The Legend of the Vampire and its Link to Vitamin Deficiency

Happy Halloween to all you spooky readers,

vampire

This is something I wish someone told me 20 years ago.

It would have spared me a few of the worry wrinkles I have today from all those nights I stayed up late being afraid of tall, pale, sneaky dudes slithering into my room at night to drink all my blood. When I was little, vampires were my biggest fear and I went to some seriously nerdy lengths to keep myself safe from them. Lengths including but not limited to sleeping with garlic cloves and strategically stacking pillows to optimize maximum neckage protection.

Thankfully, I am not the same scardey today that I was back then, but regardless it came as an interesting relief to my inner child to discover that the legend of the vampire may actually have a bit of a biological explanation behind it: vitamin deficiency.

Niacin (vitamin B3) is part of the group of B vitamins that we call the B-complex. B vitamins help us break down food into fuel, they are very important for energy and for the proper functioning of our nervous system.

Niacin is important for the metabolism of glucose (sugars), fat and alcohol (so basically everything you consume that isn’t protein). It is a vitamin found in food sources such as: meat, eggs, avocados, dates, leafy greens, broccoli, asparagus, nuts, seeds, whole grains, mushrooms and corn. It is in many foods we eat regularly and deficiencies aren’t very common. Extreme dietary imbalance and severe cases of intestinal inflammation such as Crohns or Colitis where nutrient absorption is hindered could lead to a niacin deficiency, it is pretty rare in North America but is still seen sometimes in Africa, Indonesia, China and North Korea.

However, at one point in history niacin deficiency was an issue.

In many different societies, maize (corn) became a staple crop for the lower class societies; in some cases it was the only thing they were eating. Corn has niacin in it, but in a form that our body doesn't absorb very well naturally. Native eaters of domestic maize traditionally prepared it with a mix of ash from their fires, the minerals from which would actually make the niacin in the maize available for our body to absorb. New welcomers of this crop didn’t follow this tradition and deficiency symptoms began to arise. This deficiency is known as Pellagra.

Pellagra symptoms may remind you of something.. they include:

  • Extreme sensitivity to sunlight (scaly skin rashes appear upon exposure)
  • Swollen and inflamed red tongue
  • Cracked, swollen red lips
  • Insomnia
  • Hair loss
  • Intolerance to odors causing nausea and vomiting (like garlic..)
  • Aggression
  • Emotional disturbances
  • Mental confusion
  • Depression
  • Dementia

Pellagra can lead to painful lesions that line the mucous membranes of the digestive system such as the esophagus, stomach and intestines causing an inability/refusal to eat food. Because eating became so painful for people with Pellagra, they were literally starving for nutrition and the idea of drinking blood for its nutrients became a very real idea... legend has it they even craved it.

Maybe before Pellagra was actually a diagnosable disease, people felt afraid of these unfortunate pale, red mouthed, light hating, severely malnourished people and made up some scary stories.

Corn products today use traditional ideas and go through a process of nixtamalization before reaching our mouths, typically it is soaked in an alkaline solution to help make the nutrients in it more absorbable for our bodies. This helps keep the "vampires" out of those societies where corn is the main food source.

Could the legend of the vampire have stemmed from the symptoms of an extreme niacin deficiency? 
Whether it did or it didn't, one thing is certain: malnourishment is pretty scary stuff.