Beriberi is an ailment caused by a deficiency of vitamin B1 (thiamine), the symptoms of which may include weight loss, emotional disturbances, impaired sensory perception, weakness, and periods of irregular heartbeat.

Beriberi occurs in people whose staple diet consists mainly of polished white rice, which has little or no thiamine. Therefore the disease has been seen traditionally in people in Asian countries and in chronic alcoholics with impaired liver function. If a baby is fed the milk of a mother who suffers from a deficiency in thiamine, the child may develop beriberi.

There are two forms of the disease: wet beriberi and dry beriberi. Wet beriberi affects the heart; it is sometimes fatal, as it causes a combination of heart failure and weakening of the capillary walls, which causes the peripheral tissues to become waterlogged. Dry beriberi causes wasting and partial paralysis resulting from damage to the peripheral nerves.

The first stage in discovering the cause of beriberi was in the 1890s, when a Dutch doctor, Christiaan Eijkman, found that fowls fed only on polished rice developed similar symptoms to his patients who had beriberi, and that they could be cured if they were also fed some of the husks from the rice grains. In 1912, Casimir Funk isolated the anti-beriberi factor from rice and called it vitamine - an amine essential for life. In the 1930s, the chemical formula of this vitamin B1 was published by Robert R. Williams, and it was named thiamine.

Treatment is with thiamine hydrochloride, either in tablet form or injection. A rapid and dramatic recovery can be made when this is administered to patients with wet beriberi and their health can be transformed within an hour of administration of the treatment. Thiamine occurs naturally in fresh foods and cereals, particularly fresh meat, legumes, green vegetables, fruit, and milk.

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