Understanding Vitamin A


Vitamin A is confusing.

Is it in plants or animal products? If it’s good for you, why can’t pregnant women take it? Does it cause cancer and birth defects or prevent cancer and birth defects?

Let’s take a closer look.

What is Vitamin A ?

Vitamin A is technically not just one nutrient. It is a group of nutrients that fall into two categories:

  1. Retinoids found only in animal products;
  2. Carotenoids found in plant foods, which are converted to Retinoids.

Both are chemically different but provide necessary health benefits that are important for vision, immune system function, and cell growth.

What does Vitamin A do?

1. Retinoids (aka retinol) is a fat-soluble vitamin group found in animal foods. Retinoids support vision health, immune system health, optimal growth, skin health, tooth remineralization, and bone growth. Retinoids are also important for red blood cell production. The only bioavailable form of this vitamin group is found in animal foods.

2. Carotenoids function as anti-inflammatory nutrients. Carotenoids have anti-cancer potential, support heart and brain health, reduce risk of squamous cell skin cancer, protect cells from UV radiation, and contribute to vision health. This group is a pro-vitamin that the body must convert into the active form of Vitamin A for absorption.  However, many individuals have a compromised ability to convert this nutrient into its most active form, and this can cause major issues.  Consult with your doctor before consuming supplements or gallons of vegetable juice.

Both groups of Vitamin A contribute to vision health, regulate macular degeneration and vision loss, and work synergistically with Vitamin D, K2, Zinc, and Magnesium.

Food-sourced retinoids and carotenoids have never been associated with any birth defects or cancers. In fact, Vitamin A has been studied and found effective as part of cancer treatment. However, synthetic versions of retinoids have been associated with both cancer and birth defects, a key reason to discuss dosing with a knowledgeable healthcare provider.

How do I know if I need more Vitamin A?

Vitamin A is stored in the liver, so it can take a long time for signs of deficiency to appear.

Your doctor can order a plasma or serum test to evaluate levels of Vitamin A, but testing is confusing because the serum level doesn’t adequately reveal the usable stores in the liver.

Some signs of deficiency:

  • night blindness or vision loss
  • frequent infections or difficulty recovering from infection
  • hormone imbalances
  • mood disorders
  • eczema, acne, and other skin problems
  • thyroid dysfunction

How do I get more Vitamin A?

As with most vitamins and nutrients, getting Vitamin A from food is the best way to optimize its function. Eating a broad diet rich in carotenoids from plants and retinoids from animal products will ensure that you are getting the right balance. Of course, this assumes normal gastrointestinal function and absorption, so discuss these issues with your doctor. Supplementation carries some risks for toxicity and should be done in conjunction with a doctor familiar with these nutrients.

The list below is a brief guide to food choices rich in Vitamin A.

Bioavailable Retinol/Vitamin A rich foods:

  • pasture raised beef or duck liver
  • eggs from organic pastured chickens
  • raw organic butter and cheese from grass fed cows
  • shrimp
  • fatty fish/wild caught salmon

Carotenoid rich foods (Pro-Vitamin A):

  • sweet potatoes
  • spinach
  • carrots
  • cantaloupe
  • mangoes
  • kale
  • butternut squash
  • mustard greens and collard greens
  • herbal parsley tea