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How Vitamin B1 Works

What Is Vitamin B1?

Beriberi, a debilitating, often fatal ailment, wasn't a serious health problem among the rice-eating peoples of Asia until the end of the 19th century. But then mills began to polish rice -- a process that removes the outer brown layers of the grain, leaving behind smooth, white kernels. Rice stripped of this outer layer of bran has lost much of its thiamin.

Soon after the practice of refining began, the incidence of beriberi rose to epidemic levels in Asia. A similar situation occurred in countries where wheat was a dietary staple when refined white flour began to replace whole-wheat flour. The increased prevalence of beriberi spurred efforts to find its cause and cure. Still, the search took almost 50 years.

Polished rice is missing its outer layer of bran, stripping it of much of its thiamin.
© 2007 Publications International, Ltd.
Polished rice is missing its outer layer of bran, stripping it of much of its thiamin.

A medical officer in the Japanese navy, named K. Takaki, was the first to suspect the relationship between diet and beriberi. In the 1880s, Takaki began investigating the disease, which afflicted large numbers of Japanese sailors on long voyages -- a situation reminiscent of scurvy (see page 216). To test his belief that diet was at fault, Takaki added meat and milk to the rice diet of the sailors. Only a few men came down with the malady -- those who refused to eat the milk and meat.

Further evidence came from Java, where the Dutch physician Cristiaan Eijkman found that chickens fed polished rice exhibited symptoms similar to those of beriberi. When he fed the chickens unpolished rice, the symptoms disappeared. Eijkman then tried the same thing on people and confirmed that unpolished rice could prevent and cure beriberi.

Still, it wasn't until 1910 that a search for the mystery substance in unpolished rice began in earnest. Chemist Robert Williams analyzed liquid extracted from rice polishings, painstakingly testing each substance from it for its effect on polyneuritis -- the chicken disease similar to beriberi. In 1934, Williams isolated the substance that would solve the beriberi riddle: the vitamin thiamin.


Like other B-complex vitamins, thiamin acts as a biological catalyst, or coenzyme. As a coenzyme, thiamin participates in the long chain of reactions that provides energy and heat for the body. It also helps the body manufacture fats and metabolize protein, and it is needed for the normal functioning of the nervous system.

In addition to preventing beriberi, thiamin might also be useful for people suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Go to the next page to learn more about thiamin's therapeutic value.

You need a balance of essential vitamins to maintain overall health. Visit the links below to learn more about these vital nutrients.
  • In How Biotin Works, learn how biotin acts as a coenzyme in several metabolic reactions, such as the metabolism of fats and carbohydrates.
  • Read How Folate Works to learn about folacin, folic acid, and folate and how a folate deficiency can cause megaloblastic anemia.
  • Vitamin B12, also called cyanocobalamin or cobalamin, is essential because it assists folate in making DNA and RNA. Read more in How Vitamin B12 Works.
  • Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, is good for more than just easing the common cold. Learn more in How Vitamin C Works.
  • Vitamin D is necessary to hold of rickets, but if you get enough sunshine, your body can make its own vitamin D supply. Learn more in How Vitamin D Works.

  • To learn about the many vitamins in our diet, how much you should be eating, and where to find them, go to our general Vitamins page.
  • If you're looking for the best prices on B vitamins, click here.
This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.