Vitamin B1 – Key to a Healthy Brain

Vitamins can be confusing, especially those of the B group - there are so many of them, and they are all essential... for something. Take B1, or thiamine, for example - what does it do, how much do you need, how do you get it? Read on for clear answers.

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What is a vitamin?

In short, a vitamin is an organic compound that is necessary for your health but that your body cannot produce by itself. Thus, the same chemical can be a vitamin for humans but not, say, for dogs (which make their own vitamin C, for example).

Vitamins are divided into fat-soluble, which can be stored in the fat cells (like vitamins E and A), and water-soluble, which are flushed out with urine and need constant replenishment. All B vitamins are water-soluble, so you need to get them with food every day.

The role of thiamine

Vitamin B1, or thiamine, actually works together with other B vitamins, which are mostly responsible for metabolism. Thiamine helps turn carbohydrates into glucose – the primary fuel for our brain and nervous system. Glucose is made whenever we eat carbs – pasta, cereals, bread, rice, etc. (by the way, remember that a diet without carbs is not good for you and can endanger your brain function!).

An adult male needs 1.2 mg of B1 daily, while a female needs 1.1 mg (more on intake recommendations here). Deficiency of B1 can have bad consequences for the brain and memory, in extreme cases leading to Wernicke-Korsakoff disease, when memory is impaired permanently. In general, however, thiamine deficiency is not common: usually it is found among alcoholics, pregnant women, and those suffering from anorexia and Crohn’s disease.

Best sources of B1

Thiamine-rich foods include lean meat (especially pork), legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, eggs, tuna and trout. Many foods made with flour, such as bread and pasta, are fortified with vitamin B1. You don’t need to work hard to get your daily value of B1, but good examples of thiamine-boosting meals would be a dish of roasted pork with beans or a dish of whole millet or pearl barley with a fried egg on top (read more recipes rich in B vitamins).

Novel approaches

Some recent studies show that B1 can have many more uses:

  • Prevent Alzheimer’s disease and dementia – the link between thiamine and cognitive functions has been known for decades, but new research suggests that B1 can be used to prevent cognitive decline;
  • Help kidneys – many diabetes patients develop kidney disease, but British scientists show  that B1 can help reverse kidney damage;
    • Lower the risk of cataract – according to a 2000 study, higher intakes of various vitamins, including B1, reduce the risk of cataract in older people.

Should you take supplements?

Vitamin supplements are a $28 billion business in the US, but in fact you only need them if you have a deficiency or a chronic disease. For the rest of us, nothing can replace a varied and healthy diet. What’s more, it is still not clear if our body can absorb vitamins from pills as well as from food. Make sure to include enough legumes, vegetables, dairy, and fish in your diet, and you will never experience a deficiency of B1.

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