Pellagra: The Corn Disease

Poor Guy!
Poor Guy!

Pellagra can be common in people who obtain most of their food energy from maize, notably rural South America, where maize is a staple food. If maize is not nixtamalized, it is a poor source of tryptophan, as well as niacin. Nixtamalization corrects the niacin deficiency, and is a common practice in Native American cultures that grow corn.

Following the corn cycle, the symptoms usually appear during spring, increase in the summer due to greater sun exposure, and return the following spring. Indeed, pellagra was once endemic in the poorer states of the U.S. South, such as Mississippi and Alabama, where its cyclical appearance in the spring after meat-heavy winter diets led to it being known as “spring sickness” (particularly when it appeared among more vulnerable children), as well as among the residents of jails and orphanages as studied by Dr. Joseph Goldberger

“In the early 1900s, pellagra reached epidemic proportions in the American South. Between 1906 and 1940 more than 3 million Americans were affected by pellagra with more than 100,000 deaths, yet the epidemic resolved itself right after dietary niacin fortification.[29] Pellagra deaths in South Carolina numbered 1,306 during the first ten months of 1915; 100,000 Southerners were affected in 1916.  Wikipedia

11 responses to “Pellagra: The Corn Disease”

    • My lovely daughter (19) thought it would be a good idea to spend the last year at college eating only a handful of nuts and washing it down with coffee each day.

      She ended up with scurvy and severe and debilitating vitamin b and iron deficiencies. She’s home now and on the mend. Food is very important!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Just some additional information on the subject. Of course in the current times there would be a debate on whether pellagra is really a disease and if niacin didn’t cause secondary problems which would allow parents to conscientiously object to its use in the treatment of their children.

    People and Discoveries

    Pellagra shown to be dietary disease

    By 1912, Joseph Goldberger had been a member of the U.S. Public Health Service for 13 years. In 1914, the surgeon general appointed him to tackle the crisis of pellagra. Pellagra had been a low-level problem throughout the South for years, but crop failures and an economic downturn had raised it to epidemic proportions. The disease causes skin rashes, mouth sores, diarrhea, and if untreated, mental deterioration. Goldberger’s first step was to simply observe. He traveled tirelessly through the South, taking notes, asking questions, and watching. He noticed that the diet of poor people in the region consisted of cornbread, molasses, and a little pork fat. It seemed that the poorer people were, the more likely they were to get pellagra. Institutions such as prisons, asylums, and orphanages also had a limited diet and a great deal of pellagra — among inmates. Goldberger gradually concluded that the disease was not infectious at all, but strictly a matter of diet.

    In 1915, he conducted experiments on inmates at a Mississippi prison, who volunteered for the study in exchange for a pardon. Because it was a farm prison, its inmates had a fairly balanced diet. Goldberger’s volunteers were given the poor Southern diet he had seen associated with pellagra. That was the only difference. The other inmates ate the usual farm fare. Every effort was made to prevent and rule out infectious transmission. And within months, the volunteers came down with pellagra. Then the researchers tried to catch the disease from those already suffering — they couldn’t. The pellagra symptoms disappeared when the volunteers were given meat, fresh vegetables, and milk.

    Despite this conclusive evidence, Goldberger had trouble convincing others what he had found. He spent the rest of his life looking for what exactly was missing in the diet that caused pellagra, but this would not be uncovered until after his death. He also was thwarted by the medical world’s obsession with infectious disease, newly understood and in some cases treatable, and the political world’s resistance to hearing that poor social conditions could cause disease.

    In 1937, researcher Conrad Elvehjem found that nicotinic acid, or niacin, prevented and cured pellagra in dogs. It works as well in humans. Niacin is one of the B vitamins. During the 1930s, great strides were made in understanding the way vitamins work in the chemistry of our bodies.

    Liked by 1 person

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