A high dietary intake of thiamine (B1) may help protect against migraines

Thiamine: This Vitamin May Prevent Migraine Headaches

Thiamine: This Vitamin May Prevent Migraine Headaches

Scientifically reviewed by: Michael A. Smith, MD

There are headaches, and there are migraine attacks, which can render you pretty much useless for days. Known for their disabling symptoms, migraine headaches are the most prevalent disorders experienced worldwide—and women are twice as likely to experience these severe headaches (since menstrual-related migraines are, unfortunately, a problem).

How is a migraine different from other types of headaches? For one, the pain tends to be throbbing or pulsating, and sometimes is limited to just one side of the head. For another, it can include symptoms beyond head pain, such as nausea, light and sound sensitivity, loss of balance and changes to your appetite. And the duration is no joke—they sometimes last for two to three days.

While several prescriptions and over-the-counter options help ease the debilitating headache symptoms, most migraine prevention focuses on what not to do: Don't drink that cup of joe or enjoy a glass of wine at night, don't take on too much stress, don't look at strobe lights, and the list goes on.

However, a recent study published in the Journal of Head and Face Pain suggests there's something you can do to help prevent a migraine headache: regular intake of high-dose thiamine, or vitamin B1.

Thiamine & migraines

The study found that people who had high dietary intake of thiamine had a lower incidence of migraines. Researchers analyzed answers from 13,439 Americans who completed the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which collected information about various aspects of health, including headache history and side effects; about 20 percent of the participants recorded suffering a headache or migraine in the past three months.

Participants in the survey also did a 24-hour dietary recall interview where they discussed their daily habits around their meals and lifestyle; this included their consumption of riboflavin and thiamine. Analysis of the data noted that those whose diet included a high dose of vitamin B1 appeared to have protection against headaches and migraines—and B1's protective effects against migraines were more pronounced in women.

"We found that high intake of thiamine was significantly associated with lower odds of migraine, especially in females," the researchers wrote. "In the future, more clinical studies are needed to confirm our conclusions, and additional experiments are needed to explore the possible mechanisms of prevention and treatment for migraines."

So, does this mean vitamin B1 helps migraine patients prevent migraines? Not exactly. While the study showed positive results, more randomized and interventional clinical trials are needed to explore the potential benefits of B1 in preventing the risk of migraine headaches. Still, this new study does confirm the long-held belief that dietary patterns hugely impact headaches.

How does thiamine (vitamin B1) work?

As part of the B vitamin family, thiamine is naturally found in foods like pork, fish, legumes, green peas, yogurt, sunflower seeds, and added to foods like fortified breakfast cereals. As a water-soluble vitamin, thiamine only will be stored in small amounts in your liver, so you must get it daily through your diet.
Your body uses B1 in three main ways:

  • Energize your body:

    Vitamin B1 regulates several enzymes involved in energy production from the metabolism of carbohydrates, branched-chain amino acids, and fatty acids.
  • Support mitochondrial function:

    Because of its essential role in metabolism, B1 is also crucial in supporting the health and performance of your mitochondria. You can think of your mitochondria as the tiny, rechargeable power packs in your cells. The primary mitochondrial function is to produce ATP (adenosine triphosphate, or your cells' preferred source of energy).
  • Production of vital molecules:

    Vitamin B1 also plays a role as a coenzyme, or helper molecule, in the synthesis of crucial compounds like cholesterol, nucleic acids (the building blocks of DNA and RNA), neurotransmitters like glutamate and g-aminobutyric acid (GABA, the main inhibitor in your brain that helps you slow down and "turn off").

Low thiamine and migraines: What’s the connection?

Your brain and heart cells need exuberant amounts of energy as you meet deadlines, cook dinner, work out, and drop your kids off at soccer practice. That's a lot of work and energy demand on your tiny mitochondria! So, if your body doesn't have the nutrients it needs (including vitamin B1, but also riboflavin and magnesium) to get energy from the foods you eat, then all that extra work on your cells will take its toll—you feel it in the form of a headache and other severe symptoms.

So, how are migraine attacks and B1 linked? It's not entirely clear yet, but there are a few plausible suggestions. Thiamine's central role in metabolism could explain how it may be related to episodic migraines. Research suggests headache attacks like migraines can get triggered when there's failure to meet the cells' high metabolic demand. In other words, the symptoms people experience from headache attacks could occur because the mitochondria are being overworked and aren't producing enough energy to meet the high demand of power organs like the brain, heart, kidneys, and other cells throughout the body.

Here are three examples of how lack of B1 could be associated with migraines.

  1. Migraines triggered by hunger or food:

    If you've noticed a migraine attack coming before a meal (or while you're fasting), it could be because fasting (or prolonged periods between meals) can mean lack of thiamine, which impact your stress response and trigger a migraine. 
  2. Migraines triggered by sulfites:

    Sulfites are compounds added to foods as preservatives and are recognized as potential dietary migraine triggers. Sulfites are also B1 antagonists, which means they inhibit thiamine from regulating enzymatic reactions.
  3. Not enough magnesium:

    Magnesium is often used to help prevent migraines; one of the many ways your body uses this mighty mineral is to help B1 bind to the enzymes that activate it.

Pro tip: In addition to high-dose thiamine and riboflavin, dietary intake of nutrients like CoQ10, butterbur root, melatonin and magnesium can help in preventing headaches and chronic migraines.

Is riboflavin the same as thiamine?

No. Riboflavin, like thiamine, is one of the water-soluble B vitamins, but it differs slightly in the way it interacts with your body and the benefits it offers. Also known as vitamin B2, riboflavin acts as an antioxidant in the body, protecting your cells and DNA from oxidative stress, which can damage their structure and function. Riboflavin supports eye, skin, and nervous system health; it's also key to the growth and production of red blood cells.

Pro tip: Since both B-group vitamins are involved in energy production, having adequate amounts in your body could be beneficial in preventing headaches like chronic migraines and their symptoms.

How much thiamine do I need?

According to the recent study, a dietary intake higher than the RDA for vitamin B1 can be potentially beneficial in protecting against migraines and their symptoms. Medical and nutrition experts suggest the daily recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for adults should be at least 1.2 mg of B1 for men and 1.1 mg for women—the dose increases to 1.4 daily mg during pregnancy and lactation.

Thiamine deficiency is rare in modern countries (RDAs are generally easy to achieve through diet), but a thiamine deficiency can lead to beriberi. This condition affects the central nervous system, as well as the function of multiple muscles and organs. A thiamine deficiency can also lead to neurological disorders like cognitive decline and heart problems that interfere with proper blood circulation throughout the body.

Common risk factors for a thiamine deficiency include:

  • Age (older individuals are more likely to be deficient)
  • Less than optimal nutrition
  • Eating disorders
  • Poor nutrient absorption
  • Excessive loss of thiamine
  • Chronic alcohol consumption

The good news is that you won't develop a thiamine deficiency if you meet the minimum daily mg for B1. However, as the study suggests, a high-dose thiamine intake is preferred for optimal brain health and potential migraine prevention and symptom relief.

5 health benefits of vitamin B1

As part of the B vitamins, B1 can be thought of as the energy vitamin. But it also supports whole-body health in other ways.

  1. Healthy blood sugar levels:

    B1 is crucial for converting foods into energy—which is vital for blood sugar and the energy demand of your hard-working cells.
  2. Healthy nervous system and brain function:

    As a crucial cofactor in energy production, B1 helps maintain nerve cell health and neurotransmitter production. It's also been found to have protective effects on the brain.
  3. DNA synthesis and repair:

    Thiamine is involved in the production of nucleotides, making it necessary to produce DNA and RNA.
  4. Healthy liver support:

    Thiamine is also involved in fatty acids and amino acid synthesis, which helps protect the liver by encouraging the breakdown of both, so your liver doesn't store them as fat, which can lead to liver health-related symptoms.
  5. Graceful aging:

    Vitamin B1 helps protect against the side effects of oxidative stress and AGEs (advanced glycation end-products). The AGES process has been shown to accelerate aging in several ways, including interfering with normal protein function, impacting heart and blood vessel function, and even resulting in fine lines and wrinkles.

3 ways to boost your intake of thiamine

Now that you understand the importance of this essential B vitamin in whole-body health—and potential migraine prevention—let's go over ways you can up your high-dose thiamine intake.

  1. Eat more vitamin B1-rich foods:

    Yes, you can eat your way to optimal B1 levels. Add foods like bananas and oranges, lentils, rice, whole wheat, wheat germ, nuts, peas, fish, legumes and yogurt to your meals for a daily B1 boost.
  2. Thiamine intake:

    Speak with your doctor to see if adding benfotiamine to your wellness routine can help you boost your thiamine availability. As a fat-soluble form of B1, benfotiamine can easily cross cell membranes and help regulate healthy blood sugar metabolism. It also helps protect against oxidative stress and glycation (a biochemical reaction that can speed up the aging process).
  3. Fortified foods:

    Adding foods fortified with B1 can be a great way to add more vitamin B1 to your meals. Think fortified cereals, rice, breads, and noodles.

Pro tip: Eating balanced meals is the best way to ensure your body gets enough vitamins (like B1 and B2), minerals (like magnesium), and other nutrients it needs to thrive. Plus, it's an excellent way to help prevent headaches like migraine attacks and their incapacitating symptoms.

Is thiamine toxic?

No. Thiamine is well-tolerated by the body, and there are no established toxic effects from high-dose thiamine consumption through foods or oral thiamine intake. Its water-soluble nature makes B1 quickly disposed of by the body—it's also why a thiamine deficiency is possible, especially in underdeveloped countries.

Let's recap: The recent study published in Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain found that high-dose thiamine intake can be protective against headaches like migraines and their symptoms. Still, more clinical trials are needed to explore how B1 works with the biological pathways associated with migraine prevention. The study does confirm the significant impact dietary patterns have on headaches and suggests that incorporating more B1-rich foods and thiamine into your wellness routine could help protect against the risk of episodic migraines and their symptoms. Always speak with your doctor before adding nutrients of any kind to your daily habits.



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The Life Extension Health News team delivers accurate information about vitamins, nutrition and aging. Our stories rely on multiple, authoritative sources and experts. We keep our content accurate and trustworthy, by submitting it to a medical reviewer.