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Thiamine (vitamin B1) is an essential nutrient that helps the body convert food into energy. It is vital for the nerves, muscles, brain, and heart. The body itself does not produce thiamine, so it must be obtained through a person’s diet. People who use alcohol often struggle with thiamine deficiency, which can have serious consequences.

How Is Thiamine Affected By Alcohol Use?

Many people who use alcohol do not have a healthy diet. Alcohol replaces many of the calories they would get from nutrient-dense food. They may neglect eating regular meals, especially if they are addicted to alcohol and drinking all day long. Alcohol also interferes with the absorption of thiamine in the gastrointestinal tract. Even if someone consumes enough thiamine in their diet or through supplements, their body may have a hard time using it because of their heavy drinking. [middle-callout]

Alcohol And Thiamine Deficiency

Up to 80 percent of people who are addicted to alcohol have a thiamine deficiency, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Because thiamine is so crucial to normal bodily functions, a lack of it can lead to adverse health effects, such as beriberi, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, and Alzheimer’s disease.


Beriberi is the most common result of thiamine deficiency. There are two types: wet beriberi and dry beriberi. Wet beriberi is rare. It affects the cardiovascular system and can lead to congestive heart failure. Symptoms include shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, and swelling in the legs from reduced blood flow. If caught in time, damage to the heart may be reversed, but this is unlikely in cases of heart failure. Dry beriberi affects the nervous system and is related to Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Some symptoms are confusion, pain, loss of coordination, numbness in hands and feet, and irregular eye movement. These effects may be treated, but do not always resolve.

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome may occur in severe cases of thiamine deficiency. This nerve and brain disease is made up of two conditions. Wernicke encephalopathy occurs first, and Korsakoff syndrome follows as the initial symptoms subside. Wernicke encephalopathy symptoms may be:
  • confusion
  • low mental function
  • loss of coordination and tremors
  • strange changes in vision
  • alcohol withdrawal
This condition can lead to coma and death from a lack of brain activity. In many cases, Wernicke encephalopathy progresses to Korsakoff syndrome, with symptoms like:
  • inability to form new memories
  • inventing stories
  • memory loss
  • hallucinations
  • psychosis
While the symptoms of Wernicke encephalopathy may be reversed through treatment, the effects of Korsakoff syndrome (such as memory loss) are likely to be permanent.

Alzheimer’s Disease

Some studies show that thiamine deficiency is linked to Alzheimer’s disease. The NIH notes that lack of thiamine puts stress on neurons (nerve cells) and kills them. It also alters glucose metabolism and contributes to memory loss, which are common indicators of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Treatment For Thiamine Deficiency

A person can treat thiamine deficiency from alcohol use in three primary ways: by stopping alcohol consumption, eating a balanced diet, and taking vitamin B1 supplements. Foods that contain thiamine include fish, meat, and whole grains. Dairy, fruits, and vegetables contain small amounts of thiamine that can be significant if consumed often. In severe cases, a person may need intravenous (IV) injections of thiamine. If they do not stop drinking alcohol, though, increasing their intake of thiamine will do little good.

Treatment Options For Alcohol Addiction

For people with alcohol addiction, stopping alcohol use to prevent or reverse thiamine deficiency is easier said than done. Many individuals need the structure and support of an inpatient rehab program to stop drinking for good. Alcohol addiction treatment at Vertava Health Texas begins with medically supervised detox to clear the body of alcohol. A person may then participate in a blend of treatment methods that address their unique needs, such as behavioral therapy, motivational interviewing, and equine therapy. Our compassionate staff works with you or your loved one to determine the best recovery plan for your situation.