Vitamin A & the Autoimmune Connection

scottsdale doctor autoimmune

With the development of novel probiotics, the recent immune focus on Vitamin D and the fact that everyone is afraid of dying from Vitamin A toxicity, many practitioners and patients have forgotten this critical vitamin that can be depleted with illness, chronic disease and the wrong diet.

For a moment forget everything you know about vitamin A, which usually just means you think it is good for your eyes and helps with acne.  While it is critically important for those two organs, Vitamin A is also a key role player for hormonal balancing, mood stability, immune function and thyroid health.  In chronic disease, Vitamin A seems to play an irreplaceable role in avoiding things like autoimmune disease and leaky gut.

Next you probably think that Vitamin A comes from colorful foods like carrots, sweet potatoes, dark leafy greens, cantaloupes or bell peppers, right?  Well unfortunately that is an all too common urban myth.  These foods contain precursors to Vitamin A, known as carotenoids which have to be converted to true Vitamin A also known as retinol.

It is important to know that the only source of bio-available retinol (Vitamin A) comes from animal sources.

This means that those eating a vegetarian or vegan diets will more likely suffer from Vitamin A deficiency than others.  The conversion of carotenes in plants to retinol in the body is more of a problem than you might imagine.  You have to eat nearly 6 times the amount of carotene content to get the same potential benefit as eating Vitamin A from animal sources.  In other words, it would take about 5 pounds of carrots to equal 3 ounces of beef liver.  (If liver scares you, try EPIC Beef Liver Bites, they are great!)

Let me say that I have plenty of patients that aren’t vegetarian, but still don’t consume enough Vitamin A.  So, don’t think you are off the hook if you eat at McDonalds every day .  🙂

Conversion Problems

In addition to requiring large doses of carotenoids, the conversion of carotene into active Vitamin A can at times be negligible. Essentially no matter how much carotene you get in your diet, your conversion will not be enough to optimize your health and may not be enough to even meet your needs.

Here is a small list of what will decrease your conversion:

Hypothyroidism – low thyroid function decreases conversion

Low-Fat Diet – Fat soluble vitamins from leafy greens and plants sources are best absorbed when adequate fat is in the diet.

                Digestive Troubles – An inflamed digestive tract poorly absorbs nutrients

Hormonal Imbalances – Altered hormones alter gall bladder and liver function, which are both required to convert carotene

Give the above points, it is nearly impossible to get adequate Vitamin A without making sure you are getting it in your diet each and every day.

Animal Sources of Vitamin A (Retinol)

Liver – Almost any animal.  The healthier the animal the better the liver.  I like EPIC Beef Liver Bites.

Egg Yolks – Eat more eggs and you will increase your Vitamin A.  Aim for higher consumption of egg, so instead of eating 2 eggs for breakfast, aim for 4-8 per day.

Butter – Throw out that idea that butter is going to clog your arteries and start eating more butter! Who doesn’t love a healthy slab of butter on their veggies or sweet potato.  Most people need more butter than they think.  Grass fed or organic butter is the best choice.

Heavy Cream – Heavy cream is a good source of Vitamin A and can be added to smoothies and eaten with fruits easily.

Reversing Autoimmune Disease and Leaky Gut with Vitamin A

Many people talk about how “all disease begins in the gut” but nobody seems to be assessing anything other than a need for fish oil, probiotics and vitamin D.  Okay, that is a little sarcasm, but it seems that every new patient I see is on the same exact regimen no matter what doctor they previously went to.  So our goal today is to think beyond collagen protein and bone broth and look to Vitamin A.

Patients that present to my office with a Vitamin A deficiency often sick, have chronic infections, suffer from leaky gut and brain fog.  Vitamin A is often the missing piece to their health that can turn things around in the right direction once and for all.

The immune system is complex and thus it is required that it is both calm and unreactive to non-threatening substances as well as vigilant and active when it comes to harmful substances.  Finding the perfect balance between the two can be the hard part and that is one of the major roles of Vitamin A.

It is obvious in today’s society that as a general rule we are out of balance and essentially overreacting to substances that we should not be reacting to.  Many people have lost oral tolerance, which means they become sensitive to almost anything.

Does it all start in the Gut?

You cannot make Vitamin A in the body and thus your diet plays a huge role in whether or not you get enough Vitamin A.  The first exposure to a possible allergen happens in areas that have something called mucosal tissue.  Mucosal tissue is the tissue that lines your lungs, gut, mouth, urinary tract, etc.  It is responsible for making the first decision as to whether something is infectious, allergenic or safe and health promoting.  If the gut makes the wrong decision, then the systemic immune system will begin to overreact and start attacking anyway.  Vitamin A helps the gut make the right decisions.

When someone is low in Vitamin A, they have tendency to make more of an immune cell named TH17.  TH17 cells are very important in mucosal surfaces.

The TH17 immune cell is highly inflammatory and is almost always found elevated in autoimmune diseases.

On the other hand, when you have enough Vitamin A, your immune system creates more T regulatory cells, which are cells that keep your immune system in balance or you could say they are the orchestra conductor.  Meaning they can calm the immune system down or crank it up as needed.  These T regulatory cells also help to make sure that you aren’t creating an autoimmune attack on yourself as well as that you aren’t trying to fight anything and everything that enters your body.

Avoiding infection

One thing that I find in common with almost all chronically ill patient is that they have a tendency to feel better for some time and then due to their low functioning immune system they can catch the same infection or a different one almost as soon as they eliminate the previous one.

Based on my clinical experience, once the gut has been treated with the proper antimicrobial herb, Vitamin A is often needed to boost the individuals defense in order to avoid being re-infected over and over.

Vitamin A and Anemia

One organ that commonly takes a hit from Vitamin A deficiency is the spleen.  The spleen plays an important role in purifying the blood, removing microbes, producing white blood cells and making antibodies.  Vitamin A is involved in helping to deliver dietary iron into red blood cells.

Vitamin A plays such an important role in iron delivery that studies have been done that even with adequate iron with low Vitamin A, the patients developed anemia.  Once the deficient Vitamin A anemia was developed, the anemia did not respond to iron supplementation, but they did respond to Vitamin A supplementation.

Iron getting into red blood cells is critical as it carries the oxygen that your cells need and without it, you are prone to fatigue and brain fog.

Conclusion

So what does this all mean?  It means that Vitamin A plays a huge role in making sure that your immune system is balanced and that you have “oral tolerance” or that you have the ability to interact with your environment without having an overreaction to trees, grass, pollen and any food you consume.  In any chronic disease, Vitamin A sufficiency has to be considered and in many cases it is absolutely necessary for long lasting improvement.

If you have questions on dosing, brands or if Vitamin A is right for you, please contact the office.