Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin that has several important functions in the body.
- It helps cells reproduce normally, a process called cellular differentiation.
- It is essential for good vision. The first sign of a vitamin A deficiency is often poor sight at night.
- It is needed for the proper development of an embryo and fetus.
Vitamin A helps keep skin and mucous membranes that line the nose, sinuses, and mouth healthy. It also plays a role in:
- Immune system function
- Bone formation
- Wound healing
Vitamin A comes from two sources. One group, called retinoids, comes from animal sources and includes retinol. The other group, called carotenoids, comes from plants and includes beta-carotene. The body converts beta-carotene to vitamin A. Major carotenoids, including lycopene, lutein, and zeaxantuin, have important biological properties, including antioxidant and photoprotective activities.
It is rare in the developed world to have a serious deficiency of vitamin A. Symptoms include:
- Dry eyes
- Night blindness
- Skin problems
While vitamin A is essential for good health, it can be toxic in high doses. Never take more than the recommended daily allowance without first talking to your doctor.
Acne, psoriasis, and other skin disorders
Prescription creams and pills containing retinoids, a synthetic form of vitamin A, are used to help clear up severe acne and psoriasis. They have also shown promise for treating other skin disorders, warts, and premature aging from the sun. Recent studies show that topical forms along with antioxidants may help minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. These medications require close supervision by a doctor. Isotretinoin (Accutane), an oral medication for acne, can cause very serious side effects and must not be used by pregnant women or women of child-bearing age who are not taking birth control.
Getting enough vitamin A in your diet is essential for good vision. Research shows that people who eat more foods with vitamin A are less likely to develop age-related macular degeneration (AMD). In addition, a large population study found that people who got high levels of vitamin A though their diets had a lower risk of developing cataracts. But researchers don't know whether taking vitamin A supplements would work the same way. Vitamin A supplements may help slightly slow down the damage from retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary disease that causes poor night vision. However, the study used high doses, which can be toxic.
For children who have vitamin A deficiency, supplements can reduce the severity and complications of measles. Children who are deficient in vitamin A are more likely to develop infections, including measles. In areas of the world where vitamin A deficiency is widespread or where at least 1% of those with measles die, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends giving vitamin A supplements to children who have measles. However, vitamin A does not seem to help unless a child has vitamin A deficiency. Never give a child vitamin A supplements without a doctor's supervision.
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
People with IBD, either ulcerative colitis or Crohn disease, may have a hard time absorbing all the nutrients their bodies need. Doctors often recommend that people with IBD take a multivitamin, including vitamin A.
Whether vitamin A can reduce the risk of cancer is not clear. People who eat a healthy diet with enough beta-carotene and other carotenoids from fruits and vegetables seem to have a lower risk of certain cancers, such as:
- Breast cancer
- Colon Cancer
- Esophageal cancer
- Cervical cancer
Some laboratory studies suggest that vitamin A and carotenoids may help fight certain types of cancer in test tubes.
Few studies have shown that taking vitamin A supplements will help prevent or treat cancer. In fact, there is some evidence that it may be harmful. Taking beta-carotene or vitamin A supplements has been linked to a higher risk of lung cancer in people who smoke or drink alcohol. However, some researchers say more studies are needed to confirm this.
One preliminary study suggests that a topical form of vitamin A may reduce abnormal growth of cells on the cervix, called cervical neoplasia.
Researchers are also investigating retinoids, a synthetic form of vitamin A, for skin cancer. People with certain types of skin cancer tend to have lower levels of vitamin A and beta-carotene in the blood. However, studies that have looked at whether taking higher amounts of vitamin A or beta-carotene would prevent or treat skin cancer have had mixed results.
Because of the potential for side effects and interactions with medications, you should take dietary supplements only under the supervision of a knowledgeable health care provider.
Taking too much vitamin A when you are pregnant can cause serious birth defects. Because all prenatal vitamins contain some vitamin A, you should not take a separate vitamin A supplement.
Synthetic vitamin A can cause birth defects. Women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant shouldn't take this form of vitamin A.
Too much vitamin A is toxic and can cause liver failure, even death. Symptoms of vitamin A toxicity include:
- Muscle and joint pain
- Dry skin and lips
- Dry or irritated
- Nausea or diarrhea
- Hair loss
Vitamin A from foods is considered safe. But you can get too much from supplements. For adults, 19 and older, the tolerable upper limit for vitamin A is 10,000 IU per day. Talk to your doctor before taking any dose close to that amount.
People who have liver disease or diabetes should not take vitamin A supplements without their doctor's supervision.
Smokers and people who drink heavy amounts of alcohol should not take beta-carotene supplements.
Both vitamin A and beta-carotene may increase triglycerides, which are fats in the blood. They may even increase the risk of death from heart disease, particularly in smokers.
Vitamin A is found in many different vitamin formulas. Supplements that say "wellness formula," "immune system formula," "cold formula," "eye health formula," "healthy skin formula," or "acne formula," all tend to contain vitamin A. If you take a variety of different formulas, you could be at risk for too much vitamin A.
If you take large doses of vitamin A, you may want to avoid eating carob. It increases the amount of vitamin A available in your body.
If you are being treated with any of the following medications, you should not take vitamin A without first talking to your health care provider:
Tetracycline antibiotics: People who take a type of antibiotic called tetracyclines and also take high doses of vitamin A may be at risk for a condition called intracranial hypertension, which is a rise in the pressure of brain fluid. Tetracyclines include:
- Demeclocycline (Declomycin)
- Minocycline (Minocin)
- Tetracycline (Achromycin)
Antacids: One study suggests that the combination of vitamin A and antacids may be more effective than antacids alone in healing ulcers.
Anticoagulants (blood thinners): Long-term use of vitamin A or taking high doses may increase the risk of bleeding for those taking blood-thinning medications, particularly warfarin (Coumadin). Talk to your doctor before taking vitamin A.
Cholesterol-lowering medications (bile acid sequestrants): The medications cholestyramine (Questram) and colestipol (Colestid) may reduce your ability to absorb vitamin A and lead to lower levels in your body. A water-soluble form of vitamin A may help. Another class of cholesterol-lowering medications called statins may actually raise vitamin A levels in your blood.
Doxorubicin: Doxorubicin is a medication used to treat cancer. Test tube studies suggest that vitamin A may make the action of doxorubicin stronger. More research is needed to understand the effect. If you are undergoing treatment for cancer, ask your oncologist before taking vitamin A or any supplement.
Medications processed by the liver: Taking high doses of vitamin A along with some other medications that are processed by the liver may cause liver damage or even liver failure. Some examples of medications processed by the liver include acetaminophen (Tylenol), carbamazepine (Tegretol), isoniazid, and methotrexate. If you are taking any prescription medications, ask your doctor before taking vitamin A.
Neomycin (Mycifradin): This antibiotic may reduce the body's ability to absorb vitamin A, especially when taken in large doses.
Omeprazole (Prilosec): Omeprazole, used for gastroesophageal reflux disease or heart burn, may interact with beta-carotene supplements. Researchers do not know whether it also affects the absorption of beta-carotene from foods.
Retinoids: These medications are a synthetic form of vitamin A and are sometimes prescribed in high doses. People who take retinoids should not take additional vitamin A supplements. In addition, these drugs can cause severe birth defects. Women of child-bearing age must have two negative pregnancy tests and be on two forms of birth control before taking these medications. Anyone taking retinoids will be monitored closely by their doctor. Retinoids include:
- Acitretin (Soriatane)
- Bexarotene (Targretin)
- Isotretinoin (Accutane)
- Tazarotene (Avage)
Tretinoin (Retin-A) is usually prescribed as a skin cream to treat acne or reduce wrinkles and is not as concentrated as other retinoids. However, you may still want to avoid taking a vitamin A supplement while using Retin-A.
Orlistat (Alli) and Olestra: Orlistat, a medication used for weight loss, and olestra, a substance added to certain foods, both prevent the body from absorbing fat and calories. They may also prevent the body from absorbing enough vitamin A. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that vitamin A and other fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins D, E, and K) be added to food products containing olestra. In addition, people who take either prescription orlistat or over-the-counter Alli may want to take a multivitamin.
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