Vitamin A: The right stuff?

VITAMIN A:  Are you getting enough of the right kind?

There’s a great deal of confusion and misinformation surrounding vitamin A.  We’ve been advised to obtain our vitamin A mainly from fruits and vegetables.  On the other hand, we’ve been cautioned to limit our vitamin A intake from animal sources.  This may be a problem for some people.  Here’s why: 

For the sake of this discussion, vitamin exists in two basic forms — pre-vitamin A found in plants, and active preformed vitamin A found in animal foods, mainly organ meats and full fat dairy such as butter.  Pre-vitamin A is found mainly in carotenoids, of which beta carotene is just one.  Preformed vitamin A from animals exists as three related versions — retinol, retinal and retinoic acid.  Because preformed vitamin A — specifically the retinoic acid version — is a crucial player in your immune system, it’s important to realize that some of us may not get enough from plants alone.  Vitamin A is also important for vision and acts as a hormone, which regulates over 500 genes.

Over 600 carotenoids have been indentified.  They give fruits and vegetables their many beautiful colors.  About 50 can be converted into vitamin A. The problem is that the conversion of carotenoids into active vitamin A may not be as efficient as we’d like to think.  Recent research conducted in Newcastle, England suggests that nearly 50% of all women are unable to convert carotenoids into active vitamin A, probably due to genetic variation. Furthermore, most carotenoids require fat to be eaten at the same time to be fully absorbed.  Cooked carotenoids are better absorbed than raw.  Inadequate protein consumption and zinc deficiency, problems in up to 50% of Americans, also interfere with absorption. 

In my own medical practice, I am especially concerned about people eating supposedly “healthy diets” — mostly a few vegetables and grains plus lots of fruit, who are not getting enough protein and zinc, because they fear even small amounts of animal foods.  This “healthy lite” way of eating can be fine for some, but in the highly stressed individual, the gut immune system may be suppressed; it is these individuals who may benefit from more preformed vitamin A found in meat and dairy from healthy grass fed animals.

As we discussed last week, Vitamins and D and A are partners meant to coexist in a balance.  An excess of one can lead to a deficiency in the other.

Vitamin A supports gut immune function. If you don’t get enough vitamin A,  your gut loses the ability to judge good from bad and mounts an immune reaction to foods that would otherwise be accepted.  We call this food intolerance.  At the same time, too little vitamin A prevents the gut immune system from mounting an adequate response to control the many disease causing bacteria and parasites we encounter in our food and environment. 

The take home message here is simple –people suffering from long term emotional or physical stress may benefit from moderate amounts of healthy source organ meats and/or full fat dairy in order to get enough active vitamin A. 

If eating organ meats a couple of times a month and moderate amounts of full fat dairy a few times a week doesn’t appeal to you, consider cod liver oil.  I prefer fermented cod liver oil product from Green Pastures ( that also includes a high vitamin content butter oil from grass fed cows.  Each serving supplies you with approximately 400 IUs of vitamin D and 3000 IUs of preformed vitamin A as well as some vitamin K from the butter oil, another key member of the fat soluble vitamin team required for optimum health.

Unless you are also eating several servings of vitamin D rich fatty fish a week, such as salmon, sardines, herring or mackerel — or getting direct sunlight most days — I also suggest an additional 1000 to 2000 IUs vitamin D in a gel cap or drops.  The products from Carlson’s ( are high quality, inexpensive and widely available. 

NOTE:  We need to distinguish between supermarket feedlot meat and dairy from grain fed animals and meat and unpasteurized dairy from grass fed animals. There is a radical difference both between their respective nutrient and toxin profiles.  Meat and dairy from grass fed animals contain more omega 3 fats; feedlot productsare laced with pesticide and antibiotic residues.   Furthermore, it’s not hard to be appalled at the conditions under which feedlot, factory farmed animals are raised and slaughtered.  Who wants to be part of that?    

I have no financial connection to any of the above mentioned companies.

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