What is Vitamin A?

What is Vitamin A
Vitamin A

Vitamin A is known as the vitamin for your eyes. That’s right: you do indeed need enough of this vitamin to keep your vision healthy. But that does not mean that you know everything! Vitamin A has a long list of different functions, so getting enough of it is important. How much is enough, and what contains this vitamin? You can read it in this blog!

Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin, also known as retinol. Your body can use, for example, retinyl esters in the same way, which can be converted to retinol. Your body can also produce vitamin A from carotenoids, such as beta-carotene. In practice, therefore, several substances fall under the name of this vitamin.

What Does Vitamin A Do?

Vitamin A is involved in many different processes in your body! For example, it plays a role in the following tasks:

  • Maintenance of your eyesight. Thanks to retinol you can, for example, still see well at dusk.
  • Production of skin and hair cells. This vitamin keeps your skin healthy and strong and your hair stays firm and shiny.
  • Production of cells in your gums, trachea and lungs.
  • Maintenance of your immune system.
  • Prevention of inflammation and damage. Vitamin A is an antioxidant that reduces acne, eczema and other inflammation, for example.
  • Supporting the growth of (unborn) children.

It should be clear that you really need vitamin A for your body to function properly! It is therefore important to ensure that you get enough of it through your diet.

RDA for vitamin A

But how much is enough? The reference intake of vitamin A differs according to age and gender. Children under 2 years of age need 300 micrograms per day. Up to age 5 the recommendation is 350 mcg, and up to age 9 400 mcg. Between 9 and 13, an intake of 600 mcg per day is recommended.

Older than 13 years old? For women, 700 mcg of vitamin A per day is more than the recommended amount. Men need a little more: there the RDA is 900 mcg per day.

An exception are women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Because a growing child already needs a lot of vitamin A in the womb, as a pregnant woman you need about 800 mcg per day. If you are breastfeeding, you need to provide nutrients to both yourself and your child and the RDA is a whopping 1100 mcg per day.

Vitamin A deficiency

What happens if you consume less vitamin A than the recommended amount? That depends entirely on how big the shortage is.

You usually notice the deficiency on your skin and hair first. If you don’t eat enough vitamin A, your hair will become dull and thin. Your skin will also become dry and sometimes even flaky. Your resistance also quickly deteriorates. If you catch a cold or get sick more often, it does not have to be due to your vitamin C intake!

If the shortage lasts for a longer period of time, your vision will also be affected. That starts with the development of night blindness – after all, retinol is the substance that enables your eyes to see even in low light. However, if the situation lasts longer, the disease can develop xerophthalmia, which causes complete blindness.

Nowadays this hardly occurs in the Netherlands and other prosperous countries. Xerophthalmia currently exists mainly in poorer parts of the world. However, slight vitamin A deficiencies can also occur in the Netherlands.

Surplus of vitamin A

That does not mean that you should eat as much of this vitamin as possible! It is also possible to consume a surplus of retinol, and that is just as unhealthy.

When you consume more than 3000 mcg of vitamin A per day for a long time, this leads to hypervitaminosis A. This is an accumulation of this vitamin in your body. Hypervitaminosis leads to poisoning syndromes. You become nauseous, dizzy and tired and suffer from muscle pain while you have not exercised. You can also experience hair loss.

Acute vitamin A poisoning causes a skeletal disease that can even be fatal. In addition, an extremely high amount of retinol is unhealthy for unborn children. It is therefore important that pregnant women get enough, but not too much, with their diet.

What does vitamin A contain?

To know how you can get enough vitamin A, you must of course know what this substance is in!

The main sources are animal products. These must be products that contain fat, because retinol only dissolves in fat. Animal products with fat are, for example, fatty dairy, butter, fish and egg yolk.

The liver is extremely rich in vitamin A. The reason for this is that mammals – including humans – store and sometimes produce the vitamin in a liver. With 100 grams of liver meat, you already get about 11,000 mcg – almost four times as much as the maximum amount per day!

Now that doesn’t mean you should never eat liver. It is no problem if you are above that limit on individual days, as long as you are on average (well) below it. However, pregnant women are strongly discouraged from eating liver. Such high doses can be harmful to their child’s development.

What does beta-carotene contain?

In addition to vitamin A, you can also eat beta-carotene. Your body can convert this substance in your liver into retinol. For that reason beta carotene is also called pro vitamin A.

You can mainly find beta carotene in vegetables. All orange vegetables are good sources of this substance: think of carrot, pumpkin and sweet potato, for example. But leafy vegetables such as kale, spinach and endive are also rich in beta-carotene.

Please note that 1 mcg of beta-carotene is not equal to 1 mcg of vitamin A. Your body actually only absorbs about 10 to 20% of the beta-carotene. If you get a large part of your nutrients from plant sources, for example because you eat vegan, it is wise to pay a little attention to this.

Vitamin A Supplements?

Is it wise to take supplements of this vitamin? Usually this has no added value, because it is not difficult to get enough vitamin A from natural foods. In fact, supplements increase the risk of an excess of vitamin A, with all the unpleasant consequences that entails.

If you are pregnant, the use of supplements containing this vitamin is strongly discouraged. Only use them in consultation with your doctor, for example if it has been determined that you are not getting enough retinol.

And do you have a shortage? Never use supplements that contain (almost) the maximum daily amount of 3000 mcg, but always stay well below that limit. This way you avoid accidentally incurring a surplus!

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