Vitamin A often has a bad name, however it is essential for healthy skin, eyes, mucous membranes, immune system and many more health processes in the body. Vitamin A is one of the fat-soluble vitamins (the others are D, E and K). Beta-carotene is the precursor to vitamin A, and is readily converted into it in the body. Vitamin A is found in many foods such as oily fish, eggs, liver, and dairy products (remember though, as it is a fat soluble vitamin, it is not found in large amounts in low fat dairy products). Beta-carotene is found in orange and yellow fruits and vegetables, as well as spinach and parsley.
The two main things that people first think of with regard to vitamin A are the skin and the eyes.
- Vitamin A supports healthy cell division. In particular it helps a type of cell in the body called epithelial cells. These cells are found in the skin and the gastrointestinal tract. So not only is it great for the treatment of skin conditions, such as acne, psoriasis, eczema, and dry skin, it also helps to repair ulcers in the gastrointestinal tract.
- In the eyes vitamin A works with zinc and decreases the risk of cataracts, and macular degeneration, so if you have a family history of these diseases, then it may be worth taking it as a supplement. One of the first signs of vitamin A deficiency is night blindness (which is when people cant see very well at night). It is such a problem in 3rd world countries that it has been extensively supplemented in these populations, with great success. People that were literally blind at night can now see again.
Vitamin A does many other things in the body.
- It plays a role in the immune system (again working with zinc), especially in the lungs, and bronchioles.
- It is an antioxidant, scavenging free radicals in the body. Cancer is linked to an increase in free radicals, and so vitamin A plays a role in prevention of many cancers, such as those of the skin, gastrointestinal tract, and respiratory system, as well as breast, prostate, and cervix.
- Due to its antioxidant properties, it is useful in the prevention of cardiovascular disease. This is because it prevents LDL (low density lipoprotein – the bad cholesterol) from oxidising. When LDL oxidises, it has a greater tendency to stick to the artery walls which can lead to a stroke or heart attack. Beta-carotene in particular has been studied in this antioxidant role.
Care needs to be taken when supplementing any fat-soluble vitamin, and this is especially true with vitamin A. Fat-soluble vitamins are stored in the liver and an excessive intake of them long term can lead to toxicity of the liver. Beta-carotene is far less toxic and its only sign of overdose is the skin turning a yellow/orange colour. A therapeutic dose of vitamin A is 5,000-50,000IU, and beta-carotene is 25,000-200,000IU. The dose depends on many factors such as the condition to be treated, the diet, lifestyle, and environment the patient has, and ability of the patient to absorb it.
Always consult with your naturopath or other health professional before supplementing vitamin A.
(IU stands for international units)