Courtesy of Michelle Curtis, NTP
What is Vitamin A?
Vitamin A can be found as a fat-soluble vitamin as well as an antioxidant, and plays roles in maintaining healthy vision, supporting a healthy immune system, helping to build strong bones, cellular communication, and healthy neurological and reproductive functions. The active form, retinol, is only found in animal products. Plant sources provide a vitamin A precursor in the form of certain carotenoids, such as beta-carotene. Both forms are important parts of fertility health.
Vitamin A and Fertility
Vitamin A has been an important part of reproductive health forever. In fact, Dr. Weston A Price, a dentist who traveled the world in the early 1900s in search of the cause of dental decay and physical degeneration, stumbled upon the connection between fertility, strong healthy babies, and foods naturally high in vitamin A. Many cultures would even save certain foods for women or newlywed couples to aid in fertility health as these foods have been known to aid in conceiving a healthy baby.
Even though there were no sources back then telling them the importance of vitamin A, they knew from generations of experience and the evidence of healthy strong babies born to couples who consumed foods plentiful in vitamin A, as well as differences from when those foods were not consumed. Today, we have more scientific knowledge to pass on, but it stemmed from our ancestors.
Vitamin A, being an antioxidant, is essential in fertility health for both men and women. Carotenoids help protect sperm through the maturation process from free radical damage, decreasing the possibilities of miscarriage. It’s also been shown that beta-carotene can help improve sperm quality and motility (1). In the woman, however, the corpus luteum, a hormone-releasing body found in the ovaries, is high in beta-carotene (4).
It’s a good idea to ensure proper vitamin A stores prior to pregnancy for the sake of early fetal development. Vitamin A, in the active form, is responsible for cell differentiation among cells, tissues, and organs. It’s been shown that deficiencies in vitamin A can lead to birth deformities or miscarriage (2) (3). According to Sally Fallon Morell in her book, The Nourishing Traditions Book of Baby & Child Care, “It is vitamin A that gives the undifferentiated fetal stem cells (sometimes called germ cells) their signals to differentiate into the various organs, such as heart, liver and lungs. […] Each organ begins development during a specific window of time. Vitamin A regulates the differentiation of the primitive cells into cells specific to each organ system, in essence signaling to the genes their marching orders so they “know” where to locate themselves and what kind of tissues to become.” That’s a pretty big job in developing a tiny human. Retinoids also play a role in proper sperm production (4).
Animal vs Plants
While both retinol and carotenoids play important roles in fertility and preconception health, they’re available in very different forms. Retinol is the active form found only in animal products like liver, butter, and eggs. This is the form that is ready to be used by the body upon consumption. Carotenoids, on the other hand, are the precursor to the active form, which means the body has to convert this into retinol before it can actually use it. This conversion is very difficult for most people and the conversion rate is actually very small even in healthy adults. This is important because it’s a common misconception that plants can provide adequate vitamin A. Plants can provide plenty of healthful benefits, but don’t rely solely on them for vitamin A. Instead, lean on a combination of vitamin A-rich plant foods like sweet potatoes and carrots, and animal foods like butter, eggs, and organ meats from healthy animals.
What About Supplements?
It’s best to consume vitamin A from real foods because nature has a way of pairing nutrients together that work together in the body. Vitamin A, in the form of retinol, is often found in combination with vitamin D and K2. Vitamin D has actually been shown to increase the vitamin A toxicity threshold (8) which means the danger of consuming too much vitamin A is decreased when it’s consumed with vitamin D. Nature keeps things balanced. The synthetic version of vitamin A, on the other hand, should be strictly avoided. This form is significantly more toxic than the natural counterpart (5). In fact, many of the studies done showing that vitamin A can cause birth defects were done using synthetic forms of the vitamin (6) (7).
While vitamin A is important to aid fertility health, having good vitamin A stores prior to pregnancy to help ensure proper fetal development should also be a priority. Seek out plenty of animal foods from properly raised animals for a healthy dose of true vitamin A plus a variety of vitamin A rich plant sources for carotenoids. It’s best to avoid synthetic versions as much as possible.
Michelle Curtis is a certified Nutritional Therapy Practitioner. She is the founder and owner of Body Rebalanced, her nutritional consulting business to help couples optimize their health through preconception and fertility struggles, pregnancy, and postpartum recovery. Michelle lives on a farm in Pennsylvania with her husband and three children, and loves chai tea, bookstores, and farm to table restaurants.