The Benefits And Dangers Of Vitamin A

Vitamin A is absolutely vital for good health, so ensuring you have enough of it either in your diet or via supplements, can have a major positive impact on how you feel.

It is one of the four fat-soluble vitamins – the others are D, E, and K. But what does this mean, and what are the benefits and the dangers relating to Vitamin A?

beta carotene and vitamin A

Vitamins are split into two groups – fat-soluble and water-soluble. The water-soluble vitamins are easily and quickly flushed out of our systems in various ways, particularly through urination. But the fat-soluble vitamins are stored in our liver and in fatty tissues throughout the body, and although they are vital for good health we only need small amounts of them on a daily basis.

They are lost far more slowly than water-soluble vitamins. Because of this, there is distinctly more danger of building up to toxic levels of fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin A.

So, what do we need vitamin A for?  Vitamin A has a wide range of functions in the human body and is essential for maintaining good health. We need sufficient levels of vitamin A in our system to maintain healthy skin, including the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, mouth, throat, and lungs (it helps them to stay moist and clean). It helps to boost our immune system and protect against infection, and it’s a good anti-oxidant (so a sort of anti-aging vitamin).

It’s thought to help protect against several forms of cancer, and is renowned for its benefits to the retina in the eye, therefore maintaining and possibly enhancing night vision. It has a role to play in bone and tooth growth and can impact fertility. So you can see why it is viewed as an extremely important nutrient, and why it’s important to ensure you’re getting enough.

Vitamin A also helps skin grow and repair skin. “This being the case, it is the active ingredient in most Retin-A type products out today,” said Dr. David Greuner, director and co-founder of NYC Surgical Associates. Retin-A is a brand name for tretonin, a prescription medication that treats acne and other skin conditions. “It works by signaling to the cells to grow at a faster rate, bringing fresher, more youthful skin to the surface more rapidly. Used in excess, it can be quite irritating, however.”  – Livescience

What happens if I don’t have enough vitamin A? Serious vitamin A deficiency is rare in developed countries, but that’s not to say that we all have optimum levels of vitamin A by default. Skin problems like acne, mouth ulcers, dry flaky skin, and dandruff can be signs of vitamin A deficiency, as can deterioration in night vision, frequent colds and infections, recurring thrush or cystitis and even diarrhea.

What factors can prevent the body from absorbing vitamin A? Hot temperatures, strong sunlight, alcohol, coffee, and smoking can all drain vitamin A levels.

What factors can help your body to make the most of the vitamin A in your diet? Zinc supports vitamin A, while vitamins C and E can protect it.

Is it possible to have too much vitamin A? Yes. Because it is stored in the liver and fatty tissues, it’s quite possible to build up to toxic levels of vitamin A, although it’s difficult to reach this level through your diet alone. It’s far more likely to happen if you’re taking high dose supplements than if you are getting your vitamin A through a healthy diet.  In particular, it’s important not to take high doses of vitamin A supplements if you’re pregnant.

The beta-carotene form of vitamin A is the safer form, and you’d need to be taking a LOT to overdose on it. If your levels of beta-carotene are too high, your skin will take on an orangey-yellow tone. Retinol is the more common form of vitamin A supplement and is less well tolerated in high doses.

So if you’re taking vitamin A supplements, check the label and make sure that it is mostly in the form of beta-carotene, so you don’t really have to worry about getting too much.

What are the best natural food sources of vitamin A? Vitamin A in the form of retinol is found in dark meats like liver and also in many dairy products. But the bulk of your vitamin A intake should be in the form of beta-carotene. This isn’t actually a source of vitamin A itself, but the body converts it to vitamin A once it has been digested, which is why it is a safer form of vitamin A intake.

Fleshy fruits and vegetables with a strong orange color are often a good source, e.g. carrots, squash, sweet potatoes, apricots, mangos, and pumpkins. Vegetables with dark green leaves also tend to be high in beta-carotene, so ensuring you get plenty of cabbage, kale, broccoli, and watercress in your diet will help to ensure that your vitamin A levels are optimal.