Although this has been mentioned many times in posts and in the comments of readers on this website, there still seems to be a lack of understanding. The commonest complaints have been that “thiamine caused side effects” or “I was allergic to thiamine”, inevitably causing the complainant to discontinue it. I want to emphasize the important meaning of these seemingly adverse effects by illustrating a typical case in my own experience. First of all, please understand that thiamine deficiency has its major effects in the lower part of the brain. It is this part of the brain that controls the automatic (autonomic) nervous system that orchestrates the functions of all the organs in the body. Thiamine deficiency has its dominating effect by damaging this system and the result is known as dysautonomia.
Recognizing Thiamine Deficiency Syndromes
One day I was in conversation with a young woman and was trying to describe the huge number of symptoms that result from dysautonomia. When I finished listing them, I was surprised when she said that I had exactly described the symptoms that she had suffered for years. I had no prior knowledge of this, believing that she was completely healthy. She told me that this polysymptomatic condition had been present for as long as she could remember. Apparently it had never been understood by any physician that she had consulted and she had come to accept that it was “just the way that I am made”. She was in her early thirties and it must have required a lot of courage to do the work for which she was employed. Unrelenting fatigue dominated her life, and this is a major clue to her problem.
Symptom Exacerbation: Refeeding Syndrome
I advised her to start taking thiamine and magnesium supplements, starting with a low dose and advising her that the symptoms would become worse for an unpredictable period of time (refeeding syndrome). Note that this individual was known to be intelligent, was fully employed and that nobody was apparently aware that she had any health problems. Later she told me that after she started the supplements, for a month or more she had suffered an excruciating exaggeration of her many symptoms. Trusting that I knew what I was talking about, she persisted with the supplements. This is of great importance because without this information it might be interpreted as “side effects” and the nutrients withdrawn. It also would probably accompanied by anger and the ultimate symptomatic relief never experienced. Using her own words she then said “after about a month of taking the supplements, all my symptoms disappeared and my energy was better than any that I had experienced in my whole life”.
I will try to interpret what was happening here as an example of refeeding syndrome. It is important to understand that the many symptoms experienced by this woman were due to cellular energy deficiency in the brain. Their variability may have included emotional symptoms such as anxiety, depression, or anger without obvious cause because they would be the result of exaggerations of normal brain activity. The lower part of the brain is highly sensitive to energy deficiency and because it organizes all bodily functions, it can give rise to heart palpitations, chest pain, unusual sweating, pins and needles in the extremities, nausea, abdominal pain, vomiting, insomnia, constipation, diarrhea, or abnormal sense of balance including vertigo. Body pain that has no observable cause (hyperalgesia) or a pain response from a stimulus that does not usually cause pain (allodynia) may occur.
Refeeding Syndrome in Children
A 14-year old boy with sugar induced thiamine deficient eosinophilic esophagitis suffered agonies of hyperalgesia and screamed when I touched his abdomen (allodynia). Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS) is quite a common variant which is particularly frightening to the patient. Let me emphasize once and for all, when symptoms like this go unrecognized, sometimes for years, they become temporarily exaggerated if the necessary nutrients are provided in too high a concentration. Whether this be a single vitamin, a group of vitamins or whole nutrition, this syndrome must be expected. A gradual introduction of the appropriate nutrients is mandatory. Because thiamine is so integral to energy metabolism, I found over the years that it was the most important. Because young children have not been exposed to malnutrition for too long because of their age, refeeding syndrome is seldom if ever encountered. The syndrome is directly related to the time of exposure to malnutrition and its severity. It is therefore an effect in adults and occasionally in adolescents..
Whether intelligence is a genetically determined gift or whether it is acquired during life, the brain consumes a disproportionate degree of energy that can only be met by an appropriate ingestion of food and water. If this is inadequate, symptoms begin to register the inadequacy by producing a sense of fatigue as the dominant one. It is the way that the brain signals its lack of cellular energy. The symptoms are easily removed if the underlying cause is recognized early. Because in many cases they are not recognized and the malnutrition may continue, it is not very surprising that cellular damage would be expected gradually to accrue. Perhaps chronic neurodegenerative disease may follow.
From Catabolic to Anabolic Metabolism
The normal states of damage and repair (anabolic metabolism) would be inadequate and a state of gradual breakdown and inadequate repair would be predicted (catabolic metabolism). Because thiamine deficiency causes the condition known as beriberi, I would like to state once more that the English translation of this Chinese word is “I can’t, I can’t”, severe, intractable fatigue being the dominating effect. Although the refeeding syndrome is poorly understood according to current medical literature it is apparently related to a rapid change from catabolic to anabolic metabolism. The misguided attempts to re-nourish the victims in concentration camps at the end of World War II resulted sometimes in their death. It is at least understood that correcting catabolic to anabolic metabolism, whatever produced the abnormal state, demands low doses of food in starvation and low doses of supplementary vitamins in the long term effects of high calorie malnutrition.
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This article was published originally on January 6, 2020.