This is very common in Asia, especially in countries where boiled rice is a staple. The Sinhalese term “beri-beri” means, “I cannot, I cannot,” and derives from the inability to perform even the simplest of tasks once the polyneuritis (nerve inflammation) caused by the deficiency of vitamin B1 (thiamine). Beriberi damages the nerves and can lead to decreased muscle strength and eventually, muscle paralysis. Beriberi can be life-threatening if it isn’t treated.

Today, beriberi mostly occurs in people with an alcohol use disorder. The disease can be seen in women who have extreme nausea and vomiting in pregnancy (hyperemesis gravidarum), in people with AIDS, and after bariatric surgery.

There are two main forms of beriberi:

  • Wet beriberi, which mainly affects the cardiovascular system, causing poor circulation and fluid buildup in the tissues.
  • Dry beriberi, which primarily affects the nervous system, leading to the degeneration of the nerves. Degeneration typically begins in the legs and arms and may lead to muscle atrophy and loss of reflexes.

Causes of Beriberi

  • Diet low in thiamine
  • Inability of the body to process or absorb thiamine
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Genetic beriberi can block the body’s ability to absorb the vitamin from foods although it is a rare condition.
  • Women who have extreme nausea and vomiting in pregnancy

Other people who may have a higher risk of beriberi include:

  • people with diabetes
  • people with HIV
  • people who have had bariatric surgery

How to prevent beriberi

To prevent beriberi, eat a healthy, balanced diet that includes foods rich in thiamine. These include:

  • beans and legumes, seeds, meat, fish, whole grains, nuts and dairy
  • certain vegetables, such as asparagus, acorn squash, brussels sprouts, spinach, and beet greens
  • breakfast cereals that are enriched with thiamine


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