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Nutrient Deficiency Diseases


Discovering the causes for beriberi became part of the history of discovering vitamins. Christian Eijkman (1858-1930) was a Dutch physician who was a member of a government commission sent to the East Indies in the 1880s to study the disease beriberi, which was prevalent in southeast Asia, where the main diet is comprised of unenriched rice and wheat.

There are three forms of this disease: infantile beriberi, wet beriberi, and dry beriberi. Infantile beriberi occurs when a mother who breast feeds her child is lacking vitamin B1 thiamine. The mother who nurses the child may not manifest the disease, but the deficiency occurs through the breast feeding and the child usually dies after the fifth month. In the childhood and adult versions of the disease there is a preliminary condition of fatigue, loss of appetite, and a numb tingling feeling in the legs. This condition can then lead to either wet or dry beriberi.

In wet beriberi there is an accumulation of fluid throughout the body and a rapid heart rate that can lead to sudden death. In dry beriberi there is no fluid swelling, but there is a loss of sensation and a weakness in the legs. The patient first needs to walk with the aid of a stick and then becomes bedridden and easy prey to an infectious disease.

In Eijkman's laboratory he noticed that some of the fowl he was experimenting with developed paralysis and polyneuritis, as in the dry form of beriberi. The director of the hospital forbade Eijkman from feeding these birds with table scraps which consisted mainly of polished rice. He therefore began to feed them with whole rice, after which he noticed that they regained their movement and there was no recurrence of paralysis.

The idea that the birds had some form of beriberi was rejected by Eijkman's colleagues. His explanation for the cure was that the polished rice had some toxin in it which the unpolished rice did not have. This explanation was rejected by a fellow researcher, Gerrit Grijns (1865-1944), who also stayed on to study the disease after the commission had already left. He found that when the chickens were taken off the rice diet completely and feed with meat instead, they did not develop the characteristic paralysis, but if the meat were overcooked, then the condition would reappear. In 1901 Grijns showed that beriberi could be cured by putting the rice polishings back into the rice.

Vitamin B1 (thiamine) prevents the disease or symptoms of beriberi. Food sources for this vitamin are meats, wheat germ, whole grain and enriched bread, legumes, peanuts, peanut butter, and nuts.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate (NADP) to Ockham's razorNutrient Deficiency Diseases - Early Vitamin Deficiency Diseases, Scurvy, Beriberi, Pellagra, Rickets, Other Vitamin Deficiency Diseases - Mineral deficiency diseases