Vitamin A is an essential nutrient critical for whole-body health. From your eyes to the immune system, vitamin A is a must-have. So, what does vitamin A do, and why do we need it?
Here are seven reasons vitamin A should be part of your daily routine and what you can do to ensure you are getting enough.
What is Vitamin A and What Does it Do?
Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin naturally found in some foods or taken as a dietary supplement. It helps to keep your skin bright and your eyesight functioning. It's also vital for reproductive and immune health.
There are two primary forms of vitamin A found in your diet:
- Preformed vitamin A, or retinol and retinyl ester, is found in animal-based foods.
- Provitamin A is found in plant-based foods. There are several types of provitamin A, but the most well-known is beta carotene.
Your body converts both types of vitamin A to active forms. Whatever you don't use is mainly stored in the liver.
Vitamin A Benefits
It may not be as popular as some other vitamins, but vitamin A benefits are just as impressive. It's necessary for optimal health for a variety of reasons.
1. May Preserve Eyesight
Remember how your parents told you carrots would keep your eyes healthy? That's because they are a source of vitamin A, specifically beta-carotene. Vitamin A maintains eyesight, especially as you age.
Vitamin A can help make rhodopsin, a photopigment found in your eyes that allows you to see in the dark. Without vitamin A, you can't make rhodopsin. If deficiency gets bad enough, you can develop a condition called night blindness.
Vitamin A is also a potential factor in age-related macular degeneration (AMD). AMD is one of the most common reasons people lose eyesight as they get older. The reason people end up with AMD is not entirely understood, but it is likely related to hereditary and environmental factors, including oxidative stress (damage from rogue oxygen atoms).
Luckily, in combo with other eye-supporting nutrients like zinc, copper, and antioxidants, vitamin A could help slow down vision loss for people at risk for AMD. Essentially, vitamin A is necessary if you want to help maintain healthy eyes as you get older.
2. Aids in Immune System
Vitamin A is also a critical factor in a well-functioning immune system. It helps maintain epithelial tissue, which lines all the surfaces of your body, including your nose, throat, lungs, and digestive tract. These tissues are your first line of immune defense, protecting you from the outside world.
Adequate amounts of vitamin A are needed to keep your immune organs healthy and make immune cells that fight back against infections. Studies show that people with suboptimal vitamin A status are more likely to get sick or take longer to get well.
3. May Lower Risk of Cancer
The relationship between vitamin A and cancer is complicated, but it appears that including more vitamin A-rich foods in your diet, especially beta-carotene, is linked to a lower risk of cancer. Those bright, beautiful red, orange, and green fruits and veggies boost your antioxidant intake and could even have anti-tumor activity.
The same may not be true for vitamin A supplements, as the results are mixed. People who get enough vitamin A in their diets probably won't see any anti-cancer benefits from supplementation. Still, those with deficiencies might reduce their risk.
Even further, if you smoke (or even if you used to), taking vitamin A supplements has been shown to increase your risk for lung cancer. So if you have any history of smoking, it may be a good idea to get vitamin A from your diet or have a conversation with your physician before taking any supplements.
4. May Support Healthy Organ Function
Vitamin A benefits nearly all the organs in your body. It supports the growth of the cells and tissues needed for organs like your heart, lungs, and kidneys to function.
Early vitamin A deficiency during preconception or pregnancy could lead to altered gene expression, impacting the baby’s heart. Studies show that a group of vitamin-A-dependent genes are necessary for healthy heart development in utero. If vitamin A is lacking, there’s an increased risk that the heart will develop abnormally.
It's also critical for healthy lung function, with suboptimal amounts increasing the risk of respiratory illnesses and even lung-related health conditions like asthma.
5. May Contribute to Bone Health
Forget gulping down milk for strong bones. It turns out a lot of what we learned as children was a bit oversimplified. Bone health relies on a combination of nutrients, including vitamin A, to keep your bones healthy. Vitamin A helps your bones develop, while suboptimal vitamin A status can increase your risk of bone fractures.
Vitamin A's impact on cell growth includes bone-building cells, which is why it's linked to bone health. But it also influences the cells that break down and recycle bones, so it's a give-and-take relationship. That's why some studies have suggested that while vitamin A is necessary, too much supplemental vitamin A may negatively impact your bones.
This relationship likely depends on other factors, including the balance of bone-building nutrients like vitamin D. Nevertheless, scientists agree that adequate vitamin A is critical for building healthy bones. Still, more research is needed on who may benefit from additional supplements.
6. May Reduce the Appearance of Acne
Topical vitamin A is considered the gold standard by many skin-health experts to help with acne. It works to slough off dead skin cells that can otherwise clog your pores and make room for healthy new cells. But the benefits of vitamin A for your skin also extend to food and supplements.
Studies have found that people with acne tend to have lower vitamin A levels in their blood. Eating a diet rich in vitamin A may also brighten your complexion through its antioxidant activity, as free radicals (naturally occurring unpaired oxygen atoms) can damage your skin. You can grab a free hormone-supporting meal plan and recipe guide that can show you how to start incorporating this nutrient into your diet.
As an aside, there's even a condition called carotenemia where your skin can turn yellowish-orange if you eat many foods high in beta-carotene. It's not serious, and you have to eat a lot of beta-carotene-rich foods for it to occur, but it points to how powerful these vitamin A-rich foods really are in skin health.
7. Promotes Healthy Pregnancies
Standard advice usually tells us to avoid too much supplemental preformed vitamin A during pregnancy because it's linked to birth defects. While this is true, it's a critical nutrient for reproductive health, growth, and development, so getting enough is still essential.
Studies show that low vitamin A status can impact egg quality and make implantation difficult. And since it takes two to get pregnant, it's worth mentioning that vitamin A is also essential for healthy sperm.
Vitamin A also promotes healthy development in babies, including the heart, lungs, kidneys, bones, and more. Quality prenatal supplements will include vitamin A as a combination of beta-carotene and retinyl palmitate. While the recommendation used to be to only take beta carotene during pregnancy, more recent research suggests that some people carry genetic mutations that make it difficult to convert beta-carotene into an active form.
How Much Vitamin A Do I Need?
Generally, adult women need 700 mcg RAE, pregnant women need 770 mcg RAE, and you need even more if you are breastfeeding (1300 mcg RAE).
Nutrition is always individualized, but general recommendations for optimal vitamin A levels depend on your biological sex, age, life stages, or health conditions (like pregnancy or breastfeeding).
Since there are several forms of vitamin A, recommendations are measured in retinol activity equivalents (RAE). Depending on the source of vitamin A, it can take more or less to convert into an active form, so it's a way to account for the differences.
How Much Vitamin A Is Too Much?
There is an upper limit for vitamin A of 3000 mcg for adults.
As mentioned above, specific populations need to be extra careful about not getting too much vitamin A, especially pregnant women, because of the link to birth defects. Preformed vitamin A should not exceed 3000 mcg RAE per day when pregnant. Since vitamin A is fat-soluble, the body will store excess amounts.
Over time this can add up to toxic levels, impacting your liver function, a condition known as hypervitaminosis A. This condition usually results from supplements and not food as your body can regulate preformed vitamin A to use as needed.
How Do I Increase My Vitamin A Intake?
Since vitamin A is found in so many different foods, deficiency is relatively rare unless you have a medical condition that interferes with activation or absorption. People who live in developing countries are also more at risk for malnutrition than in places like the United States.
That said, there are some estimates that while true deficiency is rare, there are many people who eat diets low in fruit and veggies and therefore have less than optimal intake. While suboptimal intake won’t necessarily cause diseases related to vitamin A deficiency, it does impact how well your body functions.
You can increase your intake through vitamin A-rich foods or vitamin A supplementation when recommended by your healthcare practitioner.
Vitamin A Foods
Preformed (retinol) and proformed (carotenoids) vitamin A is found in many foods. While some foods provide both types, animal products tend to be higher in preformed vitamin A, and plant foods are higher in proformed.
Some of the best sources of preformed vitamin A include:
- Beef liver
- Chicken liver
- Whole milk
- Cottage cheese
Carotenoids tend to come from plant foods that are vibrant hues of orange and green. Some of the best sources are:
- Red peppers
Vitamin A Supplements
Generally, a healthy diet rich in both forms of vitamin A usually provides enough to avoid deficiency. However, there are times when your healthcare practitioner may recommend supplements for additional support.
The form of vitamin A found in supplements can vary between preformed, proformed (usually beta carotene), or a combo of both. It can be part of a multivitamin, a prenatal, or just taken alone.
Vitamin A Summed Up
Vitamin A is a nutrient that's essential for your health. While food can be an excellent source, supplements are sometimes necessary to make up for what our diet lacks. Ensuring you get enough will support your skin, eyes, immune system, a healthy pregnancy, and more.
Not sure where to start? Try adding more foods rich in Vitamin A like leafy greens, carrots, sweet potatoes, and squash into your daily routine. We make this easy on you with our free hormone balancing starter kit that includes a seven-day meal plan with recipes.
And if you are considering supplements, make sure to reach out to your healthcare practitioner to choose the right fit for you.
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