Thiamine and Riboflavin and the Highway to Health

Keep Your Engine Running With These B Vitamins

By Roberta H. Anding, MS, Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

Professor Anding’s guide to B vitamins begins with —delicate vitamins with a strong purpose.

Foods high in Vitamin B
Thiamine and riboflavin are essential micronutrients derived from food sources such as eggs, cheese, salmon, and lean meat and are needed for energy metabolism. Photo By aleksandr talancev / Shutterstock

Functions of Thiamine

Thiamine and riboflavin are essential for helping your body run. Overall, deficiency in these vitamins is rare in modern Western society, but it is becoming increasingly common due to poor lifestyle choices.

Thiamine, or vitamin B1, deficiency disease was first described in Chinese writings over 4,000 years ago. In 1885, though, a physician of the Japanese Naval Medical Services cured sailors of a disease called “beriberi” by adding meat and milk to their diets. Beriberi means “I can’t; I can’t” in Sinhalese. 

This relates to the overall purpose of vitamin B, which is providing lubrication to the “engine” of our bodies. If we do not have enough “lubrication,” the “engine” cannot go.

Thiamine is part of a coenzyme that breaks down carbohydrate and powers protein synthesis. It helps in the production or the synthesis of neurotransmitters.

Thiamine as a B vitamin is delicate. Heat destroys the vitamin. 

“Adding baking soda to vegetables, which my grandmother used to do all the time to preserve their green color, destroys thiamine,” Professor Anding said. “Thiamine actually likes an acidic environment … likes the acidic environment of your stomach.”

Thiamine Deficiency

Thiamine deficiency can occur in as little as 10 days. Body systems with high energy needs deteriorate first. This is because your central nervous system is a major energy consumer. 

Symptoms of thiamine deficiency include a sensation of pins and needles, particularly in the hands and feet. Be careful with self-diagnosis, though, because other diseases and conditions, such as neuropathy developed as a complication of diabetes, can cause that tingling sensation. 

Beriberi, or significant thiamine deficiency, falls into two categories. Wet beriberi refers to cardiac damage and fluid retention, similar to what you would see in congestive heart failure. Dry beriberi, on the other hand, doesn’t have the fluid accumulation, but it damages the nervous system.

Thiamine deficiency is rare in developed countries, as we have fortified foods and a wide variety of food sources. It’s not rare among alcoholics, though. 

Approximately 25% of alcoholics show signs and symptoms of thiamine deficiencies. Often, when paramedics find an unconscious, unknown person, or a homeless alcoholic on the side of the road, they automatically assume that the person has thiamin deficiency. 

When it comes to excess, thiamine is a B vitamin that doesn’t have a known toxicity. It is truly a water-soluble vitamin where you excrete the excess.

Riboflavin Roles

Another member of the vitamin B family, riboflavin, is also known as vitamin B2. It was originally thought to be part of the thiamine molecule. 

Originally, scientists believed that B vitamins were one compound, so they confused riboflavin and thiamine. Excess riboflavin is excreted in your urine; so if you take a multivitamin and get a greenish-yellow color in your urine, that’s the excess riboflavin being excreted.

The main purpose of riboflavin is lubrication. It extracts energy from carbohydrate, protein, and fat. However, some newer studies, including one in the journal Headache, suggest that a higher dose of riboflavin may help prevent migraine headaches, and this actually was reviewed. 

“We certainly see a lot of our children at Texas Children’s who have chronic migraines now being prescribed really large doses of riboflavin,” Professor Anding said. “But the key word here is ‘prescribed’ large doses of riboflavin.”

Like thiamine, riboflavin is not a very stable B vitamin. It can be destroyed by ultraviolet light. 

Milk is a primary and significant source of riboflavin, and the milk should be stored in opaque containers. This is because as milk is transported to the grocery store, if it’s exposed to UV light, the riboflavin in the milk can be destroyed. 

“One of the things is that we’re now seeing—almost a retro trend—putting milk in glass bottles,” Professor Anding said. “It’s really a bad idea. It should be in paper cartons or in the white opaque containers.”

Riboflavin Deficiency and Toxicity

As with thiamine, riboflavin deficiency can occur in chronic alcoholics. Symptoms include an inflamed tongue and cracks and fissures at the corners of the mouth called “glossitis” and “angular stomatitis.” The lips can become inflamed and split, which is called cheilosis. 

“Where I see this in a nonalcoholic population is in teenage girls,” Professor Anding said. “They don’t drink milk. They’re drinking diet soft drinks, and you can see these cracks and fissures at the corners of the mouth, what appears to be dry lips. That’s actually cheilosis.”

Riboflavin deficiency can also make deficiencies in other B vitamins such as vitamin B6 worse. Those who skip breakfast are eliminating an opportunity for fortified foods and milk, often ending up with a riboflavin deficiency.

Unlike with other vitamins, you don’t have to worry about going too far in the other direction when consuming riboflavin to avoid deficiency, especially if you’re getting it from natural food sources and not supplements. Riboflavin is nontoxic, so no upper limit has been set. 

Stay tuned for tomorrow, where you’ll learn about niacin, or vitamin B3.

Professor Roberta H. Anding is a registered dietitian and Director of Sports Nutrition and a clinical dietitian at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital. She also teaches and lectures in the Baylor College of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics, Section of Adolescent Medicine and Sports Medicine, and in the Department of Kinesiology at Rice University.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
About Kate Findley 450 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.