Pregnancy, Vomiting, and Thiamine
With pregnancy, we know that the energy demands upon the mom are enormous, which means that given its role in energy metabolism, thiamine demands are enormous as well. Some older research estimates the demand for thiamine increases by at least 5X that of a non-pregnant woman. Other research, which I seem to have lost the reference for, posited the demand increased by a factor of 10. Personally, I believe the demand and need for thiamine and other nutrients during pregnancy is higher yet.
The RDA for thiamine during pregnancy is 1.4mg per day, just a fraction over the RDA for non-pregnant women (1.1mg). A quick scan of prenatal vitamins shows that most include from 1.5mg – 3mg of thiamine, woefully below the estimated need of 5-10X non-pregnant levels. That discrepancy alone could cause problems in women who may have been borderline thiamine deficient pre-pregnancy. The pregnancy itself would tip her over into deficiency territory. This then could very easily lead to increased vomiting, which then would further hamper the intake and absorption of thiamine, exacerbating the deficiency, and cause more vomiting; a cycle that becomes especially dangerous to both mom and the baby as time progresses.
While it is easy to see how thiamine deficiency is a common consequence of hyperemesis, it is possible that it is also a contributing cause. Dr. Lonsdale and others have long asserted a role for thiamine deficiency as a causative contributor to hyperemesis. Just based upon the estimated need versus the availability in prenatals and diet, especially once vomiting has begun, this makes sense. Importantly, these types of symptoms have been observed across many case studies unrelated to pregnancy, so much so that gastrointestinal beriberi is a legitimate, though woefully under-recognized form of thiamine deficiency disease. As mentioned previously, the symptoms include GI distress in the form of vomiting, gastroparesis (delayed stomach emptying, which results in vomiting), lower GI dysmotility, either too much or too little, and dysbiosis. All of this is documented to be attributable to insufficient thiamine in non-pregnant people. Is it so difficult to see that pregnancy too could elicit or exacerbate gastrointestinal beriberi?
But Wait, What About Carnitine and CoQ10?
If you follow my work, a few years back I mapped one of the causes of hyperemesis to a carnitine deficiency. Carnitine is critical to the metabolism of fatty acids, and its deficiency along with another mitochondrial co-factor, CoQ10, have been linked to a condition called Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome (CVS). Supplementation with l-carnitine and CoQ10 appears to resolve the vomiting with CVS. After publishing that paper, anecdotal reports came back suggesting that l-carnitine and CoQ10 was useful in preventing and resolving hyperemesis. I believe that it is still involved in many cases, but it is possible that thiamine is involved as well and it may be a contributing factor to the carnitine deficiency. Thiamine, in addition to its role in key enzymes involved in carbohydrate and protein metabolism, is also involved in fatty acid metabolism and positionally, it sits one step above carnitine.
Here we have a few options beyond the traditional and largely ineffective anti-emetic medications given to women with hyperemesis; options that I would argue are significantly safer and healthier for mom and baby and likely far more effective. If thiamine and/or l-carnitine deficiency are at the root of hyperemesis, correcting those deficiencies early should give women a much easier and healthier pregnancy.
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