When it comes to staying healthy and keeping our bodies functioning at their optimal level, vitamin A is pretty important. Vitamin A helps us with our vision, immune system, reproduction, and metabolism, as well as with heart, lung, kidney, and brain functioning. But its role doesn't stop there—vitamin A also has antioxidant properties, which may help protect cells from free radical damage.
You can obtain vitamin A from many different food sources, like salmon, spinach and other leafy vegetables, milk, cheese, egg yolk, organ meats, beef liver, broccoli, squash, carrots, cantaloupe, mangos, and apricots. Additionally, some breakfast cereal products are fortified with vitamin A.
Adult women should aim to consume around 700 micrograms (mcg) of vitamin A each day, while the daily recommendation for men is closer to 900 micrograms (mcg) per day. For the most part, vitamin A deficiency in the United States is rare, but it is much more common in developing nations. People with problems digesting fat-soluble vitamins may be at a higher risk for a vitamin A deficiency, explains Jeanette Kimszal, a registered dietitian at Root Nutrition.
Meet the Expert
Unsure if you need to take vitamin A supplements? Morgyn Clair, a registered dietitian at Sprint Kitchen, says that a sufficient amount of vitamin A can be obtained from food sources. "Because it can be 'overdosed,' it's not recommended to supplement with," she says. The Mayo Clinic explains that too much vitamin A can be harmful, and that vitamin A supplements primarily benefit people who have "a poor or limited diet or who have a condition that increases the need for vitamin A, such as pancreatic disease, eye disease, or measles."
If you take too much vitamin A in the form of supplements, you may experience nausea, vomiting, blurry vision, and vertigo. Over the long term, taking too much vitamin A can bring about symptoms like skin irritation, joint and bone pain, birth defects, bone thinning, liver damage, and more.
If you are concerned that you be may deficient in vitamin A, ask your doctor for a blood test that looks at your retinol or beta-carotene levels. "The body regulates the level of vitamin A since this nutrient is stored in the liver," Kimszal says. "If the liver is depleted, then vitamin A levels are low."
Though vitamin A deficiency is pretty rare in the United States, read on for a few symptoms that could be a sign you aren't getting enough.
Dry eyes can be one of the first signs of vitamin A deficiency. Our eyes are covered in a layer of fluid called tear film, which helps protect and lubricate the eyes while also keeping the surface of the eyes clear.
“A healthy and regular tear film is necessary for the vision to be clear,” explains Yuna Rapoport, a New York City–based ophthalmologist at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital. “When light hits the cornea, if the tear film is irregular, it scatters the light.”
When tear film is not of good quality, symptoms of dry eye can appear. “One of the first signs of vitamin A deficiency is something called Bitot’s spots, which are white foamy lesions on the cornea,” Rapoport says.
Night blindness is another early sign of vitamin A deficiency. “Vitamin A is a critical part of rhodopsin, a protein that absorbs light in the retina,” Rapoport explains. “Rhodopsin is the 'rods' part of 'rods and cones,' and is crucial for night vision."
Problems With Wound Healing
Vitamin A is an important component of proper wound healing. One reason is that vitamin A plays a role in moderating the body’s inflammatory response, and can help control excessive inflammation. “Without enough vitamin A, the body won’t heal properly,” Clair says.
An Increase in Chest, Throat, and Respiratory Infections
Vitamin A deficiency may be associated with throat, respiratory tract, and chest infections. But don’t go reaching for vitamin A supplements for this reason alone—further research is still needed in this area, and supplementing can have some pretty serious side effects if you're not deficient.
“Vitamin A is thought to have a protective effect against the excessive inflammation that comes along with invasive pathogens like colds and infections,” Clair says. “Vitamin A may help protect through modulation of inflammation.”
Vitamin A deficiency definitely isn’t the sole reason for dry skin, eczema, and other skin issues, but it may play a role. When you look at the ingredients on skincare products, retinol is a pretty common term. It turns out retinol is actually derived from vitamin A and has many skin benefits, including reducing wrinkles, smoothing skin texture, and more. After understanding this connection, it makes sense that vitamin A deficiency can play a role in skin problems.
“The skin contains retinoid receptors and getting enough vitamin A will help to create new skin cells, reduce inflammation, and prevent dryness,” Kimszal says. “So not getting enough of this vitamin can lead to dry skin.”
Research on animals shows that vitamin A deficiency may be associated with infertility. We know that vitamin A plays a role in a number of reproductive processes, but further research is needed in this area to learn whether vitamin A deficiency is associated with fertility problems in both men and women.
Vitamin A deficiency is rare in the United States unless you have a very limited diet or a few specific conditions. But if you have any concerns about being deficient in vitamin A or any other important nutrients, you'll definitely want to talk to your doctor and see if they can run some blood tests.
Most important, remember that the signs and symptoms mentioned above can arise for many different reasons. Just because you have dry skin or dry eyes doesn't necessarily mean you are deficient in vitamin A.