A while back, I published an article about expanding the symptoms considered to be associated with thiamine deficiency. Conventionally, we tend to look only at the end stage results of long term thiamine deficiency as being the indicators of disease, forgetting that to get to this stage there was a prodrome, which, except in rare cases, proceeds across many months, if not years. Even with a severely thiamine restricted diet, it can be weeks to months before the more traditionally recognized neurological or cardiovascular symptoms manifest. A series of studies conducted in early 1940s found that among the most common early symptom of thiamine deficiency was GI dysfunction ranging from nausea, vomiting, and constipation, to severe food intolerances and complete anorexia. The prominence of vomiting in this scenario got me thinking about hyperemesis, the severe and near continuous vomiting experienced by some women during pregnancy, but also, about the exploding numbers of illnesses that involve GI dysmotility and dysbiosis. From IBS to SIBO, gastroparesis to constipation and really everything in between, could they also be a consequence of insufficient thiamine? According to the research, yes. Indeed, these non-pregnant cases of GI dysfunction, easily fall under the umbrella of gastrointestinal beriberi – thiamine deficiency that manifests in GI system, sometimes months before the onset of the more traditional cardiovascular or neurological forms.
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), disturbed 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 a 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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This article was published originally on May 24, 2021.