As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, one of the most interesting (and effective) ways to understand nutrition is looking at the history of the field. Several nutrients have origin stories worth sharing. Thiamin, also known as vitamin B1, is another example of this.
In the 1800’s, a serious condition called “beriberi” devastated certain populations in Southeast Asia. Symptoms included weight loss, impaired motor function, heart problems, mood disturbances, edema, poor appetite, and, eventually, death. Germ theory, the understanding that bacteria could cause disease in humans, was discovered in the 1800’s. This led many scientists of the time to believe that the cause of beriberi was infectious, a belief supported by the recurrence of the condition in certain, specific populations – like prisons.
A prison was the site of the scientific breakthrough that unmasked the true cause of beriberi. A Dutch researcher named Christiaan Eijkman finally solved the puzzle in 1897. He traveled to Indonesia to study a prison where outbreaks of beriberi were common. With him he brought chickens, which he used as his “lab rats” to help identify the cause of the condition. His attempts at infecting chickens with the disease first appeared successful – unfortunately his control group (which was not injected with “infected” blood) also became ill.
Eijkman’s error was that he was looking for the presence of something – like a germ – to cause illness. No one had considered that the absence of something could be the true cause. Eijkman was tipped off when his sick chickens finally recovered. Searching for the reason for the rapid recovery, Eijkman was informed that the chickens’ diets had been changed from polished (white) rice to unpolished (brown) rice. While polished/white rice was the preferred form of the food at the time, polishing the rice removed the brown outer covering as well as all the thiamin. Eijkman recommended the prisoners be fed unpolished/brown rice, and quickly the condition disappeared.
Beriberi is not nearly as common anymore thanks to our more varied diet and improved understanding of our nutritional needs. Quality sources of thiamin include whole grains, meat, and fish. Most white rice now even has thiamin, thanks to an enriching process. Alcohol destroys thiamin, however, so chronic alcohol consumption can lead to the potentially fatal condition.