Vitamin A is a vital nutrient, yet one that is often not quite understood by the general population. Although the overall significance of this vitamin isn't as stressed as others, this doesn't mean vitamin A isn't important. In fact, vitamin A is one of the single most important vitamins when it comes to your vision.
You might be surprised to learn that vitamin A isn't just one type of vitamin, but rather is a name given to a group of different retinoids required by the body. These retinoids include retinol, retinal and retinyl esters. These retinoids are all fat-soluble and all strongly work with four major body functions, which include:
Immune system function
Reproductive system function
Overall cellular communication
Vitamin A has two major forms:
Retinoids- These compound are responsible for vision, cell and overall bone tissue health. Retinoids also work with the immune system to ensure everything is functioning properly. Retinoids are only found in animal products.
Carotenoids- Carotenoids are found only in plant sources, with the high levels of beta-carotene in carrots being why this particular vegetable is a classic source. Carotenoids work with vision as well as skin and immune system function.
When you were a child were you ever told, "Eat your carrots and you'll have good eyesight"? It turns out that this old saying isn't far off from the truth. Carrots are one vegetable with a high amount of vitamin A and vitamin A is absolutely critical for healthy eyes.
Why is Vitamin A Important?
Here are the 6 main reasons why you should be paying attention to how much vitamin A you're getting in your diet:
Overall Eye Health and Protection
Vitamin A must be present for the rhodopsin molecule, similar to a protein, to function properly. This protein is responsible for the retina in your eye reacting properly to light. Ensuring proper vitamin A ingestion is one of the most important ways of maintaining healthy vision as well as preventing macular degeneration as you age.
Immune System Support
A significant part of proper immune system function relies on vitamin A being present. Beta-carotene is well-known as an immune boosting antioxidant. Consuming a diet with rich levels of beta-carotene, and vitamin A in general, helps your body fight against illnesses more effectively.
Helps Reduce Risk of Food Allergies
It is suspected by some that vitamin A's nature of having antioxidant properties is why it seems to help those susceptible to food allergies. This goes back to the immune system. Food allergies occur when the immune system, for one reason or another, reacts negatively to proteins in foods. Vitamin A helps reduce the risk of this allergic reaction occurring or at least it can help with preventing as much of an allergic overreaction.
Reduces Inflammation within the Body
In the same way vitamin A helps reduce a negative immune system reaction, vitamin A also helps reduce inflammation in the body. When the body is not experiencing inflammation it helps lower the risk of you developing degenerative diseases, particularly neurodegenerative disease like Alzheimer's.
Keeps Skin Healthy and Improve Healing
Vitamin A helps keep skin healthier, younger looking, and it also helps with wound healing. This vitamin helps keep both internal and external skin cells healthy as well as aids in repairing damaged skin cells. In fact, a 2012 study found that vitamin A (retinol) reduces the risk of developing melanoma.
Helps the Body Fight Against Cancer Cell Growth
Melanoma and other skin cancer is the only type of cancer vitamin A helps to prevent. It's also believed that vitamin A is important in reducing the risk of a variety of different types of cancers, including lung, breast, ovarian, bladder, oral, and more. There has been a lot of research done into the effects of therapeutic vitamin A supplementation on cancer, with very promising results.
Vitamin A is obviously important and therefore it isn't a bad idea for you to have your doctor check for healthy vitamin A levels on a blood test during your annual physical.
Can You Have a Vitamin A Deficiency?
As with any other essential vitamin or mineral, the answer is yes. Though you rarely hear of vitamin A deficiencies, it does not mean it can't happen or that it isn't serious if a deficiency does occur.
Since vitamin A is so strongly linked to overall vision health, naturally if a disorder occurs it can serious negative health effects. Close to 90% of all of the vitamin A in your body is located in your liver. As body functions require vitamin A, the liver releases is. However, the body doesn't simply release vitamin A, but rather it binds it to prealbumin or proteins. To determine is a deficiency is present your doctor will have a blood retinol levels blood test taken.
A vitamin A deficiency can be caused in three ways:
Inadequate dietary needs
Fat malabsorption disorder
The most recognizable symptoms of vitamin A deficiency often are related to vision, not surprisingly. These vision-related symptoms consist of:
Nyctalopia (poor night vision)
Bitot spots (most often seen in children)
That being said, vitamin A deficiencies also show in ways unrelated to vision, such as:
Chronic dry skin
Pruritus (severe itching on skin)
Dry and brittle hair and nails
Though also fairly uncommon, the opposite of a deficiency can occur, results in vitamin A toxicity (hypervitaminosis A). Symptoms of too much vitamin A typically show up in the form of:
Bone pain and swelling
Lack of appetite
Nausea and vomiting
Dizziness or feeling faint
Photosensitivity (sensitivity to sunlight)
Both of these disorders require medical attention immediately. If you ever suspect something is wrong with your vision or you're experiencing unusual symptoms relating to either hyper- or hypo-vitaminosis A, consult your doctor as soon as possible.
How Can I Get More Vitamin A?
The best means of getting more vitamin A is through diet rather than relying on supplements. Since the chances of developing a serious vitamin A deficiency are fairly rare, and even moderate cases of vitamin A deficiency tend to show few symptoms, directly supplementing with vitamin A usually isn't recommended.
One of the few cases when supplementing with vitamin A has been shown to provide significant benefit is in newborn health, as found in research conducted by the NHD.
If you suspect you are having vitamin A deficiency symptoms it's important to first contact your doctor rather than simply trying to self-medicate with a vitamin A supplement. Otherwise, the safest and healthiest route to go is by adding more natural sources of vitamin A via diet.
The top 5 vitamin A-rich foods you can add to your diet are:
Carrots- 1 cup of sliced raw carrots has over 21,000 IUs
Sweet Potato- 1 whole sweet potato has over 18,400 IUs
Beef Liver- 3 ounces has over 14,300 IUs
Kale- 1 cup chopped has over 6,600 IUs
Spinach- 1 cup raw has over 2,800 IUs
A compilation of study findings shared in the Methods in Molecular Biology book series found that simply changing the diet had a significant impact on improving vitamin A in humans. Individuals that had poor plasma retinol levels, but not within a dangerous range, saw significant results by changing diet alone. Supplementation can help in certain cases, but this study did agree that for majority of individuals, save for those in developing countries, vitamin A supplementation was typically unnecessary.
Next time you go grocery shopping, think about the foods you're putting into your cart. If you primarily eat clean, whole foods, chances are you probably already are consuming enough vitamin A. However, if you've been skipping on your veggies for a while, you should consider adding carrots, sweet potato, kale, and spinach to your diet.
Zoey is a part-time blogger and a full-time nurse. She is the founder and editor of leanrecipes.com an avenue for sharing her passion about juicing, plant-based diet and living a healthier lifestyle.
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