6 Top Benefits of Vitamin A

Vitamin A helps protect your vision and is critical for your immune system
Filet of salmon.

Were you ever told as a kid to eat carrots because they would help you see better? Well, that’s not completely off — carrots contain vitamin A, a nutrient that can help protect your vision (among other jobs).

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Your body doesn’t naturally produce vitamin A, but you can find it in many foods. It’s also available as a nutritional supplement. But unless you have a diagnosed vitamin A deficiency, it’s always best to meet your vitamin needs through a balanced, healthy diet.

“Because so many foods contain vitamin A, it’s easy to get it through your meals,” says dietitian Elyse Homan, RD, LD. “But you also have to know how much vitamin A is enough — and how much vitamin A may be too much. It’s a balancing act.”

Homan shares how to increase your intake without going overboard and explores the many vitamin A benefits.

What is vitamin A?

Vitamin A is a critical vitamin that helps your body develop and function properly. There are two types of vitamin A, which come from different sources:

  • Carotenoids (provitamin A) are found in plant-based foods, such as carrots and sweet potatoes, fortified foods (where vitamins are added) and supplements. To digest carotenoids, your body needs healthy fats to change (convert) them into the other, active form of vitamin A (retinol). One of the most common carotenoids is beta-carotene, which is responsible for giving plants their orange and red pigments.
  • Retinoids (retinol or preformed vitamin A) are found in animal-based foods, such as eggs, fish, milk and liver. Your body can use this form of vitamin A right away.

What does vitamin A do for your body?

This nutrient plays many important roles. Vitamin A is good for supporting healthy fetal growth and development and beyond, as well as:

1. Maintains healthy vision

One of vitamin A’s most important roles is to preserve and maintain your vision. It helps change the light that hits your eye into an electrical signal that can be sent to your brain.

Your body also uses vitamin A to make pigments for your retinas to work well, and moisture for your corneas. An early sign of vitamin A deficiency is night blindness (nyctalopia), which can lead to permanent vision loss if untreated.

Foods rich in vitamin A might reduce your risk of developing cataracts or age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Vitamin A may even restore some vision loss, according to one study.

2. Aids immune system function

Vitamin A strengthens your immune system by supporting white blood cells and the mucus membranes in your lungs, intestines and urinary tract. This helps you ward off infection and toxins (also called free radicals) that cause inflammation and disease.

Giving vitamin A supplements to children with measles has been shown to reduce the severity of the disease, according to the World Health Organization. In other words, vitamin A can sometimes save lives.

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3. Reduces your cancer risk

Vitamin A plays a key role in the healthy growth and development of your cells. But no one knows for sure if it also helps lower your risk of developing cancer.

Some studies suggest that consuming higher amounts of beta-carotene or vitamin A from plant foods may protect against certain types of cancer, such as non-Hodgkin lymphoma. But other research has shown that high doses of vitamin A supplements actually increased the risk of cancer and death in those who smoke or used to smoke.  

“It’s too early to say whether either form of vitamin A can help us prevent or treat cancer,” says Homan. “We need much more information to make that connection.”

4. Keeps your skin clear

Many people claim vitamin A is an effective treatment for acne and age-related skin changes, including wrinkles and age spots. But it’s important to use vitamin A for skin health with care, whether you add vitamin A-rich foods to your diet or use vitamin A-based skin treatments like pills or creams.

Eating too little vitamin A can lead to blocked sweat glands, increasing your risk of developing acne. Too much vitamin A (hypervitaminosis) can discolor your skin and cause it to become dry.

Prescription retinol has been shown to improve acne, but we need more research to show whether non-prescription forms also help. Retinol treatments can also make your skin highly sensitive to the sun. Talk to a healthcare provider or dermatologist about effective care for your skin type.

5. Supports reproductive health

Adequate amounts of vitamin A in your diet are essential for healthy reproductive function. Vitamin A deficiency can lead to infertility and cause delayed growth and development in children.

But too much vitamin A during pregnancy can harm the fetus, causing birth defects and increased risk of infection and disease. People who are pregnant should avoid foods that contain large amounts of vitamin A, such as pâté and liver, as well as vitamin A supplements.

6. Keeps bones and teeth strong

Vitamin A helps maintain proper bone growth and development, lowering your risk of injury or disability. But it’s important to strike a balance. Researchers have found that vitamin A may also be associated with a higher risk of bone health issues, including hip fractures and osteoporosis.

What are the best sources of vitamin A?

Foods rich in vitamin A include fruits and vegetables, meats, fish and nuts. “It’s fairly easy to consume a healthy dose of vitamin A without supplements,” notes Homan. “You just need to know what to look for.”

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Here are some foods that are good sources of vitamin A:

  • Dairy products: Dairy is an excellent source of vitamin A, from milk and yogurt to cheese and butter. Milk, low-fat spreads and many cereals are often fortified with vitamins, including vitamin A, so you don’t have to look far to get your recommended daily amount.
  • Eggs: Eggs are a nutritious part of any meal, with yolks that contain nearly every vitamin and mineral your body needs to work well. One hard-boiled egg contains 75 micrograms (mcg), or 8% of the recommended daily amount for vitamin A. Eggs also contain the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, which may help protect your vision.
  • Fish: Oily fish are among the best sources of vitamin A. Try salmon, mackerel or Bluefin tuna. It doesn’t take much: A 3-ounce serving of cooked sockeye salmon provides 7% of your recommended daily amount.
  • Liver and liver products: Liver is the best food source of vitamin A, including cod liver oil and liver pâté. Foods like liver sausage are so rich in this essential nutrient that you may need to limit it to no more than one meal a week to avoid eating too much. A 3-ounce serving of pan-fried beef liver contains about 6,600 mcg of vitamin A — more than 700% of your recommended daily amount.
  • Fruits and vegetables: Oil, seeds and nuts provide a good dose of vitamin A, along with most deep yellow-orange and dark green, leafy vegetables and fruits. One whole sweet potato with its skin has about 1,400 mcg of vitamin A. One half-cup of raw carrots amounts to more than 450 mcg, or 51% of your daily requirement. Other foods rich in vitamin A include apricots, peaches, broccoli, grapefruit, squash, watermelon and spinach.

How much vitamin A per day do I need?

Your recommended vitamin A intake (in micrograms) is:

AgeRecommended Daily Value
6 to 11 months*500 mcg
12 to 23 months*300 mcg
2 to 18 years (assigned female at birth, AFAB)300 to 700 mcg
Over 18 years (AFAB)1,600 to 1,800 mcg
2 to 18 (assigned male at birth, AMAB)1,400 to 2,200 mcg
Over 18 years (AMAB)2,000 to 2,400 mcg
14+ years and pregnant750 to 770 mcg
14+ years and lactating1,200 to 1,300 mcg

*Adequate Intake
Source: 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans

Is too much vitamin A bad for me?

Vitamin A from foods is considered safe. But you can get too much vitamin A from supplements.

While vitamin A has many benefits, too much can be harmful. Your body stores the leftovers it doesn’t immediately need. They may build up to an unsafe level and lead to:

  • Blurred vision.
  • Bone pain.
  • Dizziness.
  • Dry skin.
  • Hair loss.
  • Headache.
  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Skin rash or discoloration (yellow-orange from too much beta-carotene).

Do I need to take vitamin A supplements?

Most multivitamin-mineral supplements also contain vitamin A. But in most cases, you don’t need to take supplements if you’re getting enough of what you need from food.

“Unless you have a limited diet or a condition that increases your need for vitamin A, you can find all the vitamin A you require in a balanced diet,” Homan advises. “Plus, in the case of vitamin A, you don’t want to run the risk of consuming too much.”

If you suspect you may lack vitamin A, talk with a healthcare provider about next steps. Your symptoms and a blood test can confirm diagnosis and guide treatment.

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