Last weekend, I attended the Weston A. Price Conference down in Allen, Texas. For those of you unaware of the organization, they promote what would be called a “ancestral diet,” which focuses on how our hunter-gatherer and early civilization ancestors would have eaten.
One of the common themes throughout this weekend was vitamin A.
Before this conference, vitamin A was kinda a boring topic. You get it from eating carrots and it’s good for your eyes. And when you look up the nutrition facts, a single carrot has well over 100% of your daily needs, so you’re good right?
Over the course of this past weekend, I had about three hours of education on this subject and my guest on the Monday Q&A gave one of the talks on vitamin A. So I’m going to condense some of this info for you so you can get a brief idea how important this once kinda boring vitamin really is.
What Does Vitamin A Do?
If you’ve read what I’ve written about vitamin D, you’ll know that every single cell in your body has a vitamin D receptor. Vitamin A plays a role in every single vitamin D transcription, so it indirectly plays a role with every single system in your body.
Vitamin A plays a direct role in the regulation of over 500 genes in your body.
Obviously, we know it’s good for your eyesight. But it also plays a role converting cholestrol into sex hormones, and it helps with your stress hormones and thyroid hormone.
Low levels of vitamin A increase your chances of getting an infection because your immune system will be weaker, but low levels also increase your risk auto-immunity because it keeps your immune system from “freaking out.”
In both sexes, low levels can lead to fertility issues and can lead to low testosterone levels in men.
Low levels of vitamin A can cause skin issues like acne, eczema, and flaky scalp.
Signs of Deficiency
Deficiency is thought to be rare. However, the RDA is set at a level to prevent deficiency is defined as “diminished retina sensitivity to light.” What that means is if you have too low of levels, you start going blind. However, what we’re trying to find out is if this level is enough for every other body system (it’s probably not).
Currently, 35% of American’s don’t get enough vitamin A in their diet. If you avoid fortified foods, that number jumps to 65% of that population (note: this doesn’t include using supplements containing vitamin A). This is just using the RDA, which is already a pretty low bar to hit.
So, how can you tell if you might be deficient? It’s as easy as driving at night. If you are driving and someone passes you with their lights on at night, and you’re temporarily blinded for about two seconds, you most likely are deficient.
Other signs of deficiency? Poor night vision, bumps on skin where your hair comes out (follicular hyperkeratosis), dry eyes, frequent colds, allergies, sleep problems or insomnia, problems seeing with bright light or photophobia, chronically dry skin. A lot of these are pretty common.
Factors that can deplete your vitamin A levels are: daily use of vitamin D supplements over 2000IU, eating lots of polyunsaturated fats, too much sunlight/getting sunburned, using cortisone, high protein diets, eating large amounts of beta-carotene (more on this later), and eating lots of high fiber foods.
Okay, so before you run out and eat a bag of baby carrots, just eating beta-carotene isn’t enough. You need fat to absorb beta-carotene and other carotenoids (like lycopene). A study done back in 2004 showed that if you eat no fat with fruits and vegetables, you absorb practically nothing. You need about 28 grams of fat to maximize absorption.
If that’s not enough, depending on genetics, you will absorb between 10-90% of what you ingest under ideal conditions. So a big variability there.
Other factors that and decrease absorption of carotenoids include: zinc and iron deficiencies, having your gallbladder removed, being hypothorid, and having gut dysbiosis/inflammation all lead to issues with absorption.
A note on beta-carotene. This is what is found in plants and is a precursor to what animals (including humans) use, which is called retinol.
The gene that converts carotenoids into retinol is your BCO1 gene. Fifty percent of the population have SNPs (genetic variations) that decrease conversion by 50%! And half of those people have a decrease conversion by 75% (I’m one of those). You can find out your BCO1 SNPs by putting your
StrateGene by Seeking Health
Since most of your vitamin A is stored in your liver, blood tests don’t necessarily tell you whether you’re deficient or not.
And the solution isn’t to dump beta-carotene into your diet by eating carrots, sweet potatoes, and butternut squash because lots of beta-carotene can actually cause issues with conversion into retinol.
So, if you’ve read this far, you’ve probably realized that vitamin A is way more complicated than what you pictured before this email. One reason it’s so complicated is that traditional diets were high in animal foods containing retinol. This allowed for the SNPs in the BCO1 gene to stay with us to this day instead of those individuals dying off due to survival-of-the-fittest.
So, what foods are the best source of retinol?
The RDA for men is 900 mcg and women is 700 mcg
Liver is the best source. Different animals have different amounts of retinol. Beef has roughly 4,200 mcg per 3oz serving. Since most people don’t care for the way beef liver tastes, chicken liver is a little lower but milder. Pâté, scrapple, and liverwurst are also good ways to get liver into your diet.
Cod liver oil supplement: see supplements for the amount.
Dairy: whole milk has 68 mcg per cup, 1 oz of aged cheese has 60-72 mcg. Yogurt, cottage cheese, and cream contain retinol. Pasture-raised grass-finished dairy is higher than conventional.
Eggs: Roughly 90 mcg per egg but you must eat the yolk to get this. The darker orange yolks from pasture-raised chickens contain more than the pale yellow color of conventional eggs.
Fish and shellfish: contain anywhere from 6-50 mcg per 3oz serving.
Remember, you need to eat fat to be able to absorb the vitamin A. Eggs and full-fat dairy already have fat that will help with absorption. But liver, fish, and vegetable sources will need to have fat added to absorb vitamin A.
The fortunate part about vitamin A being fat soluble is that you can store it. So eating 3oz liver once or twice a week is enough. But you can do smaller amounts throughout the week.
Toxicity doesn’t usually happen unless you eat lots of liver multiple times per week or use retinol supplements excessively. One of the first symptoms of toxicity is your hair starting to fall out. Decreasing intake of retinol will reverse it.