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How Is Thiamine Helpful for Brain Functions?

By Sandi Busch

Thiamine helps produce energy. This influences every tissue in your body but is especially vital for the two organs that need a lot of energy -- your heart and brain. In addition to providing energy to keep your brain sharp, thiamine is indispensable for making some neurotransmitters and for normal nerve function. Because your body doesn’t store thiamine, optimal brain operation depends on a regular supply through your diet.

Enable Enzymes

All enzymes speed up the chemical reactions that support your metabolism, digest food, build tissues and maintain your health, but each enzyme fills a specific job. If one enzyme is not available, another enzyme can’t step in to replace it. In this case, the body ends up without something it needs for normal functioning. Without thiamine, you will lack some essential enzymes. Thiamine is converted into an enzyme called thiamin pyrophosphate, or TPP, and TPP must be available to activate three other enzymes that affect your brain.

Meet Energy Demands

Glucose is the only fuel your brain normally uses for energy, but even if you have glucose, cells in your brain can't metabolize it into energy unless you have enough thiamine. All three of the thiamine-dependent enzymes must work together to enable brain cells to produce energy. Without sufficient energy, nerves become sluggish, and memory, learning and other brain functions are at risk. Lack of glucose can result in nerve damage and death of brain cells.

Maintain Health and Nerve Activity

The three enzymes also participate in reactions that allow molecules to combine and produce substances that your brain needs to keep working. One of the thiamine-dependent enzymes, called transketolase, helps synthesize glutathione, which provides antioxidant protection for brain cells. The other two thiamine-dependent enzymes synthesize various neurotransmitters, including acetylcholine, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. They also support the production of the myelin sheath, which covers every nerve and must remain intact for them to conduct electrical impulses.

Sources and Requirements

The recommended dietary allowance for thiamine represents the amount needed to prevent a deficiency in healthy individuals. Women should consume 1.1 milligrams daily, while men need 1.2 milligrams. The RDA increases to 1.4 milligrams daily for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. One of the top sources is lean pork, which contains 0.8 milligrams of thiamine in a 3-ounce serving. One cup of cooked peas and lentils has 0.4 milligrams. Other good choices include whole grains such as brown rice; fortified cereals; brewer’s yeast, beans; spinach; wheat germ; pecans; oranges; cantaloupe; and milk.

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