It would certainly hardly ever have occurred to our ancestors to suppose that neuritis was due to dietary deficiency. How large a factor such deficiency really plays is only now beginning to be made clear.
During the last years of the nineteenth century a mysterious and devastating disease plagued and troubled the Dutch colonial officials in Javaespecially the medical officials. It attacked large groups of the native population, and one of the peculiar things concerning it was that it did affect almost exclusively the native population of the colonial territories. It was, however, by no means confined to the Dutch colonies but was widespread in the Far East.
The name given it was beri-beri. Its most outstanding feature was a paralysis and neuralgia of the legs, terminating in dropsy.
Many theories were advanced to account for it. It was thought to be an infection, but this idea would not hold water, because if an infection it should have affected the foreign as well as the native population. At last, a Dutch physician noticed that the fowls which fed on the remainders of the local prison meals would develop paralysis, and this led him to search for a dietary cause.
FOUND RICE DIET CAUSE
Finally he found that the disease developed only in those who lived on an exclusively rice diet and, furthermore, rice that had been milled or polished so that the outer shell was removed. This shell on the rice contains certain vital elements, especially that known as vitamin B.
It is lack of the vitamin B, then, which allows the degeneration of the nerves to occur. Lack of other vital elements may produce the same thing, because in pellagra, which is probably another food deficiency disease, we have prominent nervous and neuralgic symptoms.
These studies have a more practical interest for those of us who live in temperate climates than most studies in tropical disease.
Neuritis and neuralgia are frequently thought to be the result of the excessive use of alcohol. In fact, there is a form of multiple neuritis, known as “alcoholic neuritis.” But, as in the case of that other disease supposed to be the result of alcohol, cirrhosis of the liver, it cannot be experimentally produced by giving large amounts of alcohol.
ALCOHOLIC NOT HUNGRY
Now, it is well known that the fellow on an alcoholic spree is very indifferent to what he eats. In fact, he frequently goes days without taking anything but coffee. So he is a good subject for food deficiency diseases.
Recent investigations have shown that so-called alcoholic neuritis is cured by giving vitamin B and that, in essence, it may be the same as beri-beri.
We have long known that the alcoholic on a spree is liable to develop pellagra. So many diseases formerly ascribed to alcohol may be due to the dietary abstinence of alcoholic.