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Vitamin A

Definition

Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin.

Alternative Names

Retinol; Carotenoids

Function

Vitamin A helps form and maintain healthy teeth, skeletal and soft tissue, mucous membranes, and skin. It is also known as retinol because it produces the pigments in the retina of the eye.

Vitamin A promotes good vision, especially in low light. It may also be needed for reproduction and breast-feeding.

Retinol is an active form of vitamin A. It is found in animal liver, whole milk, and some fortified foods.

Carotenoids are dark colored dyes found in plant foods that can turn into a form of vitamin A. One such carotenoid is beta-carotene. Beta-carotene is an antioxidant. Antioxidants protect cells from damage caused by unstable substances called free radicals. Free radicals are believed to contribute to certain chronic diseases and play a role in the degenerative processes seen in aging.

Food Sources

Vitamin A comes from animal sources, such as eggs, meat, milk, cheese, cream, liver, kidney, cod, and halibut fish oil. However, all of these sources -- except for skim milk that has been fortified with Vitamin A -- are high in saturated fat and cholesterol.

Sources of beta-carotene are carrots, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, winter squashes, cantaloupe, pink grapefruit, apricots, broccoli, spinach, and most dark green, leafy vegetables. The more intense the color of a fruit or vegetable, the higher the beta-carotene content. These vegetable sources of beta-carotene are free of fat and cholesterol.

Side Effects

If you don't get enough vitamin A, you are more susceptible to infectious diseases and vision problems.

If you get too much vitamin A, you can become sick. Large doses of vitamin A can also cause birth defects. Acute vitamin A poisoning usually occurs when an adult takes several hundred thousand IU. Symptoms of chronic vitamin A poisoning may occur in adults who regularly take more than 25,000 IU a day. Babies and children are more sensitive and can become sick after taking smaller doses of vitamin A or vitamin A-containing products such as retinol (found in skin creams).

See also: Hypervitaminosis A.

Increased amounts of beta-carotene can turn the color of skin to yellow or orange. The skin color returns to normal once the increased intake of beta-carotene is reduced.

Recommendations

The best way to get the daily requirement of essential vitamins is to eat a balanced diet that contains a variety of foods from the food guide pyramid.

The Food and Nutrition Board at the Institute of Medicine recommends the following:

Infants

  • 0 - 6 months: 400 micrograms per day (mcg/day)
  • 7 - 12 months: 500 mcg/day

Children

  • 1 - 3 years: 300 mcg/day
  • 4 - 8 years: 400 mcg/day
  • 9 - 13 years: 600 mcg/day

Adolescents and Adults

  • Males age 14 and older: 900 mcg/day
  • Females age 14 and older: 700 mcg/day

Specific recommendations depend on age, gender, and other factors (such as pregnancy). Women who are pregnant or producing breast milk (lactating) need higher amounts. Ask your doctor what dose is best for you.

References

Hamrick I, Counts SH. Vitamin and mineral supplements. Wellness and Prevention. December 2008:35(4);729-747.

Mason JB. Vitamins, trace minerals, and other micronutrients. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap 237.

Anderson RA. Prescribing antioxidants. In: Rakel D, ed. Integrative Medicine. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap 103.

Institute of Medicine. Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin A, Vitamin K, Arsenic, Boron, Chromium, Copper, Iodine, Iron, Manganese, Molybdenum, Nickel, Silicon, Vanadium, and Zinc. National Academy Press, Washington, DC, 2001.

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    Review Date: 3/7/2009

    Review By: Linda Vorvick, MD, Family Physician, Seattle Site Coordinator, Lecturer, Pathophysiology, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.

    The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- 2010 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

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