Homeopathic Doctor Overland Park KS
Vitamin A is often met with trepidation and firm warnings against overdose and toxicity. Although there is some merit to those cautions, there need not be all out fear and panic when it comes to Vitamin A. It is a powerful antioxidant that has its place, even in pregnancy- the most feared application. Vitamin A supplementation in developing countries can be life-changing while the use of synthetic, pre-formed versions as a topical medication for acne is concerning.
In this article, a homeopathic doctor will get you up to speed on the benefits, deficiency risks, sources, and appropriate use of Vitamin A so you won’t have to wonder or fear how to navigate this nutrient.
Forms of Vitamin A:
- Active Vitamin A: This is the form of vitamin A that is ready to use. The body does not need to do anything for it to start to do its job. The primary form of active vitamin A is called retinol. Animal liver is the primary food source of active vitamin A.
- Beta Carotene: This is a carotenoid (fat-soluble pigment made by plants) which the body converts into retinol. Beta Carotene is also called Provitamin A. Fruits and vegetables with yellow, orange, and red pigment (color) are the primary food sources of beta-carotene.
We will discuss this in more detail further down, but the primary concern for toxicity lies in synthetic versions of active vitamin A.
Benefits of Vitamin A:
Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin which is beneficial for vision, skin, bone, and an antioxidant fighting cell damage. Vitamin A is involved in regulating the growth and specialization of basically all cells in the body. This means it plays a role in how our whole body develops and how young cells grow into specific cells to make organs, bones, cartilage, etc. It continues to be studied for its role in fighting cancer, healthy bones, eyesight, and even allergies.
Bone growth: Vitamin A plays a role in the development of osteoblasts needed to lay down new bone matrix to keep bones healthy and strong. Vitamin A deficiency can also limit calcium absorption and utilization by the body, resulting in poor bone growth. It is a nutrient needed in synergy with other nutrients, including Vitamin D, Magnesium, Phosphorus, and Calcium to be best utilized in the body
Healthy vision: It is with good reason that children are told to eat their carrots for good eyesight. Carrots are a source of beta-carotene which is what the body turns into active vitamin A-retinol. Retinol either made from beta-carotene or from active vitamin A goes through a few different reactions in the retina to, in the end, trigger the nerve impulse from the optic nerve to the brain which is what makes our sight. The development of sight in an embryo is dependent on vitamin A.
One study found that people who ate more foods high in carotenoids, which the body uses to make active vitamin A, had lower incidence of macular degeneration. This was in conjunction with omega 3 fatty acids.
Supports immunity: In the 1920’s, Vitamin A was called the “anti-infective vitamin” because it was so important in normal immune system function. Even back then, there was evidence of its use against pneumonia and measles which still has application today when done appropriately. Since the 1920’s, researchers have concluded that retinoic acid is found in skin, mucosal lining, digestive tract, lining airways, and urinary tract. These linings are the body’s first defense against infection.
Fights inflammation: Vitamin A plays a role in the normal development of cells. Inflammation is part of what harms or prevents the normal development of and speeds up the rapid breakdown of otherwise healthy cells. Vitamin A has been found to be useful in a few different inflammation-based diseases including acne, pulmonary disorders, and types of precancerous and cancerous cells. Being deficient in vitamin A tilts your system toward producing pro-inflammatory cytokines, specifically IL-17. When this process goes unchecked, it can lead to autoimmune disease. This study suggests vitamin A has a role in treating and preventing gastric cancers.
Protects gut health and food sensitivities: Vitamin A is an integral part of the gut mucosal lining. A paper discussing the role in vitamin A in immune tolerance states that “Vitamin A is crucial to a very sophisticated bi-directional mechanism that takes place in the digestive system and leads to immune tolerance across the entire gut lining.” This has huge implications for those suffering from food allergies and food sensitivities usually driven by inflammation and an overactive immune system.
Skin health: Skin is one of the organs that responds very well to retinoids (active form of vitamin A). This is why synthetic forms are made to treat acne and psoriasis which can be effective, but not without risks which will be discussed below. There are benefits to appropriate and sufficient oral intake of vitamin A for skin health since retinoids help change the cellular expression of cells in the skin to improve issues like acne and hyperkeratosis (chicken skin). Vitamin A may also offer protection from UV rays and signs of aging on the skin
Deficiencies of Vitamin A
Severe deficiencies of vitamin A are pretty rare in the US. Developing countries where children are eating primarily unfortified rice are the most at risk group of people. However, mild deficiencies can contribute to a wide range of health issues. When people are at higher risk for deficiency, it is usually not because of poor intake of vitamin A foods, but rather, poor absorption and conversion of provitamin A to active forms. The underlying disease process inhibits the body’s ability to absorb and use the vitamin effectively.
People suffering from the following are at risk for deficiency:
- Celiac disease
- Crohn’s disease
- Alcoholism or even moderate alcohol intake
- Cystic fibrosis
- Any type of pancreatic insufficiency
- Irritable Bowel Disease (IBD)
Symptoms of deficiency:
- Increased risk of infection
- Delayed growth and bone development in children
- Dry skin and hair
- Various eye issue
Sources of Vitamin A
It is important to recognize that it takes substantially more beta-carotene containing foods to get the same amount of active vitamin A as obtaining the active form directly from animal sources. For example, it takes 4 ½ lbs of carrots to get the same amount of vitamin A as 3 oz of beef liver. Similarly, it takes about 6 to 10 units of carotenoids (plant source) to convert into 1 unit of retinol (animal source). However, the beta-carotene sources of provitamin A are important as that is where a lot of the antioxidant activity comes into play.
Beta-carotene (provitamin A): Apricots, bell peppers (orange, red, yellow) cantaloupe, carrots, mango, papaya, pumpkin, squash, sweet potatoes, tomato, watermelon
Retinol (active vitamin A): Cod liver oil, grass-fed cream, egg yolk, grass-fed butter and/or ghee, grass-fed, grass-fed liver*
*Note: Liver should only be consumed from grass fed (cow) or pastured (chicken) animals. Although the amount of active vitamin A in only 3 oz liver exceeds the RDA for vitamin A, there is no concern for toxicity since it is not a synthetic source. Particularly when vitamin D levels are optimal, the high levels of vitamin A from a high-quality animal source are a very beneficial part of the diet. There is no reason to eat animal liver on a daily basis, nor would most people choose to do.
Toxicity and Supplementing with Vitamin A
This is the area of confusion around this nutrient. First of all, supplementing with vitamin A, even in high doses, does have its place but must be done with a qualified homeopathic doctor like those at LifeWorks Integrative Health in Overland Park KS. Short-term, high-dose vitamin A therapy can be quite successful in leukemia, measles, and acne. There are other applications surrounding immunity, cancer, and skin issues where an experienced, qualified practitioner would use supplemental vitamin A.
Toxicity and Pregnancy
The issue and subsequent fear around vitamin A toxicity in pregnancy comes from overuse of poor quality synthetic supplements during pregnancy. The general public is in the dark as to the potential harms of low-quality synthetic vitamin A which is in most prenatal vitamins. The quality of prenatal vitamin is extremely important and the right parental will have the appropriate amounts of vitamin A since too little puts a developing fetus at risk, as does chronic high doses.
When it comes to toxicity, the only issue is in chronic, high doses of synthetic vitamin A. High levels of vitamin A from food sources, even those like liver, are perfectly safe and even beneficial. Especially in the presence of adequate vitamin D status, the extra vitamin A from liver can be a truly powerful superfood.
Toxicity and Acne Medications
Vitamin A supplements, topical uses, and medications such as Accutane, have been used for many years and at times with life-altering negative side effects. A medication for acne for which liver enzymes must be checked is a red flag that the medication could be dangerous.
Additionally, most physicians require women to take birth control while on Accutane since the long-term high doses of isotretinoin (a synthetic form) can cause birth defects. For more information on the downfalls of Accutane, see this article for a summary. Qualified, experienced functional medicine practitioners can however successfully and safely use short-term, high-dose, high-quality vitamin A supplementation for treating acne, but this type of treatment should not be done without a practitioner.
Five Strategies to Simplify Vitamin A
It is always our goal to dive deep (because you’re smart and deserve to know the whole story), but not leave you swimming in a quagmire of information that does not translate to real life. Here is the simplified version of everything we just dug into about vitamin A:
- Eat yellow, orange, and red foods regularly
- Eat eggs, grass-fed butter/ghee regularly, and liver every few weeks
- Do not take high dose vitamin A* supplements unless working with a practitioner
- Take a high-quality multivitamin during pregnancy (find good options here)
- Work toward healing underlying digestive disease so vitamins are well absorbed
The amount and type of vitamin A in most high-quality multivitamins is both an appropriate level of supplementation and a sufficient level of good vitamin A status in most people.
Final Thoughts on Vitamin A
It is imperative to remember that our bodies are an amazingly integrated system. No body part, body system, or body process works without the others. The same is true of vitamins, minerals, enzymes, amino acids, co-factors, etc. Like most things in life, they are better together, so when we discuss single nutrients, we do so with the understanding that no nutrient does its best work alone. High doses of single nutrients for long periods of time are rarely useful, and potentially harmful. This is definitely the case with Vitamin A.
Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin and needs fat to be absorbed and protein to bind appropriately where it needs to be used. Therefore, we always recommend eating your sources of vitamin A vegetables with a high-quality fat source like grass-fed butter, olive oil, avocado oil, or coconut oil. Olive oil is best used as the base for salad dressings and the others for cooking since they tolerate heat well and will not break down.
We are big fans of eating liver when the source of the animal is high quality. Since most Americans have fallen out of favor with the weekly liver and onions meal that your mother might remember, here are five other ways to get liver into your routine:
- Take it in pill form
- Use a food processor to grind liver and add to meatballs, taco meat, meatloaf
- Try this recipe for liver and onions or find 14 more recipes here
- Use lamb, calve’s, or chicken liver for milder flavor than beef
- Make it into pate
Lastly, you have nothing to fear when it comes to consuming vitamin A from foods, even when you are pregnant. Keep in mind if you have a digestive-related disease, you may not convert beta-carotene to active vitamin A very well, so be sure to consume plenty of vitamin A foods and work toward healing your digestion so you can absorb and utilize vitamins and minerals well.