- Vitamin A is an essential vitamin that helps promote good vision, sustain a strong immune system, support the body’s ability reproduce, and ensure skin health.
- If you’re not getting enough vitamin A, you might notice changes in your eyesight, especially in dim lighting.
- A vitamin A deficiency might also lead to a weakened immune system.
- Vitamin A deficiencies are rare in developed countries.
Vitamin A helps promote good vision, a strong immune system, and skin health. Most people can get all the vitamin A they need by eating foods like meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, leafy greens, sweet potatoes, carrots, and cantaloupes.
Though vitamin A deficiency is rare in developed countries – the Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that less than 1% of the American population is deficient – some people are at risk of being deficient in this crucial vitamin.
People who are very young, pregnant, breast-feeding, or suffering from a liver or malabsorption condition are most likely to have a vitamin A deficiency. In fact, Unicef found that one in six pregnant women worldwide aren’t getting enough vitamin A from their diet.
INSIDER consulted with doctors and nutritionists to find out what kind of signs and symptoms you might notice if you’re not getting enough vitamin A.
Poor vision is one of the first signs of vitamin A deficiency.
Even though vitamin A deficiency is extremely rare in developed countries, one of the first symptoms of a deficiency is usually problems seeing or eye discomfort.
“Changes in vision are often the first noticeable sign of vitamin A deficiency. You may notice that you can’t see as well at night, or that your eyes are dry and get irritated easily,” Dr. Khalid Saeed, DO, told INSIDER.
If you’ve noticed a change in your vision or worsening sight, you should discuss the possibility of a vitamin A deficiency with your doctor.
Night blindness is a common symptom of vitamin A deficiency.
Many people are first alerted that they may have a vitamin A deficiency by the onset of night blindness.
“Night blindness, known as nyctalopia, is where the eyes struggle to adjust to dim light. This means that in low-light situations, things can appear almost pitch black to someone with a vitamin A deficiency,” general practitioner Dr. Don Grant told INSIDER.
This means that driving at night might suddenly be much more difficult for someone with a vitamin A deficiency, and their eyes might take much longer to adjust between brightly lit and dim areas.
“Rod cells in the retina contain a receptor-protein that is synthesized from vitamin A and is regenerated in the absence of light. A lack of vitamin A causes lower rhodopsin levels leading to night blindness,” explained Dr. Grant.
Night blindness caused by vitamin A deficiency can progress to permanent vision loss, so it’s important to check in with your doctor and a nutritionist if you’re worried you’re not getting enough of this vitamin from your diet.
A lack of vitamin A can make your eyes dry.
Dry, itchy eyes can be caused by a number of things including fatigue, eye strain, and dry weather. Being deficient in vitamin A, however, can also cause dryness of the eyes.
“Medically known as xerophthalmia, those suffering from the condition lose the ability to produce tears. This leads to the conjunctiva, where the whites of your eyes becoming very dry and often appearing wrinkled,” said Dr. Grant.
Xerophthalmia is caused by low levels of retinoic acid, which is produced in the body from vitamin A. If you don’t have enough of the vitamin, your eyes might become itchy and inflamed.
Left untreated, eye dryness caused by vitamin A deficiency might lead to eye spots.
A rare symptom of vitamin A deficiency is the formation of dark marks on the eye known as Bitot’s spots. They occur when the cells of the cornea and conjunctivae are filled with a fibrous protein called keratin.
“The cornea becomes hard and thickened, sometimes opaque, and vision is reduced. Sometimes small hard lumps of keratin form on the eye. These are called Bitot’s Spots and they further increase hazy vision,” registered dietician nutritionist Billi Green told INSIDER.
Normally, vitamin A helps protect the cornea from dryness and the formation of spots. These darkened patches are typically only seen in people with very severe vitamin A deficiencies.
Skin infections are a problem in people with low levels of vitamin A.
You might not think of your skin as a vital part of your immune system, but it’s actually your first line of defence against infection, pollutants, and bacteria. When your body doesn’t have the vitamin A that it needs, skin infections can become more frequent.
“Vitamin A stimulates the cells that keep skin healthy and firm (fibroblasts) in the layers deep in your skin. Carotenoids and vitamin A play a huge role in tissue and cell growth, a deficiency can lead to slow healing wounds and infection,” cardiologist Dr. Luiza Petre told INSIDER.
Along with skin infections, Dr. Petre also noted that people with vitamin A deficiencies are more prone conditions such as eczema.
Slow wound healing is also a common side effect of a deficiency.
Low levels of vitamin A can be linked to wounds that don’t heal well, revealed Dr. Saeed.
“It makes sense because vitamin A helps in the creation of collagen which is an important component of healthy skin,” he said.
Luckily, both oral and topical vitamin A has been shown to be effective in promoting skin healing in people who are deficient.
Dry and scaly skin, hair, and nails might be a subtle clue that your vitamin A levels are low.
Normally, the top layer of your skin cells and those in your mucus membranes are replaced about every two weeks. Unfortunately, a lack of vitamin A can disrupt this process and lead to dry skin and dandruff.
“Your skin has a protective layer of interlocked cells that have died and are waiting to be sluffed off on the outside. With Vitamin A deficiency, this process is exaggerated, so the skin and mucous membranes become hard and thick. Your hair and nails may become hard and brittle, as well,” Green said.
Dr. Grant added that low levels of retinoids caused by a vitamin A deficiency can also lead to chapped lips, a dry tongue, or red and swollen skin.
The connection between acne and low levels of vitamin A has been well-documented.
Multiple studies have linked low vitamin A levels to the development of acne.
“Since vitamin A promotes skin development and fights inflammation, topical or oral vitamin A can help prevent or treat acne,” said Dr. Saeed.
The best-known form of oral vitamin A used to treat acne is isotretinoin or Accutane. Creams and serums that contain vitamin A are also sometimes prescribed by dermatologists to help treat acne.
The immune system can weaken without enough vitamin A.
The retinoids that are produced from vitamin A not only have a role in keeping the skin and eyes healthy but also help to produce T-cells and lymphocytes. These are cells that are crucial to maintaining a strong immune system.
“When individuals who are vitamin A deficient encounter a pathogen that could cause an infection, their immune system is less able to respond leading to higher rates of infection,” Dr. Grant said.
Low levels of vitamin A might make it more difficult to get pregnant.
An undiagnosed vitamin A deficiency may be one of the reasons you’re having trouble getting pregnant. Dr. Green explained that vitamin A deficiency can lead to infertility in both men and women.
“Vitamin A helps the body produce cervical fluid, making it easier to get and stay pregnant. It assists in the maturation of the egg and in producing hormones that boost the fertilised egg into the uterus,” she said.
Dr. Green also revealed that vitamin A’s potent antioxidant properties help protect sperm from free radical damage, increasing the chance of conception and decreasing the risk of miscarriage.
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