Beriberi Treatment and Prevention | Cardiovascular Surgeon in Bangalore | Sakra World Hospital
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April, 2022

Beriberi Disease

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Beriberi is also known as thiamine deficiency, caused by a deficiency of vitamin B1. Your body requires thiamin to break down and digest the foods you eat, to maintain a healthy metabolism, and help your muscles and nervous system to perform their work effectively. A severe thiamine deficiency may prevent the body from performing these functions properly and can affect your central nervous system and cardiovascular system.

Beriberi is more common in developing countries among people who eat mostly white rice or highly refined carbohydrates.

There are two types of beriberi disease:

  • Wet Beriberi: It mainly affects the cardiovascular system, results in poor circulation and fluid buildup in the tissues.

  • Dry Beriberi: It primarily affects the nervous system, causing degeneration of the nerves. Degeneration typically starts in the arms and legs and may lead to muscle atrophy and loss of reflexes.

Who’s most at risk for beriberi?

You won't have to worry about being diagnosed with beriberi if you eat a varied and healthy diet. People who consume a lot of alcohol or struggle with alcohol addiction are more likely to be thiamin deficient. Excess alcohol can make it difficult for the body to absorb thiamin.

Other people at more risk for developing beriberi include:

  • Breastfed babies whose mothers are thiamine deficient

  • Those who take a high-carbohydrate diet, especially refined carbs

  • People who do physical activity or exercise on a regular basis

  • Anyone with hyperthyroidism condition, which might prevent thiamin absorption

  • People have digestive system issues that can interfere with nutrient absorption, particularly as they age 

  • Anyone with high levels of stress

If you're on dialysis or taking diuretics, your risk of beriberi may increase. Doctors typically take steps to observe thiamine levels during these treatments.

What are the symptoms of beriberi?

The symptoms of beriberi may differ depending on its type.

Symptoms of wet beriberi may include:

  • Increased heart rate

  • Shortness of breath

  • Waking during the night due to shortness of breath

  • Swelling in the legs and feet

  • Severe lack of energy or constant fatigue

Symptoms of dry beriberi may include:

  • Vomiting

  • Difficulty walking

  • Confusion

  • General pain and body aches

  • Numbness in the hands or feet

  • Paralysis in the lower legs

In rare, extreme cases of deficiency, beriberi may cause a condition known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. This syndrome is a type of brain damage that is caused by severe thiamine deficiency.

A person with Wernicke-Korsakoff  may experience other symptoms, including:

  • Memory loss or inability to form new memories

  • General confusion

  • Rapid eye movement

  • Involuntary eye movement

  • Blurred or double vision

  • Loss of muscle coordination

  • Hallucinations

What causes beriberi?

The beriberi is caused due to deficiency of thiamine in the diet. The disease is very rare in areas with access to vitamin-enriched foods like certain breakfast cereals and bread.

According to the National Institutes of Health, beriberi is most common in areas where the diet comprises unenriched, processed white rice, which has only a tenth of the thiamine found in brown rice.

How is beriberi diagnosed?

Your doctor may suggest some medical tests such as blood and urine tests to determine whether you have beriberi. These tests are done to measure the levels of thiamine in a person’s bloodstream to diagnose beriberi.

Doctors will also conduct a neurological exam to check for lack of coordination, droopy eyelids, difficulty walking and weak reflexes. People with later stages of beriberi will show some symptoms like memory loss, confusion, or delusions.

The doctor will also examine a person’s heart rate and breathing rate and check for swelling in the lower limbs or legs, which can indicate heart problems.

How is beriberi treated?

Beriberi can be easily treated with thiamine supplements. Your physician may prescribe a thiamine pill or shot for beriberi treatment and prevention. For severe cases, a healthcare expert will administer intravenous thiamine.

Your progress will be monitored with follow-up blood tests to check how well your body is absorbing the vitamin.




Dr Sreekanth Shetty

HOD & Senior Consultant - Interventional Cardiology

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