Expert Nutrition

Retinol (Vitamin A)

Retinol, also known as Vitamin A is a generic description for at least 7 different active forms of the vitamin. As a fat soluble vitamin it is an important dietary component in the growth and repair of body tissues, boosting the immune system and in the maintenance of our eyes, skin, teeth, bones and mucous membranes. Vitamin A is also well known for its antioxidant properties and possesses antiviral, anti-carcinogenic and cardio-protective properties.

Vitamin A deficiencies are one of the most common vitamin deficiencies known. They are often seen in third world countries where malnutrition is a problem but are also seen in the top 5 nutrient deficiencies seen in children under the age of 5 in America. Deficiency in vitamin A can lead to a number of health related problems such as becoming more susceptible to infectious diseases particularly in the lung (eg pneumonia) and can also lead to blindness.

Despite vitamin A deficiencies being common, large doses of vitamin A in the form of retinol can also be toxic, particularly to pregnant women or people with liver impairments. As a fat soluble vitamin, the body stores retinol, where excessive consumption can lead retinol levels to accumulate to toxic levels within the body having detrimental health effects. It is believed that an estimated 5% of people who supplement with vitamin A unknowingly suffering from toxic symptoms which may include dry damaged skin and nails, nausea and vomiting.

Beta-Carotene (Provitamin A) is a precursor of vitamin A that the body breaks down into retinol as it needs to without creating toxic levels, for this reason it is safer to get your vitamin A in the form of beta-carotene. Beta carotene is also a more potent antioxidant than retinol which may help the body deal with oxidative stress and in particular has been found to be beneficial in the prevention and treatment of many cancers.

Given the implications of retinol toxicity it is suggested that if using supplementation that you look for supplements than provide vitamin A in the form of beta-carotene. Please refer to the chapter on nutritional supplements for more information.

One of our most commonly asked questions here at expert nutrition is whether large doses of beta-carotene are toxic?

The good news is that even high doses of beta carotene have not been shown to exhibit toxicity, even during pregnancy. However problems such as loose stools and a slight discolouration of the skin might occur.

I remember doing and experiment back when I was at university where we all had to eat lots (and lots) of carrots for a month to see if our skin would change colour. At the end of the month there were some slight changes noticed, they definitely didn't warn us about the loose stools until after the experiment was over, although we all noticed! In summary beta carotene is a much safer way to get your vitamin A as your body will only breakdown what it needs.

What are the best sources of Vitamin A?

Vitamin A can come from a number of sources including retinols which are found in animal products such as liver, most fish, eggs and dairy products and carotenoids which are found in plant based foods in particular those that have red or yellow pigments including most fruits and vegetables particularly carrots, pumpkin, spinach and sweet potato.

Remember the old mothers tale that eating carrots can help you to see in the dark, well this actually has an element of truth. Carrots are a good source of beta carotene which the body breaks down into retinol as it needs. The name ‘retinol’ dates back to when vitamin A was first discovered to be beneficial to the retina found in the eye. In particular retinol plays an important role in maintaining the health of the rods, a part of the eye that is responsible for seeing low intensities of light and shades of grey. We now know that a deficiency in vitamin A commonly leads to night blindness, so take your mothers advice and remember to eat you carrots!

Possible Additional Benefits of Vitamin A 1

  • May reduce the risk of breast, lung, colon, prostate and cervical cancer
  • May reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke
  • May retard mascular degeneration (a common cause of blindness among the elderly)

Recommended Dietary Intake for Vitamin A

A recent re-evaluation of dietary requirements for all vitamins and minerals was published by the National Health and Medical Research Council6. The dietary recommendations for Retinol from this publication are summarised below.

Please refer to the following definitions when interpreting these recommendations:

RDI-Recommended Daily Intake
The average daily intake level that is sufficient to meet the nutritional requirements of nearly all (97-98%) health individuals in a particular life stage and gender group.

AI-Adequate Intake (used when an RDI cannot be determined)
The average daily nutrient intake level based on observed or experimentally-determined approximations or estimates of nutrient intake by a group (or groups) of apparently healthy people that are assumed to be adequate.

UL-Upper Limit of Intake
The highest average daily nutrient intake level likely to pose no adverse health effects to almost all individuals in the general population. As intake increases above the UL, the potential risk of adverse effects increases.

RECOMMENDATIONS BY LIFE STAGE AND GENDER –Vitamin A

Infants AI UL

All
0-6 months250 µg/day 600 µg/day
7-12 months 430 µg/day 600 µg/day

Children and AdolescentsAI UL

All
1-3 years 300 µg/day 600 µg/day
4-8 years 400 µg/day 900 µg/day

Boys
9-13 years 600 µg/day 1,700 µg/day
14-18 years 900 µg/day 2,800 µg/day

Girls
9-13 years 600 µg/day 1,700 µg/day
14-18 years 700 µg/day 2,800 µg/day

AdultsAI UL

Men
19-30 years 900 µg/day 3,000 µg/day
31-50 years 900 µg/day 3,000 µg/day
51-70 years 900 µg/day 3,000 µg/day
>70 years 900 µg/day 3,000 µg/day

Women
19-30 years 700 µg/day 3,000 µg/day
31-50 years 700 µg/day 3,000 µg/day
51-70 years 700 µg/day 3,000 µg/day
70 years 700 µg/day 3,000 µg/day

Pregnancy
14-18 years 700 µg/day 2,800 µg/day
19-30 years 800 µg/day 3,000 µg/day
31-50 years 800 µg/day 3,000 µg/day

Lactation
14-18 years 1,100 µg/day 2,800 µg/day
19-30 years 1,100 µg/day 3,000 µg/day
31-50 years 1,100 µg/day 3,000 µg/day

Source: National Health and Medical Research Council. Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand. Department of Health and Ageing, Canberra 2006, copyright Commonwealth of Australia reproduced by permission.

Retinol back to Vitamins


References
1.Wahlqvist, M.L., et al. Australia and New Zealand: Food and Nutrition. 2nd Ed. Allen and Unwin, Sydney 2002 245-247.
2.Stanton R. Foods that harm, foods that heal: An A-Z guide to safe and healthy eating. Read Digest 2006 pp378-381.
3.Cooper K. Advanced Nutritional Therapies Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville TN, 1996 pp 65-72.
4.MacWilliam, L.D. Comparative Guide to Nutritional Supplements. Northern Dimensions Publishing, 2005 pp 59-60.
5.Beers, M.H et al., The Merck Manual of Medical Information 2nd Ed. Pocket Books Reference 2003
6.National Health and Medical Research Council. Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand. Department of Health and Ageing, Canberra 2006 pp 59-65. Copyright Commonwealth of Australia reproduced by permission.


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