With Cold and Flu season here, there are many go-to remedies and nutrients we think of to get us through such as vitamin C, elderberry syrup, ginger lemon tea and lots of probiotics, right?! But there is one nutrient I bet you aren’t thinking of.
You may know vitamin A for its role in vision health and in particular in preventing night blindness. Or you may know it for its role in skin health and you may be familiar with Retin-A or even Accutane as an acne treatment. But, Vitamin A’s role in the body is even bigger than just being able to see at night or having better-looking skin.
Vitamin A has a critical role in immune function, specifically in improving your army in fighting off various germs. Vitamin A ensures your Army is in tip-top shape and ready to fight whenever necessary. It actually blocks the activity of certain viruses. (Hello cold and flu! No entrance here!) And it enhances the antibody response and white blood cell function.
Vitamin A is instrumental in supporting the base layer of skin cells both externally and internally. Internally this includes the mucous membrane linings of the lungs, nose, throat, eyes, skin, stomach, intestines, vagina, bladder and urinary tract. This essentially includes all the big players in any common chronic infection site. As long as these layers are healthy, they provide an excellent barrier to any germs, pathogens or even pollutants. When these layers are dried out and brittle, they are weak and easily allow germs, pollutants and toxins to pass through.
Pass the Orange and Yellow Foods
Great you say, “I’ll eat more orange and yellow veggies and I’ll strengthen my immune system. Pass the peppers and the butternut squash, please.” But before you do that you need to know a little more about how you absorb vitamin A.
There are actually two forms of vitamin A to be aware of. Preformed Vitamin A and Provitamin A. Preformed Vitamin A is quickly absorbed and ready for use as soon as you eat the food, no conversions necessary. This is the simplest way to get in your vitamin A each day. Preformed vitamin A is found in liver, cod liver oil, marrow, egg yolks and butter. With the egg yolks and butter, color does matter, the more orange the yolk and more yellow the butter the better.
Provitamin A needs to be converted from beta-carotene (the most common source) either in your small intestine or in the liver to be made into preformed vitamin A, the usable form of vitamin A. Provitamin A is found in your orange and yellow veggies, and even some greens.
However, this conversion isn’t super easy and with many people unknowingly having some digestive dysfunction going on, it limits the ability of the small intestine and liver to be able to do this conversion effectively. Some other populations that really struggle with the conversion are those who have diabetes, low thyroid function and those who rely heavily on vegetable oils in their diet.
Veggies Aren’t Enough
The hard truth is that if you are relying on orange and yellow veggies for all of your vitamin A needs, you aren’t getting enough.
And like any other vitamin or mineral in the body vitamin A does not work well in a silo either, it needs a few friends. Vitamin A works best with sufficient levels of zinc in the body (pumpkin seeds, lamb and oysters) and an adequate intake of protein.
Signs of deficiency can include night blindness, bumps on the back of the arm, dry, scaly skin and most notably a weakened immune system. Vitamin A deficiency will reduce T-lymphocytes (cellular immunity) and B-lymphocytes (antibody production). Severe deficiency will actually atrophy the spleen and thymus and reduce the circulating lymphocytes (all major players in your immune function).
Deficiency happens by not consuming enough, but it is also decreased during times of stress and illness. It is always a good idea to consciously try to consume more vitamin A rich foods following a cold or flu or a high-stress time.
My Favorite Source of Vitamin A
My very favorite way to get in more vitamin A is through this Sweet Marrow Custard. My kids love this and actually ask for it often. I top it with a blueberry compote and everyone is happy with this rich, filling breakfast. Vitamin A rich foods may not be naturally occurring foods in today’s diet, but they are well worth the effort. We eat lots of pastured eggs, high-quality butter, and I take dessicated liver and cycle in and out of cod liver oil.
What is your favorite way to get in more vitamin A?
Haas, E. M. (2006). Staying Healthy with Nutrition. New York: Random House, Inc.