Vitamin B1, also known as thiamin, is classified as a B-complex vitamin. Very small amounts of vitamin B1 are found in virtually all foods, and many commonly eaten foods contain substantial amounts.
Yet there is a possibility of a high risk of deficiency despite the widespread availability of vitamin B1 in foods, and that reason is food processing. Vitamin B1 is among the nutrients most prone to destruction by our modern food production system. At each step along the way, from storage though refining up through cooking, we lose a big portion of the vitamin B1 content of foods.
For these reasons, vitamin B1 makes a good case study for the wisdom of a healthy approach of minimal processing and low impact cooking techniques.
Like the other B vitamins, B1 is a key player in the production of energy from dietary carbohydrates and fats. In fact, you could easily make the case that vitamin B1 plays the most critical role of all, acting as the gate keeper between the less efficient step of early carbohydrate breakdown and the very energy-rich Krebs’ cycle and electron transport chain.
Because of the central role of vitamin B1 to energy metabolism, deficiency of this nutrient impairs nearly every important function in the body. Severe and prolonged vitamin B1 deficiency—rare in the United States—has been reported to affect the nervous system, the heart, and digestive function, among other areas.
The brain is one of the most energy hungry tissues in the human body. As such, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see vitamin B1 deficiency commonly leading to problems in the nervous system. The only surprise may be that this vitamin has been linked to so many varied conditions, from alcohol-related brain disease to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
In addition to its role in energy production, vitamin B1 plays a key role in the structure and integrity of the cells of the brain. If the deficiency is very advanced, or occurs at a critical period of brain development, the damage can be quite severe.