What Is It?
This famed vision-enhancing nutrient was isolated in 1930, the first fat-soluble vitamin to be discovered. The body acquires some of its vitamin A through animal fats. The rest it synthesizes in the intestines from the beta-carotene and other carotenoids abundant in many fruits and vegetables.
Vitamin A is stored in the liver. Small amounts are also found in most human tissues in chemical forms called retinoids, a name related to the vitamin’s critical effect on vision (and particularly on the retina of the eye).
Although vitamin A is probably best known for promoting and maintaining healthy eyesight, it has other important functions as well. One of its major contributions is to improve the body’s resistance to infection. It does this in part by maintaining the health of the skin, mucous membranes, and other surface linings (intestinal tract, urinary tract, respiratory tract) so that harmful bacteria and viruses can’t get into your body.
Another way that vitamin A boosts immunity is by enhancing the infection-fighting actions of the white blood cells called lymphocytes. Vitamin A is also vital to the growth of bones, the division of cells in your body, and to human reproduction.
Specifically, vitamin A may help to:
Promote healthy vision. This nutrient is involved in the proper functioning of the retina of the eye and is essential for the integrity of the mucous membranes surrounding the eyes. Itis invaluable in preventing night blindness, and assisting the eye in adapting from bright light to darkness. Vitamin A eyedrops (available over-the-counter) are also effective in treating a disorder known as dry eye, caused by a failure of the tear glands to produce sufficient fluid.
Ward off infections such as colds, flu, and bronchitis. By supporting the healthy maintenance of mucous membranes, vitamin A may be useful for fighting colds and other common infections. In the case of chronic bronchitis, the nutrient encourages healing of damaged lung tissue and may even help to prevent recurrences. In a Brazilian study of men with chronic lung disease, it was found that participants who were given 5,000 IU of vitamin A daily for 30 days could breathe more easily than those who took a placebo.
Fight cancer. This immune-system booster may be of value in combating breast and lung cancers and in increasing the survival rate of leukemia patients. It may also protect against the development of a melanoma (a form of skin cancer that is often malignant). In addition, some research indicates that cancer patients with high vitamin A levels respond particularly well to chemotherapy treatment.
Treat skin disorders, such as acne, eczema, psoriasis, and rosacea. Research has shown that vitamin A is vital for healthy skin. In the l940s, high doses were prescribed for conditions such as psoriasis and acne. This practice ended abruptly with the realization that such high doses are toxic.
Today, doctors commonly prescribe safer medications made from derivatives of vitamin A, such as retinoic acid (Retin A, a popular prescription cream for acne and wrinkles) and isotretinoin (Accutane, an oral drug prescribed for severe acne). Short of prescription medications, however, careful use of moderate oral doses–see the Dosage Recommendations Chart–may be key to promoting skin health.
Control cold sores. Vitamin A has well-known antiviral properties, and it may be worth trying orally to boost immunity. Liquid forms can even be applied directly to cold sores, also known as fever blisters, which develop as a result of a herpes simplex viral infection.
Correct hair and scalp problems. One of the signs of a vitamin A deficiency (albeit a severe one) is flakiness of the scalp. Correcting the deficiency may eliminate this often itchy and embarrassing condition. But keep in mind that more isn’t always better when it comes to vitamins: Too much vitamin A (more than 100,000 IU a day) taken over a long time can actually cause hair loss (among other problems).
Encourage healing of minor burns, cuts, and scrapes. When applied to the skin, vitamin A cream or ointment can accelerate the healing of minor cuts, burns, and scrapes.
Protect against certain gastrointestinal problems. Because it is helpful in protecting the lining of the digestive tract, vitamin A may ease symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease and ulcers. A large study of doctors ages 40 to 75 showed that those who were least likely to suffer from ulcers of the duodenum (a part of the small intestine) were the ones who had the highest intake of vitamin A, mainly from a combination of diet, multivitamins, and supplements.
Note: Vitamin A has also been found to be useful for a number of other disorders. For information on these additional ailments, see our Dosage Recommendations Chart for Vitamin A.
The RDA for vitamin A is 5,000 IU daily for men, and 4,000 IU daily for women.
If You Get Too Little
Few people in the United States suffer from a deficiency of vitamin A, although those with vitamin-poor diets are at risk (indeed, some elderly individuals fall into this category). Low levels can significantly reduce resistance to infection, cause a flaky scalp, and contribute to heavy or prolonged menstrual periods. And very low levels of this nutrient can cause night blindness or even complete blindness.
If You Get Too Much
Excessive vitamin A can cause serious health problems. It’s virtually impossible to get too much of this nutrient from foods; the body makes only what it needs from carotenoid-rich fruits and vegetables. But care is needed when taking supplements containing “preformed” vitamin A, meaning it has been synthesized for you already during the manufacturing process.
Symptoms of vitamin A toxicity include dry and cracking skin, brittle nails, excessive hair loss, bleeding gums, weight loss, irritability, nausea, and fatigue. An extremely high single dose–500,000 IU, for example–can cause vomiting and weakness.
General Dosage Information
–Some sources measure vitamin A in retinol equivalents (RE) rather than international units (IU); one RE is equivalent to 3.3 IU.
–Most multivitamins offer vitamin A as beta-carotene, an antioxidant that the body can convert to vitamin A. However, the amount of vitamin A produced during this conversion is small and inadequate for those conditions in which vitamin A itself was shown to be therapeutic.
For improved resistance to colds, flu, and other viral infections: Take 50,000 IU twice a day for five days; then reduce to 25,000 IU a day, if necessary, for no more than 10 days.
Be sure to check out our Dosage Recommendations Chart for Vitamin A, which lists therapeutic dosages for specific ailments at a glance.
Guidelines for Use
Make sure to take vitamin A supplements with food; some fat in the diet will enhance absorption.
Both vitamin E and zinc aid the body in using vitamin A. In turn, vitamin A facilitates the absorption of iron from foods. A good daily multiple vitamin/mineral will provide the necessary amounts.
Don’t take vitamin A with isotretinoin or other acne drugs. Together, they may cause high blood levels of vitamin A, which can lead to unwanted side effects.
Note: For information on interactions with specific generic drugs, see our WholeHealth Chicago Drug/Nutrient Interactions Chart.
Don’t exceed recommended doses of vitamin A. Large doses of preformed vitamin A can build up to toxic levels.
If you’re pregnant or trying to get pregnant, don’t take more than 5,000 IU of vitamin A daily. Higher amounts may result in birth defects. Practice birth control if consuming doses greater than 5,000 IU, and for a month after stopping.
Acne 50,000 IU a day; reduce dose to 25,000 IU a day when healing is noticed or after 1 month. Take no more than 5,000 IU per day if you are pregnant.
Acute: 50,000 IU a day for 5 days, then reduce to 5,000 IU a day until recovered.
Chronic: 10,000 IU a day. Take no more than 5,000 IU per day if you are pregnant.
Burns 50,000 IU a day for no more than 10 days; pregnant women should take no more than 5,000 IU a day
Cold Sores 25,000 IU twice a day for 5 days. Liquid A can also be applied directly to cold sores 3 times a day.
Colds 50,000 IU twice a day for 5 days; then reduce to 25,000 IU a day, if necessary, for no more than 10 days
Crohn’s Disease At least 5,000 IU a day; should be partially covered by your daily multivitamin and antioxidant. Pregnant women should take no more than 5,000 IU daily.
Cuts and Scrapes 50,000 IU twice a day for 5 days or until wound appears to be healing nicely; pregnant women should not exceed 5,000 IU daily.
Earache 50,000 IU twice a day until symptoms improve; if needed after 7 days, reduce to 25,000 IU a day for one more week or until symptoms are gone. Women who are pregnant or considering pregnancy should not exceed 5,000 IU a day.
Acute: 50,000 IU a day for 10 days, then reduce dose to 25,000 IU a day.
Chronic: 5,000-10,000 IU day; may be partially covered by your daily multivitamin and antioxidant complex.
Flu 50,000 IU twice a day for 5 days; then reduce to 25,000 IU a day, if necessary, for no more than 10 days.
Hair Problems 10,000 IU a day; may be covered by daily multivitamin and antioxidant complex
Acute: 50,000 IU a day for 1 week following passage of a stone.
Maintenance: 10,000 IU a day; may be partially covered by your daily multivitamin and antioxidant complex.
Psoriasis 50,000 IU a day for one month; then reduce to 25,000 IU a day. Women who are pregnant or considering pregnancy should not exceed 5,000 IU a day.
Rosacea 25,000 IU a day for 2 months; then 10,000 IU a day. Pregnant women should take no more than 5,000 IU daily.
Shingles 25,000 IU twice a day for acute attacks (up to 10 days); should be partially covered by your daily multivitamin and antioxidant. Pregnant women should take no more than 5,000 IU daily.
Sore Throat 50,000 IU twice a day until symptoms improve; if needed after 7 days, reduce dose to 25,000 IU a day. Don’t use longer than 10 days at this dose.
Strains and Sprains 25,000 IU twice a day for 5 days; pregnant women should not exceed 5,000 IU a day.
For hyper: 10,000 IU a day; may be partially covered by a daily multivitamin and/or antioxidant complex
Ulcers 100,000 IU daily for 7 days, then 10,000 IU a day for one month
Vitamin A is a fat-soluble nutrient that the body derives from animal fats and from chemicals called carotenoids found in fruits and vegetables. It is particularly essential for good eyesight, a strong immune system, and clear skin (the prescription anti-wrinkle cream Retin-A and the anti-acne medication Accutane, for instance, are special formulations of vitamin A). Most of the vitamin A you need should be provided by your diet or a multivitamin pill, although occasionally a high dose of A in supplement form may be beneficial in fending off a short-term infection.
HOW IT HELPS COLDS
Vitamin A has great immune-stimulating and antiviral effects. In particular, this nutrient helps maintain the body’s epithelial tissues, which (among other things) make up the respiratory tract. These tissues are rich in immune cells and often act as the body’s first line of defense against germs. In addition, when you’re fighting a cold, vitamin A can provide powerful antiviral protection by stimulating your immune system to do its job efficiently. But you’ll need to take high doses for the vitamin to be effective. To avoid toxicity, such amounts should only be used for the short-term duration of your cold.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
When taken at proper dosages, a high-potency multivitamin/mineral probably contains enough vitamin A so that you don’t need to add more. The only exception would be if you’re using it therapeutically for a specific problem, such as a viral infection or a skin condition.
Vitamin A is available in tablets, capsules, and softgels. However, the easiest way to take concentrated A is in a liquid form; one drop should equal 5,000 IU of vitamin A. So a dose of 50,000 IU is 10 drops.
Here are a few pointers for using vitamin A effectively: Take this fat-soluble vitamin with some food, because a little fat aids absorption. Try to combine it with vitamin E and zinc; this helps the body use vitamin A, which in turn can boost the absorption of iron from foods. When using vitamin A for its immune-stimulating effects, remember to calculate in the amount that’s already in your daily multivitamin. Be careful not to get too much vitamin A through supplements on a long-term basis. When taken at high doses over long periods, this nutrient can build up to toxic levels.
Pregnant women should never take more than 5,000 IU per day (total) because vitamin A has definitely been associated with birth defects. The amount of A in a typical prenatal supplement is fine, but if you’re pregnant or planning to become pregnant, then don’t even consider taking extra vitamin A for a skin problem or to fight an infection.
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David Edelberg, MD