Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The importance of addressing thiamine status in adrenal fatigue

In my last blog I discussed the multi-system symptomology of adrenal fatigue and used the analogy of a home heating system to describe how one may address the underlying causes of adrenal fatigue.  The analogy identified 3 components of your home heating system that may be the problem.
  1. The thermostat isn't set properly or doesn't sense the temperature
  2. The ignitor doesn't turn the gas in to heat
  3. The gas flow is off or obstructed
In this analogy, properly setting the thermostat involves changing your lifestyle to address how your brain perceives stress while fixing gas flow is increasing carbohydrate or caloric intake.  Both of these components are important factors to consider and most people do a good job at addressing them.  Addressing the ignitor, on the other hand, is another story.  I would consider addressing the ignitor as addressing nutritional deficiencies.  One nutritional deficiency that has some pretty solid science behind it is thiamine deficiency.  Most people are quick to address vitamin C, magnesium, D3 and other deficiencies with large doses of vitamins or multivitamins while ignoring something that may be as, if not more, important.  Let's take a look how thiamine may play a role in adrenal fatigue.

Thiamine 101

Every living organism on the planet, from bacteria to plants to animals, requires thiamine.  Certain bacteria and plants can synthesize thiamine on their own but animals require thiamine in their diet.  Thiamine is found in a variety of foods including yeast, lean pork, grains, legumes, and certain seeds.  Liver also contains a large amount of thiamine as most animals, including humans, have high stores of thiamine in the liver and red blood cells.

Thiamine is absorbed from the jejunum and ileum from food that is digested or, in some cases, via production by resident gut bacteria.  In fact, of the 3 identified human enterotypes, enterotype 2 has a large proportion of thiamine generating bacteria making hosts with that enterotype less likely to experience thiamine deficiency(1).  There are also bacteria that bind thiamine or create thiaminases, enzymes that degrade thiamine.  Humans absorb a high percentage of low dose thiamine but a gradual decline in the percentage of thiamine absorbed occurs at levels above 5 mg.  Thiamine is absorbed by intestinal cells as thiamine diphosphate but is converted in to free thiamine and released in to the bloodstream.    In the blood, it circulates as free thiamine and only becomes active when it is phosphorylated.  The most active form of thiamine is thiamine diphopshate although it seems thiamine triphosphate has some important, not well defined roles in the nervous system.

Humans store between 25-30mg of thaimine, much less than other animals.  Due to thiamine being a water soluble nutrient, depletion can occur in 14-18 days.  Under deficient thiamine intake, different organs lose thiamine at different rates.  Of utmost importance, the brain and central nervous system hold on to thiamine much longer than other organs.  This is likely due to the brains reliance on oxidative glucose metabolism and the role thiamine dependent enzymes play in that process.  The limbic system, an area of the brain responsible for emotion that also contains the hypothalamus, is typically hit very hard by thiamine deficiency.  It's of interest to note for our purposes that the hypothalamus is the H in the HPA axis. 

Cellular roles of thiamine

Thiamine has several roles in cellular glucose metabolism as it functions as a cofactor for various enzyme complexes.  The pyruvate dehydrogenase(PDH) and alpha ketoglutarate dehydrogenase(a-KGDH) enzyme complexes are important thiamine dependent enzyme complexes that help liberate energy from glucose in the citric acid cycle of mitochondria.  During glycolysis in the cytosol, glucose is converted in to 2 pyruvate molecules that enter the mitochondria.  Inside the mitochondria, pyruvate is converted in to acetyl CoA by the PDH complex so that it can enter the citric acid cycle.  This step requires thiamine diphosphate as a coenzyme.  This is important for 2 reasons.  In neurons, acetyl CoA comes predominantly from glucose and is necessary for the synthesis of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which we will cover later.  Secondly, in all cell types, insufficient thiamine decreases PDH activity and lactate accumulates in the cell and pours out in to the circulation.  Blood lactate is known to be elevated in Type 2 diabetics(2) and high blood lactate levels induce insulin resistance in skeletal muscle(3).

The role of a-KGDH in the citric acid cycle is also of importance as this enzyme complex is necessary for the synthesis of the neurotransmitters GABA, glutamate, and aspartate.  Furthermore, the altered glucose metabolism that accompanies a deficiency in the activity of PDH and a-KGDH can lead to mitochondrial damage and eventual cell death(4).

Another area of glucose metabolism where thiamine is important is the pentose phosphate pathway.  The pentose phopshate pathway is an anabolic pathway of glucose metabolism that creates NADPH or R5P based on cellular needs.  For a more thorough look at this process, check out this blog.  Understanding the pentose phosphate pathway is crucial for understanding hormonal balance and how adrenal function can be affected by thiamine deficiency so I urge you to check that blog out.

The thiamine dependent enzyme in the pentose phosphate pathway that's important is called transketolase.  Transketolase allows the products of  the non-oxidative pathway of the pentose phosphate pathway to be recycled in to glycolysis for generation of energy, to be converted in to glucose 6 phosphate to re-enter the oxidative phase of the pentose phosphate pathway to generate NADPH, or it can work in reverse and convert glycolytic intermediates in to ribose 5 phosphate, a necessary component of DNA and RNA.

This diagram shows the function of transketolase, abbreviated as Tkt.  Note how transketolase allows the products of the pentose phosphate pathway to move back in to glycolysis or feed back in to the pentose phosphate pathway.  One could look at it as transketolase preventing metabolic dead ends in the pentose phosphate pathway that aren't really dead ends at all.  Without transketolase, these products may accumulate and enter pathways that lead to glyoxal and methylglyoxal formation that eventually lead to advanced glycations endproducts(AGEs).  Thiamine has been shown to decrease formation of these troublesome substrates(5, 6) and the primary mechanism is through increased transketolase activity(5, 7) re-routing precursors back in to the pentose phosphate pathway and away from glyoxal formation.

Research on thiamine deficiency and adrenal function

Given the ethical challenges that inducing a thiamine deficiency in humans would raise, much of the data on the effect of thiamine deficiency on adrenal function comes from studies in rats.  One study showed that inducing thiamine deficiency in rats led to hyperstimulation of the zona fasciculata of the adrenal glands in 2 weeks causing increased corticosterone output followed by complete exhaustion in 4 weeks(8). Corticosterone is the chief glucocorticoid in rats whereas cortisol fills that role in humans.  While this is obviously an extreme example of thiamine deficiency and its effect on the adrenal gland, it does underscore the importance of thiamine in adrenal function.

Another study in rats found thiamine deficiency elevated corticosterone levels and depressed the aldosterone response to sodium deprivation(9).  Aldosterone is released by the adrenal glands when sodium levels drop, causing the kidney to recycle sodium back in to the bloodstream.  This is interesting because many of the symptoms associated with adrenal fatigue relate to an electrolyte imbalance, specifically a decrease in the sodium:potassium ratio.  A decrease in aldosterone under low sodium intake would induce the same set of symptoms.  Many people with adrenal fatigue notice an improvement in their symptoms with increased salt intake.

A study in humans found thiamine injections prevented functional adrenal gland exhaustion during and after surgical stress(10).  Again, it's hard to extraploate this data to otherwise healthy individuals, but it does show a general effect of thiamine on adrenal gland function.  Other studies in humans, particularly alcoholics, show biochemical lesions in the brain of people who are thiamine deficient.  This is likely due to decreased a-KGDH activity and impaired carbohydrate metabolism(11).  Since these lesions manifest themselves in the limbic system of the brain, they likely have an effect on adrenal function via an altered emotional state as well as damage to the hypothalamus.

It is apparent that thiamine is important for proper adrenal function.  The question now becomes what are the mechanisms by which thiamine deficiency can lead to adrenal dysfunction.  We'll tackle that after the break.

Redox balance, the pentose phosphate pathway, and adrenal function