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Essential Vitamins 9: Vitamin A

Vitamin A is well known for being the part of carrots that help you see in the dark. This claim is true, but vitamin A plays other important functions in your body and so it is important to maintain the correct doses, even if your vision is 20:20.

This article takes a closer look at the role vitamin A plays in your wellbeing and offers some advice for making sure you have enough.

What it does

Vitamin A is usually found in two forms, retinol and beta-carotene. Retinol is found in animal-based foods, while beta-carotene comes from vegetables (see below for examples) and is converted into retinol so that the body can make use of it. The NHS in the U.K. recommends that men get 0.7 mg per day, while women should aim for 0.6 mg. Because vitamin A is fat soluble, any excess is not excreted in the urine and so it is important not to take too much in the form of supplements. Pregnant women should be especially wary of vitamin A toxicity. Vitamin A assists in many important functions that keep you running properly. These include:

  • Helping you to see properly in low light. - Vitamin A, in its beta-carotene form, helps to prevent macular degeneration, which is a leading cause of sight loss.

  • Maintaining healthy skin - including the lining of the nose. Vitamin A is used to treat a variety of skin conditions and can help to prevent the appearance of ageing, in moderation.

  • Building and supporting your bones - Many people associate calcium with strong bones, but both too much and too little retinol has been correlated with increased risk of osteoporosis.

  • Protects from many cancers - As with many other nutrients, evidence suggests that correct vitamin A levels play a role in fighting several cancers, including skin, prostate, breast, lung and bladder.

  • Has anti-inflammatory properties - Inflammation is fast becoming recognised as a leading cause of chronic illnesses such as heart disease, Alzheimer's and diabetes.

  • Supporting immune system function - Your immune system protects you from viruses and infections. It can begin to break down if you are deficient in vitamin A.

Signs that you may be deficient

Because vitamin A is found in abundance in both vegetable and animal sources, you should be able to get all you need from your diet. Despite this, many people are deficient in this vital nutrient and so it is important to recognise the signs in case you are either not getting a well balanced diet, or you have an issue with absorption.

Below are some of the main symptoms of vitamin A deficiency. Remember that too much vitamin A can also be dangerous, especially over a long period of time so if you think you might be deficient, please see your doctor or registered nutritional therapist before reaching for the supplements.

  • Night blindness

  • Dry eyes

  • Dry, flaky skin

  • Immune system issues

  • Stunted grown

  • Osteoporosis

How to meet your vitamin A quota

Vitamin A is plentiful in many animal and vegetable sources. The following list gives an idea of some of the best foods and how much you need to eat to meet your vitamin A quota. Remember, excessive levels can be harmful, resulting in symptoms including nausea, vomiting and jaundice (yellow skin), so you don't need to pack in as many of these foods as possible. Just ensure that you include them as part of a varied and balanced diet. Remember that vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin, so it is important to consume as part of a balanced diet that contains sufficient levels of fat and protein or your body will not be able to properly absorb it, resulting in a potential deficiency.

Below is a list of foods that are good sources of vitamin A:

  • Carrots - 1 cup = 428% rda

  • Sweet Potato - 1 cup = 377% rda

  • Butternut Squash - 1 cup = 298% rda

  • Kale - 1 cup = 206% rda

  • Beef Liver - 28g = 98% rda

  • Spinach - 1 cup = 56% rda

  • Broccoli - 1 cup = 11% rda

Supplementing vitamin A

As you can see from the list of foods above, it should be perfectly possible for most people to achieve their vitamin A quota with a healthy, balanced diet. However, for some people it may be necessary to supplement. For example, vegans who get all their intake in the form of beta-carotene may not be converting enough to the more useful retinol and so may need some additional help.

Always consult your doctor or registered nutritional therapist before embarking on a programme of supplements.

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