Prenatal Vitamins from A to Z: The Real Deal on Vitamin A

So we begin our journey exploring all the vitamins of the alphabet. It's awesome (get it "A"wesome?) that vitamin A is the first one because in my mind, it is one of the most important micronutrients not only to help you boost your fertility and prepare for pregnancy, but also during pregnancy and breastfeeding. So, let's explore the wonders of this over achieving vitamin. 

The Scoop on Vitamin A 

Vitamin A is important for many key functions in the body. These include: 

  • Eyesight
  • Hormone Balance and Fertility  
  • Thyroid function
  • Bone growth and skin health
  • Cell differentiation and multiplication
  • Immune Function (viruses and bacteria seem to retreat in the presence of high vit A)
  • For your growing baby specifically:  Vitamin A is important for the development of the neural pathways between the brain and sensory organs and in the development of the nephrons in the kidney.
  • Vitamin A deficiency is also associated with pregnancy loss...needless to say, it's an important part of a healthy diet. 

Two Types of Vitamin A

Liver is one of the very best sources of vitamin A

Liver is one of the very best sources of vitamin A

Retinoids (Reteinol Esters): Derived from animal sources. Retinoids are found in the liver of any animal and in smaller quantities in egg yolks,  butter and cream from grass fed cows. 

Carotenoids:  AKA Beta-carotene. Vitamin A derived from plant sources. Think carrots, winter squash, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe. Basically, if it has an orange hue, it's probably rich in carotenoids. Carotenoids must be converted by the body into retinol in order to be used by the body. This is kind of tricky for the body to do and is a pretty inefficient process. This process can be even trickier if you suffer from a hormone imbalance, thyroid condition, it can be effected by food preparation and cooking methods and also if don't have enough fat in your diet or if you have digestive problems. Babies also don't convert well (another reason to feed your infants over 6months liver).  

Vit A in a Nutshell

  • Fat soluble Vitamin. This means it must be consumed with a fat to be properly absorbed.
  • Both Retinol Esters from animals and Beta Carotene from plants must be converted by the body into Retinoids. Once converted they are stored in the liver as Retinol Esters. This  is why liver is such a rad source of Vit A and also why high doses of vitamin A retinol, when taken in a concentrated form, can cause birth defects months after discontinuing them. High potency topical skin serums are known for this. 
  • Traditional cultures around the world seem to instinctively know the the benefits of proper vitamin A consumption. In fact, liver is found in the diets of almost every tribal group around the world, from the Canadian Inuit to the Maori in New Zealand. Many cultures even make special efforts to ensure pregnant women consume liver regularly. They instinctively know that vitamin A is critical for the health and wellbeing of our growing babies and is an KEY part of there development. Weston A Price has a great article that goes into the details about why Vitamin A is so critical for fetal development. Take home message....CONSUME LIVER in reasonable amounts! 

Vitamin A Toxicity in Pregnancy

The fear about Vitamin A toxicity in pregnancy over the past 20 years is something that commonly worries women whenever I suggest regular  dietary liver consumption. Here's the deal.....In 1995, a small study based in Boston found that high does of vitamin A could cause neural tube defects. The issue with this study is that it only looked at higher does (25,000 IU+) Vitamin A consumption from SYNTHETIC sources (retinol & retinol esters).  Follow up studies from several sites in Europe concluded that doses up to 30-50,000 IU in pregnancy from REAL FOOD sources were very safe, in fact, potentially beneficial to pregnant women. Sadly however the FDA did not change it's message and the public was once again misinformed.

Retinol Sources and Levels

  • High-vitamin cod liver oil 230,000IU /100g
  • Regular cod liver oil 100,000IU /100g
  • Duck liver 40,000IU/100g
  • Beef liver 35,000IU/100g
  • Goose liver 31,000IU/100g
  • Liverwurst sausage (pork) 28,000IU/100g
  • Lamb liver 25,000IU/100g
  • Egg Yolk 1,442IU/100g
  • Pasture Raised Butter 2,500IU /100g (this level varies greatly depending on diet of cows)

The US  and Canada currently recommend 5,000 IU per day . From the work of Weston Price, we could guess that the amount of Vitamin A in primitive diets could have as high as 50,000 IU per day. Current  recommendations from a variety of sources hover around the  10,000 IU-25,000IU level when obtained from a modern diet rich in daily grass fed butter, eggs from pastured animals and beef, lamb or poultry liver several times once a week. If you're not eating liver adding a 1 tablespoon of fermented cod liver oil can help. You can also take liver capsules, which are also a great source of b-vitamins. Solgar, Vital Pastures and Radiant Life all make good products.  

What's a Pregnant Paleo Mama to do?

Lambs liver...one of the milder livers. It makes great meatballs and pate spreads.

  1. Always enjoy your vitamin A sources with a fat. Vitamin A is fat soluble and needs fat to be properly absorbed.

  2. Enjoy liberal amounts of butter from grass fed cows and egg yolks. 

  3. Enjoy liver from grass fed animals once or twice a week to ensure you have a good supply of retinoids. Unless you are consuming Polar Bear or walrus liver, a serving or two of liver per week is not likely to cause any trouble. If you find the flavour of liver to be strong, try chicken liver, duck liver or lambs liver. They are milder. I have a great lambs liver meatball recipe ! It's easy to hide a few ounces of liver in meatballs, burgers or meatloaf. If you're feeling adventurous you could also try one of  Liz's Liver Smoothie Shots I'm going to give this a go this week....keep your eyes out for me on Instagram giving this a shot...literally. Ha ha. 

  4. Consume beta-carotene rich foods to your hearts content. Yumm squash (I am a squash addict) 

    • Always consume vitamin A rich food with a FAT. This helps you absorb to absorb the nutrient. This gives you full permission to slather your yam or kabocha squash liberally with grass fed butter or coconut oil. 

  5. Make sure you are getting enough Vitamin E in your diet

    • Vitamin E is necessary for the absorption of Vitamin A. Vitamin E can be found in: spinach, turnip, chard, sunflower seeds, almonds, bell peppers, asparagus, collard greens, broccoli, kale and brussels sprouts.

  6. Pregnant or planning for pregnancy? I'd give your high dose Retinol skin creams a miss to reduce the chance of toxicity. Try a vitamin C skin serum instead to achieve a beautiful glow!