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Vitamin B1 deficiency at the heart of an environmental mystery (pnas.org)
180 points by based2 57 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 71 comments

Last week I watched a video about Vitamin B1. The term Alcoholic Korsakoff syndrome [0] was mentioned. This form of vitamin B1 deficiency is experienced by some heavy drinkers.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alcoholic_Korsakoff_syndrome

Age, alcoholism, chemotherapy, dialysis, extreme dieting, and genetic factors also contribute to the development of this syndrome. The most important treatment (aside from cessation of alcohol use) is some form of thiamine (vitamin B1) supplementation - injection/IV/oral.

The causes section of that wikipedia entry says "Mercury poisoning can also lead to Korsakoff's syndrome." Maybe mercury contamination is another factor in the thiamine deficiencies observed in ocean wildlife.

Edit: added the clarification that thiamine and Vitamin B1 are synonymous.

There was an article on HN recently about a woman that used sea shells for sculptures and got heavy metal poisoning from the activity.

Maybe a consequence of the once habbit of adding lead to gas?

Coal burning power plants are the number one reason for oceanic mercury contamination.

I wonder if the insect die-offs that have been reported lately are linked to a nutrient deficiency such as this.

It's amazing to think about the scarcity of various metabolites and how they might become concentrated in different populations and species over long time scales. I wonder if these phenomena are long scale oscillations that we are just scientifically observant enough to begin noticing.

It's quite possible. There is mounting evidence showing that higher atomspheric CO2 leads to loss of protein and certain micronutrients in both crops[0] and wild plants[1], and it wouldn't be a stretch to think the same thing is happening to other secondary metabolites required by species up the food web.

[0]:https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/does-global-warmi... [1]:https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal...

One very striking thing I noticed is how this nutrient density decrease correlates with the observed obesity epidemic in mammals. There is a meta-analysis that came out of David Allison's¹ lab that examined studies of increasing rodent obesity: http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2010/11...

There is roughly a 1% decrease in nutrient density for every 6.25ppm increase of CO₂ in the atmosphere. From 1945 to 1985 atmospheric CO₂ increased by about 35ppm, so there should be about a 5% decrease in nutrient density. According to the meta-study, rats increased their calorie intake by roughly 6%.

¹ Caveat: Allison is a notorious "PR scientist" whose career has been made out of helping the fast- and processed- food industries deflect any blame or accountability for the health and safety of their "products." The hypothesis of the paper is that the obesity epidemic is being caused by viruses and pollutants (without offering any evidence), and has nothing to do with McDonald's. This "viruses and pollutants" fairy tale can then be used as a deflection in fast-food PR and expert testimony in class-action lawsuits and government investigations.

That meta-analysis only looked at animals living among humans.

Is there any evidence of wild animals living far from humans getting fat as well?

If the latter are not affected, it would be reasonable to think that the former are fat because they are exposed to human junk food.

Junk food itself is a natural consequence of a food sector that has to grow in order to please its investors. Sell as much food as possible to whoever will buy it.

It can't shove food down people's mouth, but it can produce food that's deceptively tasty and manipulate our instincts.

One of the studies in the meta-analysis was about rats in agricultural areas ("From 1948 to 1986, male rats trapped in the rural area gained 4.5 per cent in body weight, while females gained 5.2 per cent, and the increases in the odds of obesity were, respectively, 19 and 26 per cent"). They are not eating junk food.

There is a paper from 2010 about obesity in marmots: https://www.nature.com/news/2010/100721/full/news.2010.366.h...

I'm still unconvinced.

"Feral rats. Our sample consisted of 6115 (2886 males, 3229 females) wild Norway rats (Rattus norvegicus) that were captured in the central alleys of high-density residential neighbourhoods using single-capture live traps, while rural rat populations were sampled from parklands and agricultural areas in areas surrounding the city [12,13], between the years 1948 and 2006."

I can't cross-check the methodological validity since neither articles are available online (the second one appears to be, but if you follow the links you end up with a n unrelated 1975 article on beach voles :-). No info is given on the distance between the traps and human habitations. Also, no idea on how comparable the sample from 1949 is with the one from 1989. They were not written by the same authors, and the 1989 authors don't cite the 1949 paper (https://scholar.google.com/scholar?cites=1484756086713821658...).

Had they compared rodent populations from places that the obesity epidemics has yet to reach (read: poor countries), it would be more convincing.

For marmots, the proposed hypothesis was that the longer summers let them eat more food and shortens the hibernation period during which they usually lose weight.

If you want to know whether atmospheric CO2 has an impact on rodent weight, you can devise a controlled experiment where they live in, and are fed with plants grown in controlled atmospheres. No idea if such a study has been performed.

There's a study - unless I'm misremembering - about controlled diet groups getting bigger, which should't happen. But the articles are vague (all Allison related) and no concrete study pops out on Google :/

It just occurred to me that even for domestic animals, the "fast food" hypothesis cannot be true. There is now an obesity epidemic among horses: https://www.paulickreport.com/horse-care-category/obesity-ep... No one is feeding their horses human junk food.

No, but the perverse market forces that gave us human junk food also apply to pet food.

There is no horse "pet food." Horses are fed hay.

Getting to the root cause/s of the global insect absence is important because as the bottom of the food web goes in Holocene extinction event, so might we starve due to lack of pollinators and other vital insects and fauna that we depend on for raising crops. I hear it frequently on Thom Hartmann and just the other day on Paul Beckwith's YT channel about truckers and travelers not seeing bugs on their vehicles on long trips across Canada, US and Europe. I wonder if Russia, China, Brazil, Argentina and India are the same: do they also not have to clean their vehicles of bugs from long trips as was the case 30-40 years ago?

Someone on reddit dug up nutritional information on insects and found that they do in fact have a lot of B1:


Birds have been observed to eat each other's brains. This article blames it on climate change, but nutrient deficiencies make much more sense: https://www.popsci.com/great-tits-murder-climate-change

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W4oEM0W6mhM (possibly NSFW/L)

It could be both, no? Climate change leading to change in the nutrional makeup of their regular diet?

Well, yes, but there is no reason to assume that climate change is the only, or even the primary cause of the decline. It's likely a specific nutrient that is yet unknown and thus its intake is not monitored.


OP was asking a genuine question that you not only did not answer, but that you then tried to cast some kind of judgment. Sometimes we need more information before jumping into the typical fray.


It's weird. Both the new_to_hn and man_made accounts were created within the last couple of hours. I wouldn't be surprised if they were created by the same person with a penchant for creating a username that mirrors the subject of his post.

Interesting. If they were gaslighting FUD with a bunch of mutually-supporting nicks to "win" a convo, it still wouldn't ever contribute substance or integrity to a discussion. It would seem like so much effort for nothing.

Maybe the goal isn't substance or integrity? Could be someone(s) practicing disruption techniques for the future. Or, maybe there are large-scale automated FUD operations running on all major discussion pages to change perception of debate and discussion.

Never underestimate the pettiness of some people

Vegemite, rich source of Vitamin B. said to have been made from the yeast remaining after brewing. Thus the old wives tale that if a beer-drunk eats vegemite toast, they avoid the problems of thiamine deficient diet.

(I don't think we can fix this problem in nature by feeding zoo plankton vegemite btw)

The irony being that for a long time beer was loaded with unfiltered yeasts, which made it far more nutritious. The advent of spirits and filtered beers, especially as it tended to arrive alongside whiter breads, was not good for the health of the poor. You see similar things occur for different reasons across different nations and at different times when key dietary staples change, or are lost. Pellagra in the US from over-reliance on corn, Beriberi in Japan from eating too much white rice and too little protein, and so on. The history of monoculture agriculture and emerging food science is a history of starvation, malnutrition, and gross misunderstandings of epidemiology.

Fortunately we’d never make the same mistakes today! Heh...

The widespread use of fertilizers could be the case. The thing is, we possibly don't know all the necessary nutrients, and causing an imbalance as the result, where some elements are supplied in excess and others are missing. The myopia and obesity epidemics could also be the result - countries that use lanthanides in fertilizers show lower levels of obesity, minimal rates of mental illness, slower aging and higher IQ, regardless of wealth.

Iron toxicity is also a problem in many places, as the excess iron replaces other metals, especially manganese. Many diseases associated with aging are actually caused by this excess and may have nothing to do with aging at all. Many people are mentally retarded because of irresponsible attempts to increase intake despite inadequate research. (Iron increases the number of D2 and D1 dopamine receptors in the brain, which makes them psychotic, people who don't suffer from this are told to have "high functioning autism". The supposedly neuroptypical people are people who suffer from thought insertions - they can see you're lying, mean something else than what you say etc. and apparently accept it as perfectly normal that each of them interprets the same situation differently. They also hear voices and call it their inner monologue.)

These replacements are the reason why the deficiencies are hard to notice - the protein will usually accept some other metal when the appropriate metal ion is not found, so that the protein may be known to bind to e.g. calcium, when a rare earth element would be preferable.

Are you seriously proposing that having an inner monologue is a side effect of psychosis caused by excessive dietary iron? O.o

I'm indeed seriously proposing that the majority, the so called " neurotypical people" are in fact psychotic and autistic people are those who remained healthy. Inner speech is never mentioned in ancient literature. The voices and thought insertions become so deeply internalized when it strikes so early that the person completely believes this is actually how people communicate with them. It is to some degree influenced by actual events and people can always rationalize when it fails.

The majority of people outside the US/Europe seems to be autistic, that is, not psychotic. Many autistic people found out they are normal in Asia.

How would this hypothesis explain the fact that people with low-functioning autism are maladapted to the environment, in the sense that they would have low chances of surviving a few thousand years ago?

It seems to me that it is nearly impossible that this form would be naturally selected, unless current levels of dietary iron were always common and are therefore not excessive to begin with.

There has been selection towards autism and low functioning autism may even be something else. Anyway, large part of it will be because of growing up among "normal" people. Maybe that (low functioning) autistic people would have no trouble using a langauge, it just wouldn't be the same as our languages. You can see it even with high functioning autism who sound odd (as, among possibly other things, tone is heard with the word, while as far as I understand it, neurotypical people hear tone as something completely separate)

(Sorry for the delay in responding - I wrote this ages ago and just found it!)

Thanks for your answer, that's an interesting way to look at it! And certainly no one brain type is 'right' or 'wrong', they just work best in different environments.

I'm not sure about your perception about the prevalence of autism outside of the USA and Europe. This list suggests rates inside the U.S. are higher than basically anywhere else, although diagnosis might be different in other countries: https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/countries-with-the-highe...

I know a fairly large number of people from various Asian countries and none of them display what I'd consider typical autistic traits. I must admit I haven't asked any of them about inner monologues.

A huge part of the autistic traits comes from the fact that others are too different and won't show up when you are not being ostracized.

Interesting perspective. I do note that there are theories such as the bicameral mind that disagree about the lack of inner monologue in ancient cultures.

The bicameral mind explains it somewhat bizarrely that the pople actually did hear voices, only that they always attributed them to external sources. But an autistic mind hears no voices, as one consciousness has nothing to tell to itself, as it already knows all that it knows.

Could you further explain the relation of iron, psychoticism, and autism? Maybe I misunderstood but the proposed links sound unconvincing.

The exposure to excess iron in infancy increases the amount of dopamine receptors in the brain. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18790724 Antipsychotics work primarily by blocking those, without activating them. Autism has been called the opposite of schizophrenia. It has been noticed that when autistic people have high fever or encephalitis, they behave "normally". https://embraceasd.com/the-fever-effect/

I know how it sounds, but that is the best explanation I have.

I find your hypothesis intriguing, but I'm curious about how you would be able to test it and possibly disprove it.

Test if people can actually spot liars (when you know the truth), or if they are not clearly above chance.

Place microphone phased arrays in a loud club, to see if people actually understand each other, or if they hallucinate most of what others say.

Use the same shot of an actor cut in in different contexts, to test if people can accurately see the expression, or if they making it up based on what they know otherwise.

Aside of the obvious of testing the effects of reduced iron intake directly.

As some one who doesn’t eat fortified foods this brings up questions. Is the balance of vegetables and meat I’m eating lacking in vitamin B1 or other key vitamins? Looking up the top sources of B1 the only one that is a staple of mine is beef (100% grass fed).

Eat more mushrooms. I do a mushroom-heavy soup about once a week, usually lentils with an entire package of crimini mushrooms sliced up.

Keeping a variety of unsalted tree nuts and seeds nearby to conveniently snack on is good as well.


For B12 in particular, it appears Shiitake and Lion's Mane mushrooms are best. They're not competitive with animal B12 sources, but every bit helps and mushrooms don't add much in the way of calories to a diet.

Personally I consume canned wild, unsalted sardines in water fairly regularly for Omega-3s and B12 specifically. They're small and have a short lifespan, which is desirable for a variety of reasons with seafood. i.e. Low on the food chain, and less time spent in a potentially toxic environment accumulating nasties like mercury. Sardines are considered a sustainable superfood by many. It's way better nutritionally than tuna, you eat the whole fish, even the bones.

> They're not competitive with animal B12 sources,

Interestingly, the B12 people get from animals is probably from supplements they were given.


I didn't know that.

A similarly surprising fact is the Omega-3 fatty acid actually comes from algae the fish eat. As a result there are vegan-friendly algae-derived supplements as an alternative to the popular fish oil ones.

On a brief vegetarian experiment I used a methylcobalamin sublingual B12 supplement, but it had strange and totally unique side effects. After a week of daily use, and this was consistently reproducible, my neck would become very stiff and painful to turn. I don't know why, but it didn't take much of a leap for me to connect this stuff diffusing into my system from under my tongue and the surrounding neck tissue being effected. I find it preferable to just eat sardines regularly.

Interesting going to add this to my diet

If you're referring to the Sardines, if you can handle the taste of room-temperature fish broth, drink the juice from the can, don't drain it. That's where most the omega-3 fatty acids end up from the cooking process.

Some of the better brands like what's found at Whole Foods here in CA will even include a notice on the package about not draining the liquid. The Henry & Lisa's stuff [1] in water is quite good, but can be relatively pricy.

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Henry-Lisas-Natural-Seafood-Sardines/...

> This essential micronutrient is produced mainly by plants, including phytoplankton, bacteria, and fungi; people and animals must acquire it through their food.

Key here is beneficial bacteria and fungi, which a lot of our foods are increasingly poor in.

Would the washing of all our "anti-bacterial" cleaning products into the oceans and water ways be killing off the invisible foundation of the food chain: Bacteria and Fungi.

Molds (Fungi) and Bacteria are something Humans have been at war against with their cleaning and pesticides for decades...

Phytoplankton eat bacteria, correct?

When Indians who follow a strict vegan diet started migrating to the western world, a lot of them would begin to suffer from pernicious amaemia, a disease caused by deficiency of dietary vitamin B12. Similar diseases are present in India but appeared to be less common.

Most published research are rather diplomatic about this phenomenon[0]. However, reading between the lines, the reason appears to be the lack of fecal and insect contamination in food supply, which accidentally eliminated a lot of exogenous micronutrients not present in plants.


B12 deficiency doesn't cause pernicious anemia, pernicious anemia is a cause of B12 deficiency, its a GI absorptive disorder (lack if intrinsic factor).

I use the term loosely in reference to all types of anaemia arising from cobalamin deficiency, as the NIH and Mayo clinic do[0][1]. After all, lack of IF is only one of the many causes and the symptoms are similar regardless of aetiology.

[0]:https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/vitamin-defic... [1]:https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/pernicious-anemia

very interesting idea

I also wonder to what extent thiamine is recycled in nature, apart from thiaminases, if an predator high up the food chain dies and floats/sinks in the sea, will all the accumulated thiamin be recycled? in what pathways is thiamine consumed in say a human? what would increase or decrease the metabolic consumption (not eating) of thiamine?

Wikipedia's Thiamine / antagonists section:

>Thiamine in foods can be degraded in a variety of ways. Sulfites, which are added to foods usually as a preservative,[34] will attack thiamine at the methylene bridge in the structure, cleaving the pyrimidine ring from the thiazole ring.[13] The rate of this reaction is increased under acidic conditions. Thiamine is degraded by thermolabile thiaminases (present in raw fish and shellfish[12]). Some thiaminases are produced by bacteria. Bacterial thiaminases are cell surface enzymes that must dissociate from the membrane before being activated; the dissociation can occur in ruminants under acidotic conditions. Rumen bacteria also reduce sulfate to sulfite, therefore high dietary intakes of sulfate can have thiamine-antagonistic activities.

Is this perhaps due to sulfate pollution (bunker oil?) and acidification of the oceans?

The heavy fuel oil sulfur pollution situation has improved in Europe massively since 2015 when the emissions controls started. By now we should see an effect.

> Phytoplankton eat bacteria, correct?

No, phytoplankton are basically microscopic plants, they don't eat anything per se, they are autotrophs which use inorganic substances in the environment and get their energy from sunlight.

> Key here is beneficial bacteria and fungi, which a lot of our foods are increasingly poor in.

Aren't the beneficial bacteria and fungi that are meant to inhabit our own guts supposed to be enough?

Historically, maybe. But they do their work in the colon where it's too late for most nutrients to be absorbed without a "reconsumption" step humans generally no longer practice.

Do you eat yeast? It's good for that sort of thing; I mean, you can get it drinking unfiltered beer, too, but personally I kinda like how nutritional yeast tastes, and I'll use it as a condiment.

Nutritional yeast on popcorn is quite tasty, add some aminos and you have a great alternative to salt and butter.

It's also in Marmite.

A very interesting question. E.g. I feel like would love to eat 100% natural yet given what I know so far (which, on this subject, is hardly scientifical so there is hope it is false but I hesitate to rely on this hope so I take supplements) it is impossible to get all the micronutrients your body needs for highest-possible health and performance in the long term nowadays (unless, exaggerating just slightly, you eat some pounds of every known exotic fruit every day).

You can log what you eat here on an average day and find out: https://cronometer.com/

Is there a reason you don't eat fortified foods?

The three most relevant passages, in my opinion:

“We found that thiamine deficiency is much more widespread and severe than previously thought,” Balk says. Given its scope, he suggests that a pervasive thiamine deficiency could be at least partly responsible for global wildlife population declines. Over a 60-year period up to 2010, for example, worldwide seabird populations declined by approximately 70%, and globally, species are being lost 1,000 times faster than the natural rate of extinction (9, 10). “He has seen a thiamine deficiency in several differ phyla now,” says Fitzsimons of Balk. “One wonders what is going on. It’s a larger issue than we first suspected.”


Balk fears that a single pervasive factor, such as an atmospheric pollutant, may be depleting the environment of thiamine at its sources, including phytoplankton and bacteria, affecting the entire food chain. To see how far the problem reaches, he is now looking at upstream terrestrial wildlife such as elk (Alces alces). Balk is also investigating whether any of several pollutants might interfere with the oxidation, hydrolysis, or synthesis of thiamine.


Sañudo-Wilhelmy has measured very low levels of B vitamins, including thiamine, in coastal waters around California. Other researchers have estimated similar scarcities in some areas of the open ocean (16). Warming waters due to climate change could explain the seawater vitamin scarcity, he says. Warmer temperatures speed bacterial growth, making the microbes consume more B vitamins than they produce—gobbling up the vitamins before the phytoplankton can take their share.

All are couched with the fact that more research is necessary into the cause or causes.

Indeed we need more research.

For example a lot of coral is dying and most researchers suggest this is due to rising temperatures. But now some new research suggests that coral can handle the change in temperature but they die because they eat to much plastic particles.

Both can be true but the fact is we should be more carefull about our world because we just know too little about how all systems work together.

Is an interesting hypothesis...

Dunno... Incorrect temperature kills a lot of captive corals, even at small variations. Is a diverse group and some are harder to kill than other. On the other hand, Cnidarians taste their food and reject often small stones and sand grains. Probably many types of plastic particles (if not all) would be just taken by a small peeble and ignorated. Cnidarians loose interest quickly when you touch its tentacles with an inert matherial.

an invasive species of fish that is rich in thiaminase -> thiamin (vitamine B1) is broken down by thiaminase -> predators like birds normally source B1 from fish -> B1 deficiency

The perverse effect is that the invasive species has an advantage in that its predator suffers, so plausibly the birds will prefer their usual food if possible, which increases the concentration of the invasive fish...

that explanation only applies to the great lakes, not to the birds at the baltic.

sure, I didn't intend the summary of the mechanism as a sweeping clarification at all.

even within just the Great Lakes, this does not mean the invasive fish were necessarily the cause, in turn they may have been the result, perhaps the native fish were more dependent on thiamine than the invasive fish, and the thiamine deficiency maybe present at a lower level still say due to perhaps a change in whatever food is available to fish like plankton, plants, etc

but it does suggest a relatively cheap test for those studying the other populations: try administering B1 or other nutrients since substantial improvement by essential nutrients is hard to explain by a more complicated poisoning mechanism. I.e. if for some other species a similarly significant effect is observed in controlled correlation to some vitamin, then it's probably more significant than poisoning, i.e. we can't cure poisoning by administering vitamins. One could think that by feeding them in a new environment the animals were unknowingly spared from continuing poisoning, but that does not explain why the control group died (unless they claim Balk & co intentionally poisoned the control group of course)

>fish eggs micro-injected with thiamin survived

Hum, this does not look right

I don't have information about the authors experience as fish pathologists, but I would expect to see a mention to Myxobolus cerebralis somewhere if you have young salmonidae with erratic swimming.

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