Vitamin A is considered by skincare professionals in virtually every modality of practice to be the number one most important nutrient for the health of the skin. Vitamin A is also considered by healthcare practitioners, allopathic and holistically-minded alike, to be one of the most essential nutrients for total body health and disease prevention.
There is so much material to share about the use of Vitamin A in the diet, as well as topically in skincare products and skin condition medications that it will be split into two posts. This one will give you some overall information about this crucial vitamin, and the next one will define the different forms of Vitamin A in terms of their uses in skincare products.
Why is Vitamin A so vital to the health of the skin and body?
Vitamin A is associated with numerous health benefits, but the one most people are aware of is the nutrient?s importance to healthy eyes and good vision. Another significant function of Vitamin A is immune system support. ?Vitamin A is known to enhance the function of white blood cells, increase the response of antibodies to antigens, and to have anti-viral activity.?
Retinoic acid, one of the three metabolically active forms of Vitamin A, is also responsible for maintaining epithelial and connective tissues of the body, including tissues such as the skin, trachea, organ linings, and gastrointestinal tract (which we know comprises more than 70% of the body?s immune system). The main function of these tissues is to create a protective barrier to keep invaders like bacteria, fungus, and toxins out. Retinoic acid is indispensable in keeping these tissues intact so they can do their jobs.
Other roles Vitamin A plays in the overall health of the body include promoting healthy cell growth, adhesion, and differentiation; regulation of the male and female reproductive processes; and maintaining normal bone metabolism. Current research is underway to determine other important tasks the different forms of Vitamin A perform in the body.
Although severe Vitamin A deficiency is most common in developing nations, with high statistics of blindness, viral infections, and child mortality; countries and societies with access to (and who regularly consume) foods that naturally contain adequate amounts of the nutrient generally only experience mild deficiencies.
In societies like ours, many cases of Vitamin A deficiency are associated with digestive issues as well as immune-response issues which become visible on the skin such as hyperkeratosis or keratosis pilaris (?chicken skin? or goose bump-like skin often found on the knees, thighs, buttocks, forearms, elbows, arms, and sometimes shoulders), rosacea, acne, and even serious viral infections such as measles and chicken pox.
Can you get too much Vitamin A?
Like Vitamin D, Vitamin A is one of those nutrients where less is not more, but more is definitely not more. In fact, taking too much Vitamin A can cause toxicity which can lead to health problems that are as serious, if not more serious than Vitamin A deficiency. Symptoms of toxicity include:
- Dry, itchy skin
- Dry, brittle fingernails
- Hair loss
- Changes in vision
- Bone and muscle pain
- Fatigue, irritability, and depression
- Liver damage
- Severe birth defects including cleft palate and spina bifida if taken in excess during pregnancy
If you eat a well balanced diet comprised of foods that naturally contain carotenoids and retinyl palmitate (a fatty ester of Vitamin A) such as red and orange vegetables like raw carrots, sweet potatoes, red bell peppers, tomatoes, and winter squash; dark, leafy greens like spinach, kale, swiss chard, parsley, etc.; and certain meats like chicken and calf livers (can’t believe I just wrote that?blech); you should be fine and not need to take internal supplements. These foods also contain other necessary nutrients to aid in the body?s absorption and utilization of Vitamin A. Without enough protein, zinc, and dietary fat in the diet, the vitamin cannot be properly absorbed, utilized, or stored.
Certain medications can interfere with the absorption and function of Vitamin A in the body. Some prevent its absorption, so even if you eat adequate quantities of foods rich in this phytonutrient?you still might need to supplement if you take medications such as antibiotics. Other medications such as cholesterol reducing agents, certain contraceptives, and topical retinoids like isotretinoin and tretinoin (Accutane and Retin-A, respectively) actually increase Vitamin A?s absorption which makes its levels higher in the blood. People on these medications may need to limit their daily consumption to prevent toxicity.
How do I know how much I need?
As I said, the best way to make sure you are getting enough Vitamin A is to eat enough of the foods that naturally deliver it. Also, you want to make sure you are eating these foods whole, organic, locally sourced if possible, and unprocessed. The vegetables should be fresh, and eaten as close to their raw forms as possible?no overcooking.
If you do this and still notice possible symptoms of deficiency, like dry, itchy, bumpy skin I would recommend consulting with your healthcare professional as well as a nutritionist to take a closer look at your diet and better determine your individual needs based on your age, weight, and overall condition.
Certain medications require constant monitoring of Vitamin A levels and other types of tests (such as pregnancy tests for patients taking Accutane) to prevent toxicity.
If you are on any medication or have any chronic health issues, always consult with your healthcare professional before adding or stopping any supplements, or making any drastic changes to your diet.