What is Beriberi?

Beriberi is a disease that’s caused due to severe deficiency in thiamin, which is also known as vitamin B1. The word has been derived from the Sinhalese language and translates to ‘extreme weakness’, which is the primary symptom of this disease. Other symptoms that individuals with this disease experience include loss of muscle, loss of coordination, shortness of breath, swollen feet and legs, and loss of appetite. The primary cause of beriberi is extreme malnutrition due to poor diet. However, too much alcohol consumption is also a known cause of this disease. The treatment protocol for beriberi involves consuming vitamin B1 supplements and foods rich in the vitamin, such as beans and wholegrains.

  • Wet Beriberi

Wet beriberi affects your heart and circulatory system. It causes poor blood circulation and fluid build-up in the tissues.

  • Dry Beriberi

Dry beriberi affects your nerves, which results in decreased muscle strength and ultimately muscle paralysis. It begins in the legs and arms and can cause loss of reflexes and muscle atrophy.

If you eat a normal, healthy diet that is rich in nutrients, your body gets enough thiamine. Thiamine helps in bodily functions such as muscle contractions, creating glucose, breaking down carbohydrates, creating acids that aid digestion, and more. When you suffer from beriberi, the body finds it difficult to perform these functions.

However, beriberi does not have to be life-threatening when treated on time. In this article, we have discussed beriberi causes, diagnosis, treatment, and preventive measures in detail. Let us begin by understanding the symptoms of beriberi.

Symptoms of Beriberi

Beriberi symptoms vary depending on their type. The following table gives a brief overview of the same.





Wet Beriberi Symptoms

  • Constant fatigue

  • Shortness of breath

  • Increased/rapid heart rate

  • Swelling in legs and feet

  • Waking up in the night due to shortness of breath






Dry Beriberi Symptoms

  • Body ache

  • Difficulty in walking, speaking

  • Vomiting

  • Feeling of numbness in hands and feet

  • Paralysis in lower legs; decreased muscle function

  • Mental confusion

  • Involuntary eye movement

In some severe cases, beriberi is also associated with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome are two forms of brain damage caused by thiamine deficiency.

If beriberi leads to Wernicke encephalopathy, the thalamus and hypothalamus regions of the brain are affected. The symptoms can include the following:

  • Loss of memory or inability to retain new memories

  • General confusion

  • Involuntary eye movements

  • Blurred or double vision

  • Loss of muscle coordination

  • Hallucination

Causes of Beriberi

Beriberi is caused due to thiamine deficiency, which occurs due to poor dietary habits. If you have access to vitamin-rich foods such as cereals, bread, and more, then there are fewer chances of you getting this condition. However, there are also other factors that lead to thiamine deficiency and cause beriberi. These include:

  • Alcohol misuse; excess consumption of alcohol makes it harder for your body to absorb and store the required amount of thiamine

  • Even though rare, beriberi can also be genetic and prevent your body from absorbing thiamine

  • Hyperthyroidism

  • Extreme levels of nausea and vomiting during a pregnancy

  • AIDS

  • Bariatric surgery

  • Prolonged diarrhoea

  • Use of diuretics

  • Kidney dialysis

For breastfeeding mothers, it is important to have a thiamine-rich diet. If not, the newborn can be at risk of beriberi due to thiamine deficiency. Hence, it is vital to consume foods that are high in Vitamin B-1.

Diagnosis of Beriberi

You can reach out to the doctor if you face one or more of the above symptoms. However, your doctor will perform a series of tests to determine if you have beriberi. These will include blood and urine tests to measure the levels of thiamine in your body. If you are deficient, then you will have a low concentration of the vitamin in your blood and a high concentration of it in your urine.

There will also be a neurological examination wherein the doctor might look for lack of movement and coordination in your body, droopy eyelids, weak reflexes, difficulty in walking, and more. This examination would help diagnose the stage of the disease. The later stages of beriberi are associated with memory loss, mental confusion, or delusions. A physical exam will also help the doctor gauge any heart problems you might have.

Treatment for Beriberi

One of the most effective ways to treat beriberi is through thiamine supplements, as the primary objective is to increase the thiamine levels in the body. The doctor may prescribe pills or a shot, depending on the patient’s overall health. If it is a severe case, then the doctor will administer intravenous thiamine. The recovery and progress will be monitored through follow-up blood tests.

Treating beriberi at an early stage helps avoid damage to the heart and nervous system caused due to the disease. If the patient has Vitamin B1 deficiency for a longer time, a few beriberi symptoms may persist even after the treatment.

Tips to Prevent Beriberi

One of the easiest ways to prevent beriberi is to have a nutritious and balanced diet that includes food such as:

  • Beans and legumes

  • Seeds

  • Meat and fish

  • Nuts

  • Dairy

  • Whole grains

  • Vegetables rich in vitamins such as beet greens, spinach, brussels sprouts

  • Breakfast cereals rich in thiamine

Drinking rice bran, i.e. the water that is drained after boiling rice, is also helpful in maintaining thiamine levels. Whole grain brown bread is also known to increase the levels of thiamine. Baked potatoes too are also rich in vitamin B1. So, make sure you add them to your daily diet. Another way to prevent beriberi is by limiting your alcohol consumption. It is also recommended to routinely check your vitamin B-1 levels if you consume alcohol.

Final Thoughts

Prevention is always better than cure. In the case of Beriberi, simple, healthy living practices, such as eating a balanced diet and limiting negative lifestyle habits, can save you from this life-threatening condition. However, if you feel you need to be prepared for any kind of medical emergency, you can consult your health insurance provider and enquire whether beriberi treatments are included in your coverage.

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