Why has deficiency of this vitamin been affecting your healthspan?

There’s more to vitamin A than a group of fat-soluble compounds vital for your health.

What is vitamin A?

Vitamin A is crucial for various processes in your body, including:

  • Assisting proper growth and development of babies in the womb
  • Guaranteeing the normal function of the immune system and its organs
  • Maintaining healthy vision

The recommended daily dose for men is 900 mcg, for women 700 mcg and children and adolescents 300–600 mcg [1].

Vitamin A compounds in animal and plant foods come in two forms called provitamin A and preformed vitamin A.

Provitamin A is the inactive form of the vitamin found in plants; the most common type of provitamin A is beta-carotene, found in orange fruits and vegetables. In walls of the small intestine, enzymes convert this into retinol, a form of vitamin A that our bodies can use [2].

Preformed vitamin A, on the other hand, is the active form of the vitamin, which the body can use just as it is. It includes the compounds retinol, retinal and retinoic acid, which are found in animal products like chicken, dairy and fish.

Signs of vitamin A deficiency

Vitamin A deficiency is rare but may happen. Conditions that interfere with regular digestion can lead to vitamin A malabsorption, and these include:

  • Alcoholism
  • Cirrhosis
  • Celiac disease
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Cystic fibrosis

Also at risk are children and adults who eat a limited diet because of poverty or self-restriction. Mild vitamin A deficit may cause fatigue, infertility and vulnerability to infections. 

The following are signs of a more severe deficiency.

  • Dry skin or hair
  • Irregular patches on the white portion of the eyes
  • Nyctalopia or night blindness
  • Xerophthalmia, severe dryness of the eye, if untreated, can cause blindness

Health benefits of vitamin A

Likewise, here are the advantages of including vitamin A in your daily life [4]:

  • Decreases risk of acne: acne is a chronic and inflammatory skin condition. Painful spots and blackheads (usually on the back, chest and face) appear when the sebaceous glands get plugged with oils and dead skin. These glands are in the hair follicles on your skin and create sebum, an oily, waxy substance that maintains skin lubrication and makes it waterproof.

Although physically harmless, acne may seriously affect people’s mental health and lead to anxiety, depression and low self-esteem [5]. Vitamin A’s actual role in the development and treatment of acne remains unclear. However, it suggests that vitamin A deficiency may increase the risk of acne from overproduction of keratin in your hair follicles.

  • Defends your eyes from night blindness and age-related degeneration: vitamin A is essential to preserve your eyesight. It is needed to convert the light that hits your eye into an electrical signal sent to your brain.

Night blindness happens in people with vitamin A deficiency, as the vitamin is a significant component of the pigment rhodopsin. This is found in the retina of your eye and is extremely sensitive to light.

In addition, age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is currently the highest cause of blindness. Though the exact cause is unknown, it’s thought to be the result of cellular damage to the retina related to oxidative stress.

  • Facilitates healthy growth and reproduction: vitamin A is necessary for sustaining a healthy reproductive system in both men and women and ensuring normal embryo development during pregnancy. Although less common than vitamin A deficiency, too much vitamin A during pregnancy can also harm the growing baby and may lead to congenital disabilities [6].
  • Helps maintain a healthy immune system: vitamin A is vital in keeping your body’s natural defences, including the mucous barriers in your eyes, gut, genitals and lungs, which help contain bacteria and other infectious agents. Likewise, the production and function of white blood cells help capture and clear bacteria and other pathogens from your bloodstream.
  • May lower risk of certain cancers: cancer occurs when abnormal cells begin to grow or divide uncontrollably. In observational studies, consuming more elevated amounts of vitamin A in the form of beta-carotene has been connected to a reduced risk of certain types of cancer (bladder, cervical, Hodgkin’s lymphoma and lung) [7].

The association between vitamin A levels in the body and cancer risk is still not completely understood. Still, recent evidence suggests that getting sufficient vitamin A (especially from plants) is beneficial for healthy cell division and it may reduce your risk of some types of cancer.

  • Sustains bone health: protein, calcium and vitamin D are essential for maintaining healthy bones as you age. However, consuming enough vitamin A is also required for proper bone growth and development, and a deficiency in this vitamin has been connected to poor bone health.

Individuals with lower blood levels of vitamin A are at more risk of bone fractures than people with healthier levels. Also, a recent analysis of observational studies revealed that people with peak amounts of total vitamin A in their daily had a 6% decreased risk of fractures, though this link is not fully understood. 

More controlled trials are required to confirm data from observational studies. Keep in mind that vitamin A status by itself does not gauge one’s risk of fractures; the impact of the availability of other nutrients, like vitamin D, also plays a part [8].

Vitamin A is essential for many vital processes in your body, while too much and too little of it could negatively affect health and wellbeing. The best way to ensure you strike a balance is to avoid supplementing with excessive amounts of the vitamin and instead consume vitamin-A-rich foods in your regular diet.

[1] https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/resources/2015-2020_Dietary_Guidelines.pdf
[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20200262
[3] https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/vitamin-a/
[4] https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/vitamin-a-benefits#TOC_TITLE_HDR_7
[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27799808
[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9345570
[7] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28011986
[8] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25763530

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