We hear a lot about Vitamins and minerals in the world of Nutrition, but one amazing nutrient that often gets overlooked is Vitamin A. Like Vitamins C and E, it’s an important antioxidant and immune health nutrient; but it has so many other wonderful uses as well.
Functions of Vitamin A:
· Formation of bones and teeth
· Enhances immune function and protects against infections
· Protects against inflammation
· Supports growth and repair of epithelial tissue; which includes the skin, gums, gut, lungs and mucous membranes.
· Aids the uptake of protein in the body
· Protects the cardiovascular system against heart disease, high cholesterol and strokes
· Is anti-aging: promotes moisture retention, improves skin tone, accelerates healing, reduces fine lines and stimulates cell turnover.
Could I be deficient in Vitamin A?
If you suspect your intake is low, look for the following signs of Vitamin A deficiency:
· Poor night vision
· Dry bumpy skin (especially on the back of the arms)
· Frequent colds and other respiratory infections
· Frequent colds, sinusitis and lung infections
· Dandruff or limp hair
· Ear infections
· Tooth and gum problems
· Poor skin health: acne, or dull, dry or itchy skin.
· Medications: If you are taking medication for high cholesterol, antibiotics or laxatives, you may not be absorbing Vitamin A.
Dietary Sources of Vitamin A:
There are 2 forms of Vitamin A. The first is retinol, which mainly comes from animal sources. You’ll find it in fish, liver, cod liver oil, eggs and dairy products. Retinol is the most readily absorbed form of Vitamin A. And because it’s a fat soluble vitamin, the best way to get maximum absorption is to include some healthy fats with it. (Such as avocado, olive oil, butter, nuts and seeds.)
The second and safer form is the precursor beta-carotene, which is converted to Vitamin A in the small intestine or liver. It’s found mainly in orange and green leafy vegetables and fruit. The only thing that will occur if you eat too much beta-carotene is that your skin might start turning orange (which is completely reversible!) You’d have to be juicing quite a lot of carrots each day for this to occur!
· Pumpkin, sweet potato, carrots
· Apricots and peaches
· Cantaloupe and mangoes
· Kale, asparagus, spinach, broccoli
· Guava and papaya
· Seaweed (nori sheets)
How Much Vitamin A per day Do I Need?
From a dietary perspective, an adult needs a minimum of the equivalent of 2 carrots to get enough beta-carotene, which is approximately 5000 IU (international units) of Vitamin A. If you are unwell, pregnant, or are a smoker or drink alcohol regularly, you may need to increase your intake. Getting your nutrients from the diet is relatively safe, as the body only converts the beta-carotene amounts that it actually needs. This means you are at very low risk of toxicity. My only caveat is cod liver oil, which contains very high amounts of retinol and should not exceed a 20ml per day dose for adults (and a lot less for children.) However, a well-balanced diet should cover all your Vitamin A needs.
Should I take a supplement?
Fat soluble vitamins can be readily taken up and stored in our body tissues; so caution needs to be taken if using supplements to avoid toxicity. This is particularly applicable in the case of Vitamin A, which is sold in the form of retinol. Excessive dosing can cause headaches, irritability, hair loss, dry itchy skin, menstrual problems, liver enlargement, nausea and vomiting and a higher risk of birth defects. For this reason, Vitamin A supplementation needs to be supervised during pregnancy.
You may have heard of the medication known as Roaccutane, given for chronic acne. It contains high amounts of retinol and has many side effects, so it is contraindicated during pregnancy and lactation.
Because of toxicity risk, you’ll usually find Vitamin A supplements for skin in combination with other nutrients. There are several stand-alone Vitamin A supplements which contain higher doses (10000 IU) per tablet and are helpful in states of deficiency for the short term (say 1-2 weeks).
Note: If you have diabetes or an under active thyroid gland, you may not be able to convert beta-carotene, so retinol from the diet, or low dose Vitamin A supplements may be of benefit.
Caution: Do NOT take Vitamin A if you have liver disease.