Early and Prominent Orthostatic Hypotension Missed for Decades
Around the age of 10 or so, I began blacking out upon standing. It never led to syncope — just a brief dizziness and loss of vision. A particular church practice at school caused me to black out often. Lots of kneeling and rising — a great challenge for what would be later diagnosed as orthostatic hypotension. I sometimes had to be led out of church by a fellow student and taken to the school nurse. A friend reported to me that on those occasions, as I was being led out, even my lips were white.
In my teenage years, another challenge was orthostatic intolerance. I would get dizzy and feel light-headed if made to stand a long time. Hot, crowded buses were a particular nemesis: I would black out and feel on the brink of fainting. It was mortifying to be an 18 year old who had to request someone older give up their seat to me because I felt faint. I used to pray before I got on a bus.
During these years, heart palpitations were also a constant issue. It was a way of life for me — my “normal.” I didn’t find out until years later that not everyone experienced violent heart pounding upon climbing a set of stairs. Abnormal sweating was a problem, too — I sweated profusely from the underarms, but nowhere else. Exercise would make my face red and hot — I would get terribly overheated and feel unwell, because my body wasn’t able to sweat and cool itself.
All of these things point to a malfunction of the autonomic nervous system, but I didn’t know that then, and no doctor seemed to put it together, either.
The lower part of the brain, the brainstem, controls the autonomic nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system regulates the most basic aspects of living: heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, sweating, hunger and thirst, fight or flight response, etc. It requires thiamine to function properly.
I was also a good deal underweight and never had as much energy as others. I was terrible at sports and was weakly but did well academically and with art.
Mitral Valve Prolapse, Tachycardia and Heart Palpitations: Signs of Dysautonomia
During art school and afterwards, I waited tables to support myself, as well as worked at school to help pay my tuition. The output of energy this required would prove too much for someone deficient in thiamine. Thiamine plays a fundamental role in energy metabolism, so a deficiency is consequential. My schedule overwhelmed me — I dropped out after my second year. (I eventually went back three years later to complete my degree — this is just one example of how chronic fatigue affected the trajectory of my life.)
Somewhere in those years, I was diagnosed with mitral valve prolapse. I remember being astonished that the diagnosis had been missed all these years. I was told it was something I had been born with, so it was surprising that no one had noticed it until I was 22. I now know that mitral valve prolapse is associated with defective functioning of the autonomic nervous system, that I likely had *not* been born with it, and that this instead was yet another sign of my malfunctioning autonomic nervous system. Mitral valve prolapse is also associated with magnesium deficiency. The pieces of the puzzle were all there — they just needed someone who understood how they fit together.
It was a relief to be out of school and to be able to rest, but my undiagnosed thiamine deficiency continued to affect me. Palpitations and tachycardia were an exhausting way of life. I became good at avoiding things that would exacerbate that, but things I couldn’t avoid — like oral presentations in a literature class I was taking — would so exhaust me as to render me incapacitated the next day. The intellectual rigor of it thrilled me, however. Life continued like that — avoiding many things that a healthy person would be capable of, in order to preserve energy, while making exceptions for certain things I loved — but paying for that with crushing fatigue.
A busy night of waiting tables was now capable of doing me in so much that I couldn’t get out of bed for hours the next day. My description of how I felt at the time was like a broken stick. I later learned that severe thiamine deficiency is called beriberi, which translates to “I can’t, I can’t.” My heart symptoms also became more complex: palpitations and tachycardia, as always, but now chest pain and an occasional flutter, too. I saw a doctor, who recommended I get an echocardiogram. I didn’t have health insurance, so that wasn’t possible.
Decades Later: Debilitating Fatigue and Arrhythmia
I went many years without medical care. At age 44 my symptoms worsened — the fatigue was debilitating and I was now experiencing an arrhythmia. I was able to teach one day a week in an art school, but the energy it required made me incapacitated the next day.
I was also told by a doctor that I should be evaluated for Marfan syndrome, a connective tissue disorder. I twice landed in the ER due to chest pain and a new arrhythmia while waiting for my appointments with genetics and cardiology. When I finally saw the geneticist, I got great news: I did not have Marfan syndrome. I was clinically diagnosed with a related but less serious connective tissue disorder: MASS phenotype, an acronym for Mitral valve prolapse, Aortic enlargement, Skeletal and Skin findings. Though I was relieved by the news, I was also perplexed: why did I feel so awful and fatigued all the time?
My cardiologist had me wear a 30-day Holter monitor, which resulted in him diagnosing me with dysautonomia. Orthostatic hypotension, and also sinus tachycardia, premature ventricular contractions (PVCs), and paroxysmal atrial tachycardia. His first intervention helped me more than any other — he recommended at least 32 ounces of an electrolyte drink daily, along with 500 mg of magnesium. I felt elated — the particular elation of someone long sick who finally feels better. After a while, however, it wasn’t enough, and he prescribed fludrocortisone (florinef). That made my feet swell so awfully that I developed blisters and couldn’t walk.
The cardiologist referred me to an electrophysiologist for my arrhythmia. That cardiologist put me on a beta-blocker. That also caused some milder foot and ankle swelling, but the relief it provided from decades-long tachycardia, palpitations, and an awful constant awareness of my heart was so welcome. It also reduced my PVCs. Again I felt hopeful and thought this might be the solution. It wasn’t. It temporarily and mercifully relieved some symptoms, but it did nothing to determine and address the true cause of my dysautonomia — which was thiamine deficiency. The beta-blocker eventually caused diarrhea. Because it didn’t happen at first, I didn’t associate it with the beta-blocker and neither did my doctors. The bout of diarrhea lasted 5 months. When I finally decided to quit the beta-blocker, the diarrhea ceased.
In the meantime, I was also dealing with a whole array of other issues: GI distress; food intolerances; peripheral vascular insufficiency (which led me to an unsuccessful and unnecessary surgery); chilblains; costochondritis; debilitating menstrual pain; and ever-looming, crushing fatigue.
Hypovolemia and Undiagnosed Thiamine Deficiency Almost Killed Me
At my lowest health point, my undiagnosed thiamine deficiency nearly killed me (via low BP and hypovolemia). I was at a lab getting a slew of blood tests ordered by my immunologist. I had requested that I be permitted to lie down for the blood draw, because I sometimes passed out otherwise. There was no room available for me, so the technician asked if I thought I could manage sitting up. I should have said no: big mistake on my part. I was sitting up in a chair with a kind of shelf clamped across me. I closed my eyes for the blood draw, and after just a short time felt the unmistakable onset of blacking out. I started to lose my vision and asked the technician to unclamp me from that chair so I could put my head between my knees. She seemed to have no grasp of basic medical knowledge, because she refused, saying she didn’t want my head down and to instead try to “stay with her”. I was unable to free myself because I could no longer see. Then I lost my hearing, and that’s all I remember. I fainted. Thank goodness my husband was there in the waiting room. They called an ambulance and then called my husband back to see me. He said I looked terrifying. Completely white, with white lips, and two techs trying to call me to. He told them they needed to put me flat on the floor. Inexplicably, they wouldn’t let him. He acted quickly and dragged a big box across the room and put my feet up on it. That made me come to. For a long time, I had cuts missing from my vision. I later asked my cardiologist if I would have had a stroke if my husband hadn’t intervened. The cardiologist was angry at what had happened and told me not only would I have had a stroke, I would have died.
Putting the Pieces Together: It Was Thiamine All Along
Like all chronically-ill patients, I had to rely on my own research to try to figure out how to improve my health. I first managed to help myself with some orthomolecular interventions. High-dose vitamin c was life-changing. After starting that and taking steps to support methylation, I was finally able to put on weight and muscle. By the age of 51, I was no longer underweight for the first time since early childhood. And I managed to raise my chronically low BP a bit. Fatigue was still overwhelming but then, gratefully, I came upon the research of Dr. Derrick Lonsdale and Dr. Chandler Marrs. I learned about beriberi, thiamine deficiency, and its relation to dysautonomia. I recognized myself immediately.
I read everything I could on the subject before starting to supplement thiamine. Because I had been so long deficient, I knew to expect a paradoxical response. I also knew, per Dr. Lonsdale, that a paradoxical response was a good indication that thiamine might help me. And it has. It has helped me immensely.
I started with thiamine HCL, 10 mg. Even that tiny dose gave me a paradoxical response. My fatigue became even worse, as did my heart issues — terrible palpitations and much more frequent arrhythmia. My ankles were more swollen than they had ever been. I felt shaky, tired, horribly fatigued. It was difficult and lasted about 2 months. Initiating thiamine supplementation in a patient long deficient causes a kind of refeeding syndrome. I continued titrating up my dose, very slowly, while taking supporting co-factors like magnesium and potassium and a b-complex.
Gains Made With Thiamine
- Increased energy in general
- Increased exercise tolerance
- Raised BP by over 20 systolic points: huge gain for me. I am now regularly around 110/70. If I get exhausted by physical activity and/or stress, it drops again. (For years, my BP was around 79/56)
- Heart rate normalized
- Arrhythmia almost non-existent
- No more heart palpitations after eating
- Got rid of the constant awareness of my heart
- Now able to walk rapidly
- My ankles are rarely swollen now. They used to be swollen every day, particularly if I was active that day.
- After 8 years, I no longer need to keep my feet elevated when sitting (cardiologist’s recommendation to counteract swollen ankles).
- I am able to maintain mental clarity even after active or stressful events. Until very recently, I could not think clearly after a day of teaching — used to have to ask my husband to speak slowly and break down complex ideas into simple ones after I taught, because my fatigue affected my cognition. That’s gone now.
- I very rarely get headaches at base of head (used to be almost daily)
- No more costochondritis. This used to be a regular, painful complaint of mine. I was astonished to learn that costochondritis is caused by thiamine deficiency, especially since costochondritis is a common complaint in those who suffer connective tissue disorders.
- I sleep through the night now, even if I was active that day. Until recently, if I was active — and in my limited-energy world, active might mean as little as attending a party — I would have great trouble falling asleep, and then I would awaken in the night after 4 hours of sleep and be awake at least 1 to 2 hours. That’s gone, and good riddance.
- No more debilitating menstrual periods. I suffered enormous pain with my period for over 35 years. Thiamine treats primary dysmenorrhea.
- Joint pain relief
- No more stuffy nose at night when I’m exhausted
- I wake up singing. I report this not as an indication of mood so much as an indication of energy — I simply never possessed the energy required to sing, at least not in the morning.
- I wake up early now. Completely new.
- I’m remembering my dreams again! (Couldn’t recall them for at least the past 5 years).
- I rarely experience the dreaded “jelly legs”.
- I am no longer cold all the time.
- I now am able to sweat more normally.
- Increased my left ventricular ejection fraction (EF) from 55 to 65 percent. Thiamine has been shown to improve EF in heart failure patients, and though I was never in heart failure, this is the first ever increase of my EF in 10 years, and it appeared after I began thiamine, so I suspect it’s related.
One thing that hasn’t gotten better yet is abdominal bloating. Hoping that improves eventually. I have low stomach acid and am working on that. And I still tire much easier than a normal person, but I’m so much better than I was, and I hope to continue improving.
My symptoms started at about the age of 10, which is the age I was when a dentist placed 10 large amalgam (mercury) fillings. A few years later, I got 5 more. Mercury causes vitamin and mineral derangement. (I have since gotten most of my amalgam fillings removed by a SMART dentist using a procedure to minimize mercury exposure.) There are indications that a thiamine deficiency heightens susceptibility to mercury toxicity. Many of the symptoms of mercury poisoning are observed in persons with thiamine deficiency. Additionally, there is a metabolic component to connective tissue disorders that most doctors do not recognize. Along with being diagnosed by a geneticist with MASS phenotype, another doctor (rheumatologist) diagnosed me with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. Being diagnosed with both, even if not correct, has given me access to both cohorts of connective tissue patients, through online support groups. Most suffer from dysautonomia and have accepted this as genetic fate rather than something that can be improved through vitamin therapy. There is a great need to get the word out on thiamine and vitamin therapy to the chronic illness community.
I am deeply indebted to Drs. Lonsdale and Marrs for their research. It is giving me my life back.
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Image: Original painting by the author.