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12.5: Vitamin A and Beta-carotene

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    Vitamin A Functions and Health Benefits

    Vitamin A is a generic term for a group of similar compounds called retinoids. Retinol is the form of vitamin A found in animal-derived foods, and it is converted in the body to the biologically active forms of vitamin A: retinal and retinoic acid (thus retinol is sometimes referred to as “preformed vitamin A”). About 10 percent of plant-derived carotenoids, including beta-carotene, can be converted in the body to retinoids and are another source of functional vitamin A. The retinoids are aptly named as their most notable function is in the retina of the eye where they aid in vision, particularly in seeing under low-light conditions. This is why night blindness is the most definitive sign of vitamin A deficiency.

    Like vitamin E, vitamin A is fat-soluble and is packaged into chylomicrons in small intestine mucosal cells, and then transported to the liver. The liver stores and exports vitamin A as needed; it is released into the blood bound to a retinol-binding protein, which transports it to cells.

    Vitamin A has several important functions in the body, including maintaining vision and a healthy immune system. Many of vitamin A’s functions in the body are similar to the functions of hormones (for example, vitamin A can interact with DNA, causing a change in protein function). Vitamin A assists in maintaining healthy skin and the linings and coverings of tissues; it also regulates growth and development. As an antioxidant, vitamin A protects cellular membranes, helps in maintaining glutathione levels, and influences the amount and activity of enzymes that detoxify free radicals.


    Retinol that is circulating in the blood is taken up by cells in the retina, where it is converted to retinal and is used as part of the pigment rhodopsin, which is involved in the eye’s ability to see under low light conditions. A deficiency in vitamin A thus results in less rhodopsin and a decrease in the detection of low-level light, a condition referred to as nightblindness.

    Insufficient intake of dietary vitamin A over time can also cause complete vision loss. In fact, vitamin A deficiency is the number one cause of preventable blindness worldwide. Vitamin A not only supports the vision function of eyes but also maintains the coverings and linings of the eyes. Vitamin A deficiency can lead to the dysfunction of the linings and coverings of the eye, causing dryness of the eyes, a condition called xerophthalmia. This condition can progress, causing ulceration of the cornea and eventually blindness.


    The common occurrence of advanced xerophthalmia in children who died from infectious diseases led scientists to hypothesize that supplementing vitamin A in the diet for children with xerophthalmia might reduce disease-related mortality. In Asia in the late 1980s, targeted populations of children were administered vitamin A supplements, and the death rates from measles and diarrhea declined by up to 50 percent. Vitamin A supplementation in these deficient populations did not reduce the number of children who contracted these diseases, but it did decrease the severity of the diseases so that they were no longer fatal. Soon after the results of these studies were communicated to the rest of the world, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) commenced worldwide campaigns against vitamin A deficiency. UNICEF estimates that the distribution of over half a billion vitamin A capsules prevents 350,000 childhood deaths annually.Sommer, A. “Vitamin A Deficiency and Clinical Disease: An Historical Overview.” J Nutr 138 (2008):1835–39.

    In the twenty-first century, science has demonstrated that vitamin A greatly affects the immune system. What we are still lacking are clinical trials investigating the proper doses of vitamin A required to help ward off infectious disease and how large of an effect vitamin A supplementation has on populations that are not deficient in this vitamin. This brings up one of our common themes in this text—micronutrient deficiencies may contribute to the development, progression, and severity of a disease, but this does not mean that an increased intake of these micronutrients will solely prevent or cure disease. The effect, as usual, is cumulative and depends on the diet as a whole, among other things.

    Growth and Development

    Vitamin A acts similarly to some hormones in that it is able to change the amount of proteins in cells by interacting with DNA. This is the primary way that vitamin A affects growth and development. Vitamin A deficiency in children is linked to growth retardation; however, vitamin A deficiency is often accompanied by protein malnutrition and iron deficiency, thereby confounding the investigation of vitamin A’s specific effects on growth and development.

    In the fetal stages of life, vitamin A is important for limb, heart, eye, and ear development and in both deficiency and excess, vitamin A causes birth defects. Furthermore, both males and females require vitamin A in the diet to effectively reproduce.


    Vitamin A’s role in regulating cell growth and death, especially in tissues that line and cover organs, suggests it may be effective in treating certain cancers of the lung, neck, and liver. It has been shown in some observational studies that vitamin A-deficient populations have a higher risk for some cancers. However, vitamin A supplements have actually been found to increase the risk of lung cancer in people who are at high risk for the disease (i.e., smokers, exsmokers, workers exposed to asbestos). The Beta-Carotene and Retinol Efficacy Trial (CARET) involving over eighteen thousand participants who were at high risk for lung cancer found that people who took supplements containing very high doses of vitamin A (25,000 international units) and beta-carotene had a 28 percent higher incidence of lung cancer midway through the study, which was consequently stopped.Goodman, G.E. et al. “The Beta-Carotene and Retinol Efficacy Trial: Incidence of Lung Cancer and Cardiovascular Disease Mortality During 6-year Follow-up after Stopping Beta-Carotene and Retinol Supplements.” J Natl Cancer Inst 96, no. 23 (2004): 1743–50.

    Vitamin A supplementation is a relatively common practice in treating some types of cancer patients and is thought to improve the effectiveness of some anticancer drugs, but many oncologists (physicians who treat cancer patients) do not recommend this practice as vitamin A may actually inhibit the actions of some anticancer drugs.

    Vitamin A Toxicity

    Vitamin A toxicity, or hypervitaminosis A, is rare. Typically it requires you to ingest ten times the RDA of preformed vitamin A in the form of supplements (it would be hard to consume such high levels from a regular diet) for a substantial amount of time, although some people may be more susceptible to vitamin A toxicity at lower doses. The signs and symptoms of vitamin A toxicity include dry, itchy skin, loss of appetite, swelling of the brain, and joint pain. In severe cases, vitamin A toxicity may cause liver damage and coma.

    Vitamin A is essential during pregnancy, but doses above 3,000 micrograms per day (10,000 international units) have been linked to an increased incidence of birth defects. Pregnant women should check the amount of vitamin A contained in any prenatal or pregnancy multivitamin she is taking to assure the amount is below the UL.

    Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin A

    There is more than one source of vitamin A in the diet. There is preformed vitamin A, which is abundant in many animal-derived foods, and there are carotenoids, which are found in high concentrations in vibrantly colored fruits and vegetables and some oils.

    Some carotenoids are converted to retinol in the body by intestinal cells and liver cells. However, only miniscule amounts of certain carotenoids are converted to retinol, meaning fruits and vegetables are not necessarily good sources of vitamin A. Beta-carotene dissolved in oil is more readily converted to retinol; one-half of a microgram of beta-carotene is converted to retinol. Overall, the carotenoids do not have the same biological potency of preformed vitamin A, but as you will soon find out, they have other attributes that influence health, most notably their antioxidant activity.

    The RDA for vitamin A includes all sources of vitamin A. The amount of vitamin A obtained from carotenoids—the retinol activity equivalent (RAE)—can be calculated. For example, 12 micrograms of fruit- or vegetable-based beta-carotene will yield 1 microgram of retinol, as mentioned.

    The RDA for vitamin A is considered sufficient to support growth and development, reproduction, vision, and immune system function while maintaining adequate stores (good for four months) in the liver.

    Table \(\PageIndex{6}\): Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin A
    Age Group RDA Males and Females mcg/day UL
    Infants (0–6 months) 400* 600
    Infants (7–12 months) 500* 600
    Children (1–3 years) 300 600
    Children (4–8 years) 400 900
    Children (9–13 years) 600 1,700
    Adolescents (14–18 years) Males: 900 2,800
    Females: 700
    Adults (> 19 years) Males: 900 3,000
    Females: 700
    *denotes Adequate Intake

    Source: Source: National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements. “Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Vitamin A.” Last reviewed September 5, 2012.

    Dietary Sources of Vitamin A

    Preformed vitamin A is found only in foods from animals, with the liver being the richest source because that’s where vitamin A is stored (Table \(\PageIndex{7}\)). The dietary sources of carotenoids will be given in the following text.

    Table \(\PageIndex{7}\): Vitamin A Content of Various Foods
    Food Serving Vitamin A (IU) Percent Daily Value
    Beef liver 3 oz. 27,185 545
    Chicken liver 3 oz. 12,325 245
    Milk, skim 1 c. 500 10
    Milk, whole 1 c. 249 5
    Cheddar cheese 1 oz. 284 6

    Source: Source: National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements. “Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Vitamin A.” Last reviewed July 25, 2012.


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    12.5: Vitamin A and Beta-carotene is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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