneys and into the urine. For example, in this study, taking an oral B1 supplement decreased the levels of albumin protein in the urine by 34%

Vitamin B1 can help reduce the risk of heart disease

Our entire cardiovascular system relies on vitamin B1 to function properly. This is because B1 plays a role in the production of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is responsible for transferring messages between muscles and nerves – ensuring heart function.

In this study, when B1 was given to people suffering from congestive heart failure intravenously for seven days, they experienced considerable improvements in heart function. This suggests that the vitamin could help to prevent, or at least slow down, the development of heart disease.

Other studies have suggested that vitamin B1 could delay the progression of heart failure, and improve healing after a heart attack.

Vitamin B1’s role in helping to treat diabetes should also be noted here, as according to studies, adults with diabetes are two to four times more likely to die from heart disease. But, research has revealed that vitamin B1 could help to reduce the risk of heart disease caused by diabetes.

Vitamin B1 can help combat stress, anxiety, and depression

Like other B vitamins, B1 is sometimes called an ‘anti-stress’ vitamin because it can help to boost the immune system and improve our ability to withstand stressful situations.

This is largely down to B1’s ability to decrease and regulate oxidative stress (the imbalance of antioxidants and harmful molecules known as free radicals, which causes inflammation). This is significant because oxidative stress is linked with emotional stress.

For example, this study of older adults with generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) found that they all had low levels of B1 in their blood. However, having daily injections of vitamin B1 was found to improve anxiety and general wellbeing.

Vitamin B1 has also been shown to boost mood and help combat depression. In this study, B1 helped to reduce symptoms of major depressive disorder and prevent mood swings related to work stress.

Vitamin B1 supports eye health

Research has suggested that vitamin B1 can support eye health and reduce the risk of conditions like cataracts and glaucoma. Both cataracts and glaucoma cause a loss of muscle and nerve signalling between the brain and eyes.

Vitamin B1 helps to stimulate the connection between the eyes and brain. And when taken alongside other essential nutrients, B1 can help to prevent damage to the optic nerve – a condition that often leads to vision loss.

For example, this study of 2,900 people found that a diet high in vitamin B1 reduced the risk of developing cataracts by 40%.

Vitamin B1 can improve digestive health

Vitamin B1 plays an assistive role in the production of hydrochloric acid (stomach acid), which is essential for the proper breakdown and absorption of food.

Research has found that B1 helps to maintain muscle tone in the stomach and intestines, and prevent constipation. It also nourishes the digestive organs, regulates appetite, and helps the body get maximum nutrition from food.

How can I get enough vitamin B1?

How can I get enough vitamin B1?

Vitamin B1 isn’t stored in the body, so it’s important to get a continuous supply through your diet. According to the NHS, men need 1mg and women 0.8mg of vitamin B1 a day.

B1 is found in both plant and animal-based foods – but animal foods like meat, poultry, and shellfish tend to contain slightly more. Grains are good sources of vitamin B1, but it’s best to consume them in their whole, unprocessed form.

Some vitamin B1-rich foods include…

  • Pork (0.7mg per 100g)
  • Salmon (0.3mg per 100g)
  • Green peas (0.3mg per 100g)
  • Mussels (0.3mg per 100g)
  • Asparagus (0.3mg per 100g)

Other foods high in B1 include: beef, tuna, trout, beans, lentils, sunflower seeds, sweet potatoes, chicken, oranges, and whole grains.

Vitamin B1 is also added to other foods through fortification – for example, in pasta, bread, rice, fortified breakfast cereals, and flour.

Most people can get sufficient amounts of B1 from their diet but for those who need it, supplementation is an option.

However, if you want to start taking a supplement, it’s important to speak with your doctor first as over consumption of vitamin B1 can be dangerous. To maintain a healthy balance of B vitamins in your system, health professionals often advise healthy adults to take B complex vitamins over individual B supplements.

What are the symptoms of vitamin B1 deficiency and who’s at risk?

What are the symptoms of vitamin B1 deficiency and who’s at risk?

Not consuming enough vitamin B1 can cause deficiency. This can happen in as little as three weeks and can affect the heart, immune system, and nervous system.

Vitamin B1 deficiency is fairly uncommon in healthy adults with access to B1-rich foods. However, some factors can increase your risk.

These include…

  • Certain medical conditions – such as alcoholism, Crohn’s disease, and anorexia.
  • People undergoing dialysis for their kidneys or taking loop diuretics because these procedures can release thiamine from the body.
  • Particular foods and dietary habits – such as drinking a lot of tea or coffee (including decaf), eating lots of raw fish and shellfish, and chewing on tea leaves or betel nuts – can cancel out the body’s use of vitamin B1 and increase the risk of deficiency.

Signs of vitamin B1 deficiency can be easy to overlook as they can be vague or mimic symptoms of other conditions.

Some of the most common symptoms include…

  • Headaches
  • Loss of appetite
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Depression
  • Abdominal discomfort
  • Nausea and vomiting

Having very low vitamin B1 levels can also lead to health issues like beriberi and Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.

Beriberi is caused by a buildup of pyruvic acid in the bloodstream – a side-effect of the body not being able to turn food into energy. The condition affects breathing, heart function, eye movements, and alertness.

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a combination of two separate disorders. Wernicke’s disease affects the nervous system and can cause a lack of muscle coordination, visual impairment, and mental decline. If left untreated, Wernicke’s disease can lead to Korsakoff syndrome, which permanently impairs memory function in the brain.

Both Beriberi and Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome can be treated with vitamin B1 supplements or injections.

Final thoughts…

We all want to do what we can to stay healthy – and making sure we’re getting enough essential vitamins and minerals is an important way to do this.

Vitamin B1 is one of these essential nutrients and it brings many health benefits, including a reduced risk of heart disease and improving mood.

For more information on essential vitamins and minerals (including other B vitamins like B3 and B7), head over to the diet and nutrition section of our website.

Do you think you get enough vitamin B1? Or do you have any other tips for staying healthy? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.