It is easy to witness the damaging effects of alcohol when you see someone slurring their speech or suffering from impaired motor skills, but there are other aspects that are hidden to the casual observer. Research has been ongoing in regards to the chronic use of alcohol and how it leads to B vitamin deficiencies. Without the proper placement of these vitamins, notably thiamine, the body will be greatly impaired and affected.
What Is Thiamine?
Also called vitamin B1, this essential nutrient is needed by all tissues, especially those within the brain. It is found in foods like pork, poultry, nuts, peas, dried beans, soybeans, and cereals that contain whole grains; most people consume some of these daily. In addition to these sources of naturally occurring thiamine, many foods are fortified with this important vitamin. Most average Americans consume enough thiamine in their daily diets. An article published by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), recommends a daily allowance of 1.2 mg/day for men and 1.1 mg/day for women.
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This vitamin must be gleaned from a person’s diet, as the human body does not produce it by itself. Thiamine is found in high qualities in skeletal muscles, and various critical organs, including the kidney, liver, heart, and brain. Thiamine and the enzymes that depend on it are contained within all of your body’s cells.
Why Does Alcohol Use Or Addiction Alter Thiamine Levels?
Thiamine deficiency is fairly common with people who suffer from alcohol addiction, due to:
- The overall poor nutrition these individuals may encounter.
- Alcohol inhibiting a person’s ability to fully absorb the necessary nutrients from their food.
- Cells struggling to uptake this vitamin.
- Your body’s cells having a reduced ability to properly use thiamine in cellular functions.
Around 80% of those with alcohol addiction have a decline in thiamine. Due to its widespread prevalence within your body, a lack of thiamine affects every organ system. What really stands out though, is how the nervous system and the heart are much more influenced by the lack of thiamine they receive than the rest of the body.
Thiamine Deficiency And Its Impact On The Nervous System
Thiamine is also necessary for the function of several enzymes that metabolize sugar molecules into molecules that are needed in important physiological processes. These enzymes are also highly needed for the production of specific brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. Without them, these chemical messengers struggle to function in the proper way. When these enzymes struggle due to a thiamine deficiency, your body cannot fully block the damage done by harmful, reactive oxygen molecules called free radicals.
The deficiency of thiamine can have devastating results on the brain of a person if they aren’t aware of what’s happening and don’t take action to stop it. One study, originally published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research sought to determine if, as the study’s lead author Philip J. Langlais, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, professor of neurosciences at the University of California – San Diego, put it, “you took thiamine deficiency and combined it with chronic alcohol intake, would you then create a situation that would produce a more severe impairment of cognition and memory than you would with either thiamine deficiency alone or exposure to chronic alcohol ingestion alone.”
With the use of a rat subject, it was discovered that sometimes they did find a combined effect. They found that “Learning and reference memory appear to be sensitive to a synergistic interaction,” whereas, the short-term memory only appeared to be affected by the alcohol itself. The neurological symptoms were linked mostly with the thiamine deficiency.
Nerve cells (neurons) are thirsty for thiamine and require it to function properly, as do glial cells, another type of cell within the nervous system. Beyond this, a thiamine deficiency can cause even more severe dangers to a person’s brain. A National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism publication, “The Role of Thiamine Deficiency in Alcoholic Brain Disease,” speaks of the various types of alcohol-induced brain injury that can result in this situation. These include “various degrees of cognitive impairment, including the most severe, alcohol-induced persisting dementia (i.e., “alcoholic dementia”).”
Scientists theorize that cerebellar degeneration, or atrophy of various parts of the cerebellum region of the brain, is caused by a lack of thiamine. This condition may cause problems with a person’s muscle and movement coordination, cognitive issues, and abilities related to your senses, including difficulties with the involuntary movement of your eyes.
Some of these deficient individuals end up developing a serious brain disorder called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS). This disease has two distinct syndromes: a shorter, though dire condition called Wernicke’s encephalopathy, and a prolonged and incapacitating condition known as Korsakoff’s psychosis.
Wernicke’s encephalopathy symptoms include, as explained by NIAAA, “mental confusion, paralysis of the nerves that move the eyes (i.e., oculomotor disturbances), and an impaired ability to coordinate movements, particularly of the lower extremities (i.e., ataxia).” They continue to tell us that it may be so severe, that a patient may struggle to walk or navigate their way out of a room, due to their confused state. It is estimated that 80-90% of those with this condition move on to develop Korsakoff’s psychosis.
Korsakoff’s psychosis is a chronic and disabling condition characterized by learning and memory problems and behavioral changes. Patients who develop Korsakoff’s psychosis easily forget things and become frustrated very quickly. Old information may be hard to grasp for these patients, but what’s even more shocking is their difficulty with retaining new information as well.
The patient may speak to someone in great depth, only to have forgotten ever having the conversation. A person may also struggle to coordinate their movements and mobility during this affliction. At the early stages of WKS, dispensing thiamine helps to raise brain function, but when the brain damage is extensive, in 25% of cases, a person may require long-term care or support, due to permanent brain damage.
Additional Health Risks Due To B Vitamin Deficiency
Another manifestation of the lack of thiamine is actually a thiamine deficiency–related heart disease, which NIAAA tells us, causes “increased blood flow through the vessels in the body, heart failure, and sodium and water retention in the blood.”
Alcohol exerts an impact on yet another crucial B vitamin, vitamin B12. This vitamin also impacts critical enzymatic functions. If these are impeded, a certain damaging chemical may build up in a person’s body, called homocysteine. When levels of this become too high, a person may be at risk of cardiovascular concerns such as stroke and heart attack, and also megaloblastic anemia.
The American Cancer Society suggests that a deficiency in another important B vitamin, folate, may be linked to a heightened risk of breast cancer in women. This is important to consider, as alcohol alone has been implicated in increased risks of this form of cancer.
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If you or a loved one needs alcohol addiction treatment, we are here to help. Contact us today for more information and resources on what you can do to prevent further health problems and diseases associated with B deficiency or alcohol use.