Let’s face it, there is a lot, and I mean A LOT of conflicting advice out there about what we should and shouldn’t be eating. Especially during pregnancy. Some health professionals recommend eating seafood, others tell you to stay far, far away from it. Some say never eat raw eggs, while others promote raw egg yolks as one of the healthiest foods you can eat for pregnancy.
But one of the most prevalent and misleading myths is regarding the consumption of vitamin A.
Most health professionals, especially main-stream doctors and dieticians, will tell you that vitamin A should be avoided during pregnancy because high levels can cause very dangerous and unwanted side-effects.
Let’s stop here for a moment and take a look at the history of vitamin A in the human diet. When Weston A. Price made his famous journey around the world to study primitive and traditional cultures, one of the most shocking observations he made was that he found virtually no tooth decay or dental malformations, and the facial structure of these traditional cultures were wide and full with plenty of room for teeth.
This may seem like I’m getting off topic here, talking about dentistry all of a sudden, but stay with me – the health of a persons teeth is like a window into the health of their entire body.
The major difference in the diet of these primitive people as compared to the North American diet, is that there were no processed foods, no sugar, and exponentially more fat-soluble vitamins. This means fully-formed vitamin A, vitamin D, and vitamin K2.
In fact, the vitamin A levels that indigenous peoples were consuming were a minimum of ten times as much as North Americans! And that was back in the 1930’s – do you think our consumption of fully-formed vitamin A from foods such as liver and animal fats has gone up? Probably not. This means that we are most likely getting even less than the ‘ten times less than traditional cultures’.
These tribes and cultures that he visited and studied, intuitively knew the importance of fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin A, especially for vision and immune system function.
Other vital actions of vitamin A are in organ and tissue development, thyroid function, mineral absorption, and other vitamin utilization. It is also known to protect against birth defects (but only true vitamin A from food sources).
Stress, even physical stress such as exercise, pregnancy and breastfeeding, use up our body’s stores of vitamin A quite rapidly.
One important distinction I have to make here is that when I say ‘vitamin A’, I am talking about vitamin A. Not beta-carotene, or alpha-carotene, or any of the many other carotenes found in vegetable foods. Carotenes are a pre-cursor to vitamin A, which means that when we eat them, our bodies can potentially convert them into fully-formed vitamin A. However, this conversion is very inefficient, relying on adequate bile salts and enzymes, and is impeded by low zinc levels, stress, low fat diets, excessive alcohol consumption, too many omega-6 polyunsaturated fats, and cold weather. What’s more, anyone with diabetes or low thyroid function cannot make this conversion. Infants can’t convert carotenes at all, and children only very minimally.
In other words, vegetables should not be considered a source of vitamin A.
So when did the idea come around that vitamin A is toxic during pregnancy?
It began with a study published in 1995 in the New England Journal of Medicine that supposedly linked high vitamin A intake with birth defects. Researchers looked at over 22,000 pregnant women and assessed their vitamin A status prior to giving birth. They then evaluated the number of birth defects that occurred, and determined that a certain type of birth defect (cranial-neural-crest defects) increased with increased vitamin A intake.
What they didn’t disclose however, was that neural tube defects actually decreased with more vitamin A consumption, and all other forms of birth defects had no correlation with vitamin A intake. What’s more, when vitamin A intake is separated into synthetic vitamin A from supplements, and vitamin A from food, the correlation is much less apparent. There IS a known connection between synthetic supplements and birth defects.
The study got quite a bit of media attention and publicity, despite some major flaws. And despite the fact that there were many, many other studies published that showed vitamin A to be protective against birth defects. In fact, there are so many holes in this particular study that it should not be taken into account when discussing whether or not vitamin A is safe during pregnancy.
According to the Weston A. Price Foundation: “Unless you are an arctic explorer, it is virtually impossible to develop a vitamin A toxicity from food.” In order to reach a toxic dose (described as 100,000 IUs), one would have to consume “…3 tablespoons of high vitamin cod liver oil, 6 tablespoons of regular cod liver oil, two-and-one-half 100-gram servings of duck liver, about three 100-gram servings of beef liver, seven pounds of butter or 309 egg yolks.” And that’s assuming that you ate that all at once. Even if you did, which is highly unlikely, recovery from acute vitamin A toxicity is “spontaneous, with no residual damage”.
Now let’s take a moment to look at why we need vitamin A for things like a healthy pregnancy and immune function. As mentioned earlier, vitamin A is crucial for organ and tissue development in the fetus, particularly the lungs. It also plays a role in maintaining symmetry in the body as it develops. It is vital for good vision, especially night vision, and proper immune system functioning. Without adequate vitamin A, one will be susceptible to infections, and according to the WHO, low vitamin A levels in pregnant women can increase the risk of maternal mortality. It is also important for maintaining skin health and mucous membranes.
Vitamin A is in fact, one of the most important nutrients for a healthy pregnancy. Don’t be concerned about consuming liver – it is the best food you can eat for fertility and pregnancy! I would however, suggest avoiding high doses of synthetic vitamin A. Instead, include the real thing in your diet, such as butter, animal fats, egg yolks, and liver.