We’re told while pregnant that we must be very, very careful not to get too much vitamin A, or eat too many vitamin A-rich foods, because we might cause problems for our babies. Doctors are careful to tell mothers to take prenatal vitamins exactly as recommended, not to eat liver, and not to take any additional supplements without consultation. A couple studies have shown that high vitamin A intake is associated with birth defects, so doctors (and every source I’ve ever seen) are very careful to tell pregnant women to avoid “overdose.”
The problem is, restricting vitamin A intake so much might actually be hurting your baby.
It’s very true that too much of a synthetic form of vitamin A, called retinol (used commonly as an acne medication), can cause birth defects. Women who are pregnant cannot use the acne medication, nor anything else that contains retinol, for this reason. The study that is usually cited to “prove” that vitamin A is toxic is a food questionnaire many women filled out. No blood tests to determine vitamin A status were conducted, and no difference between synthetic and natural forms were noted. Thus, this study is irrelevant.
But doctors don’t mention that natural forms of vitamin A are not only not toxic, but are actually crucial to your baby’s development. Adequate vitamin A is necessary to develop your baby’s heart, central nervous system, circulatory system, respiratory system, as well as the skeleton. A deficiency in vitamin A can cause these organs to develop malformed or not at all. The American Pediatrics Association actually cites vitamin A as “the most crucial nutrient” during pregnancy and breastfeeding, especially in regards to lung maturation. (Bet your doctor didn’t tell you that!)
One of the most recognizable results from vitamin A deficiency is cleft lip/palate. This is more common in third-world countries because vitamin A deficiency is widespread there. A woman who is severely vitamin A deficient when she becomes pregnant may have a miscarriage because her baby’s heart cannot form properly (it should be beating by week 6, so it would be an early miscarriage). A lack of vitamin A can also cause blindness, and it reduces immunity to illness. Hernias are more common in deficient newborns. Women who have their babies close together are more at risk of deficiency in subsequent pregnancies, because they don’t have time to build their stores up again.
Obviously, it is crucial to get enough vitamin A!
Traditional cultures fed pregnant women liver, fish eggs, cod liver oil, and other foods that are naturally rich in vitamin A. Note that these are all animal foods. Preformed vitamin A is only found in animal foods. Plants do contain beta carotene (the form usually found in supplements containing “vitamin A”), but the conversion rate from beta carotene to vitamin A is only, at best, 4:1, and may be as low as 26:1! It is such a low rate that you cannot possibly get the vitamin A that is necessary from plant sources alone. The study linked in this paragraph estimates that no more than 10 – 15% of a woman’s vitamin A intake should come from beta-carotene.
Being iron-deficient (which is common in pregnancy) can reduce the body’s ability to store and use vitamin A. If you’re eating a “healthy” low-fat diet in an effort not to gain too much weight, you’re also more likely to be vitamin A deficient. Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin, meaning that you need adequate dietary fat in order to break down and absorb the nutrient. If you’re not getting enough fat, you won’t get adequate vitamin A either. Fat, especially saturated fat, actually is extremely important to pregnancy, too, because your baby’s brain is largely made of fat, and fat helps to create other parts of his body too.
Is there really a toxicity issue? Women in foreign studies were given doses between 30,000 IU and 300,000 IU per day with no incidence of birth defects. This vitamin A was from natural foods, not synthetic supplements. The U.S. RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) for vitamin A is currently only 2500 IU. This is extremely low. The Weston A. Price Foundation recommends at least 20,ooo IU per day from whole food sources for optimal health and development.
When you’re pregnant, don’t skip the vitamin-A rich foods! Embrace them, for your health and your baby’s health.
Are you worried about vitamin A? Do you restrict or limit your intake?
Top image by spaceodissey