Last month, we began an 11-part series, highlighting the science-backed benefits of nutrients from Vitamin A to Z(inc)! In this series, we will break down the emerging evidence of these crucial vitamins and minerals – with a specific focus on how they influence women’s brain health. 

Building on last month’s dive into Vitamin A, we will shift focus to the next letter in the nutrient alphabet – Vitamin B1. Vitamin B1, also known as thiamine, belongs to the B-complex of vitamins, which we will continue to discuss in future posts. Thiamine in particular plays a central role in metabolism – converting carbohydrates and sugars that we consume into energy that the brain and body need to function optimally. 

Thiamine is considered an ‘essential’ vitamin because it is not produced in significant amounts by the body. Instead, your diet must obtain it to meet the body’s metabolic demands. Thiamine-rich foods include whole grains (such as brown rice and whole wheat), legumes (beans and lentils), nuts, seeds, lean meats (pork, poultry, and fish), and fortified foods (some breakfast cereals and nutritional supplements).

Not only is thiamine critical to power our brains and bodies, but deficiencies in thiamine-dependent processes have also been linked to the development of oxidative stress, a significant contributor to brain aging and neurodegenerative diseases. Diminished thiamine-dependent processes, abnormal metabolism, and oxidative stress are well established in conditions including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease and Wernicke–Korsakoff Syndrome. 

A 2002 article published by Dr. Gary Gibson from Cornell University’s Burke Neurological Institute postulated that thiamine’s role as a cofactor for enzymes that combat oxidative stress may have potential neuroprotective effects. More recently, Dr. Gibson’s lab carried out an initial clinical trial investigating the role of thiamine as a preventative measure for Alzheimer’s disease to slow the rate of functional decline. 

Published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease in 2020, the team recruited 70 individuals with mild Alzheimer’s disease to participate. Half of the participants were randomized to consume a benfotiamine (a synthetic precursor of thiamine) supplement while the other half received a placebo over the study’s duration of one year. All participants underwent cognitive function tests to measure memory, language and attention at the trial’s beginning and end. 

After one year, the researchers found that in comparison to the placebo group, those who took the benfotiamine supplement not only scored higher amongst cognitive function tests, but they also had a slower overall rate of symptom progression. Imaging done in the study indicated that glucose metabolism was significantly improved in the benfotiamine group, demonstrating improvement in the brain’s ability to utilize energy. 

Significantly, no adverse events were related to the Vitamin B1 supplement used in the study, indicating that it is a safe choice. While the study was relatively small, the results are encouraging as they suggest a potential way to augment the current medical treatments for slowing the rate of progression of neurodegenerative diseases. The team’s next steps are to propose a larger clinical trial to determine whether these effects can be replicated in a larger population of those with early Alzheimer’s Disease. 

To benefit from thiamine’s brain-boosting effects, women must maintain a balanced diet that includes thiamine-rich foods. However, consulting with healthcare professionals or registered dietitians for personalized dietary advice and possible supplementation is essential to ensure adequate thiamine intake for brain health and overall wellness.


Part 1: Vitamin A (to Zinc!)

Part 2: Vitamin B1 (Thiamine)