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What You Need to Know About Vitamin A

Reviewed by: Dr. Steven Knauf, D.C.

By: Dona Stark


Our days are filled with unsung heroes. People who humbly work behind the scenes to make sure our lives move forward without so much as a hitch. In the vitamin world, the unsung hero is undoubtedly Vitamin A.

Unlike its showier siblings, Vitamins C and D, Vitamin A is rarely the main topic in conversations. Fortunately, it doesn’t hold that against us. Even as we eat bag after bag of oranges and bask in the sun for hours on end, Vitamin A continues to quietly go about its business, keeping our eyesight sharp, our skin smooth and young-looking, and our immune systems strong and battle-ready.

It’s been said that not all heroes wear capes, and that’s definitely true for Vitamin A. For centuries, this powerhouse nutrient has been doing extraordinary things for us mere mortals. It’s high time we give it the spotlight it deserves.

What is Vitamin A, and why is it important?

Vitamin A (retinol, retinoic acid) is an essential nutrient. This means your body can’t produce it, and the only way to get it is from your diet or supplementation. Vitamin A is also one of the 13 essential vitamins required for your body to work properly.

The two forms of Vitamin A are preformed Vitamin A and provitamin A. Preformed Vitamin A comes from animal products and is easily digested and absorbed by the body. Provitamin A comes from plant sources and must be converted by the body into usable forms.

Vitamin A plays a crucial role in many areas of your health. Here are just a few of the key benefits it provides.

  • Eyesight - Vitamin A helps maintain retinal health and helps prevent age-related macular degeneration. It also helps to reduce the risk of xerophthalmia, a progressive eye disease that can develop into night blindness.
  • Immunity - Vitamin A plays a role in the intricate workings of the immune system. It helps stimulate the production of white blood cells and reduces our susceptibility to infections. Vitamin A also has antioxidant properties, which could potentially reduce the risk of certain types of cancer.
  • Skin health - Vitamin A improves the appearance of skin, leaving it more youthful and radiant. It can also increase the rate of wound healing and relieve certain skin issues, such as psoriasis, rosacea, pigmentation, and wrinkles.
  • Reproductive health - Vitamin A helps prevent birth defects and reduces the risk of infertility. It is also necessary for proper fetal development.
  • Growth and development - Vitamin A plays a key role in the growth of bones, teeth, and epithelial tissue. Epithelial tissue is the thin layer of tissue that covers organs, glands, and other structures within the body.

Vitamin A plays such an important role in many bodily functions that it is essential to ensure adequate intake through diet or supplementation. For many of us, that’s not a difficult thing to do.

What types of foods are rich in Vitamin A?

It’s fairly easy to consume a healthy dose of Vitamin A without supplementation. You just need to know what to look for and stock up at your local supermarket. Here is a list of foods rich in this powerful nutrient.

  • Dairy - Dairy products are excellent sources of Vitamin A. Make sure you grab some milk, yogurt, and cheese when shopping.
  • Eggs - Scrambled eggs for breakfast, hard-boiled eggs for lunch … You can’t go wrong with either because egg yolks contain high amounts of Vitamin A.
  • Fish - Oily fish are among the best sources of Vitamin A. Add salmon, mackerel, or tuna to your weekly meal plans.
  • Liver - Liver is another great source of Vitamin A, but be careful -- it’s so rich in this essential nutrient you may need to limit the amount you consume.
  • Fruits and vegetables - For a decent amount of Vitamin A, choose the most deep yellow-orange and dark green leafy vegetables and fruits, such as carrots, spinach, sweet potatoes, and apricots.

There’s no doubt that Bugs Bunny, with all his carrot cravings, can easily achieve his fill of Vitamin A. But that doesn’t mean everyone else is the same. Although most people can achieve healthy levels through diet, some people must turn to Vitamin A supplementation to reach the recommended daily amount.

When are Vitamin A supplements necessary?

Vitamin A can be obtained from supplements specifically formulated to provide only Vitamin A, or it can be acquired through multivitamin supplements that contain Vitamin A along with other essential vitamins and minerals. It can come in the form of a capsule, gel capsule, or liquid drops to be taken by mouth, or can be found in skin creams, lotions, and serums.

Although Vitamin A deficiency is more common in underdeveloped nations and rare in the United States, certain people may require additional supplementation for various reasons. These may include:

  • Premature infants or children and pregnant women in underdeveloped countries
  • People with a poor or limited diet
  • People with cystic fibrosis, Crohn’s disease, eye disease, or measles
  • People with skin issues, such as severe acne, psoriasis, and rosacea

An important thing to remember about Vitamin A is that it is fat-soluble. This means it is stored in the body's fatty tissue and liver. It also means you could end up taking (and storing) more than your body needs, leading to an increased risk of toxicity. If you have concerns about your Vitamin A intake, speak with your doctor. Striking the right balance with Vitamin A intake is essential, as excessive amounts can be just as detrimental as a deficiency.

How much Vitamin A does the body need?

Units of Vitamin A are typically listed as micrograms (mcg). Most adult men need 900 mcg per day, while women need 700 mcg. However, during pregnancy, women should aim to get 770 mcg. While breastfeeding, that number rises to 1,300 mcg per day.

For pregnant women, these levels are best achieved through a diet rich in foods that are natural sources of this nutritional heavyweight. This is because high doses of Vitamin A supplements during pregnancy are generally not recommended. Excessive Vitamin A intake from supplements can contribute to a higher risk of developing birth defects.

What are the symptoms of Vitamin A deficiency and toxicity?

While Vitamin A deficiency is rare in developed countries, it’s still good to have some idea of what the symptoms are. However, it’s important to receive an actual diagnosis before you start treating yourself because you don’t want to go in the opposite direction and face potential toxicity. Your healthcare provider can diagnose deficiency and overabundance based on your symptoms and a simple blood test.

Symptoms of a Vitamin A deficiency include:

  • Dry skin
  • Dry eyes
  • Inability to produce tears
  • Night blindness
  • Trouble conceiving
  • Throat and chest infections
  • Poor wound healing
  • Severe acne and other skin issues
  • Delayed growth

Symptoms of Vitamin A toxicity include:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Changes in skin, hair, and nails
  • Irritability
  • Blurred vision
  • Loss of coordination
  • Abnormal liver test results
  • Birth defects

With the exception of birth defects, a complete recovery from Vitamin A toxicity can be achieved simply by adjusting the dose or halting all consumption of its supplements. Always speak to a healthcare professional immediately if you are experiencing symptoms and are concerned about your Vitamin A levels.

Your body’s unsung hero

While Vitamin C gets all the fame for boosting immunity and Vitamin D basks in the spotlight for its bone benefits, let's not forget to recognize the true unsung hero in our bodies—Vitamin A. Working tirelessly behind the scenes, this nutrient powerhouse performs a multitude of vital functions that keeps our bodies healthy, vibrant, and thriving. Sure, it may be a balancing act to maintain healthy levels, but the rewards of doing so are well worth the effort.

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