Is Vitamin A Toxicity a Concern?

Several commenters have asked for my opinion on recent statements by prominent health researchers that many Americans are suffering from unrecognized vitamin A toxicity. Dr. John Cannell of the Vitamin D Council is perhaps the most familiar of them. Dr. Cannell's mission is to convey the benefits of vitamin D to the public. The Vitamin D Council's website is a great resource.

Vitamin A is a very important nutrient. Like vitamin D, it has its own nuclear receptors which alter the transcription of a number of genes in a wide variety of tissues. Thus, it is a very fundamental nutrient to health. It's necessary for proper development, vision, mineral metabolism, bone health, immune function, the integrity of skin and mucous membranes, and many other things. Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin, and as such, it is possible to overdose. So far, everyone is in agreement.

The question of optimal intake is where opinions begin to diverge. Hunter-gatherers and healthy non-industrial cultures, who almost invariably had excellent dental and skeletal development and health, often had a very high intake of vitamin A (according to Dr. Weston Price and others). This is not surprising, considering their fondness for organ meats. A meager 2 ounces of beef liver contains about 9,500 IU, or almost 200% of your U.S. and Canadian recommended daily allowance (RDA). Kidney and eye are rich in vitamin A, as are many of the marine oils consumed by the Inuit and other arctic groups.

If we can extrapolate from historical hunter-gatherers, our ancestors didn't waste organs. In fact, in times of plenty, some groups discarded the muscle tissue and ate the organs and fat. Carnivorous animals often eat the organs first, because they know exactly where the nutrients are. Zookeepers know that if you feed a lion nothing but muscle, it does not thrive.

This is the background against which we must consider the question of vitamin A toxicity. Claims of toxicity must be reconciled with the fact that healthy cultures often consumed large amounts of vitamin A without any ill effects. Well, you might be surprised to hear me say that I do believe some Americans and Europeans suffer from what you might call vitamin A toxicity. There is a fairly consistent association between vitamin A intake and bone mineral density, osteoporosis and fracture risk. It holds true across cultures and sources of vitamin A. Chris Masterjohn reviewed the epidemiology here. I recommend reading his very thorough article if you want more detail. The optimum intake in some studies is 2-3,000 IU, corresponding to about 50% of the RDA. People who eat more or less than this amount tend to suffer from poorer bone health. This is where Dr. Cannell and others are coming from when they say vitamin A toxicity is common.

The only problem is, this position ignores the interactions between fat-soluble vitamins. Vitamin D strongly protects agains vitamin A toxicity and vice versa. As a matter of fact, "vitamin A toxicity" is almost certainly a relative deficiency of vitamin D. Vitamin D deficiency is also tightly correlated with low bone mineral density, osteoporosis and fracture risk. A high vitamin A intake requires vitamin D to balance it. The epidemiological studies showing an association between high-normal vitamin A intake and reduced bone health all sported populations that were moderately to severely vitamin D deficient on average. At optimal vitamin D levels, 40-70 ng/mL 25(OH)D, it would take a whopping dose of vitamin A to induce toxicity. You might get there if you eat nothing but beef liver for a week or two.

The experiment hasn't been done under controlled conditions in humans, but if you believe the animal studies, the optimal intake for bone mineral density is a high intake of both vitamins A and D. And guess what? A high intake of vitamins A and D also increases the need for vitamin K2. That's because they work together. For example, vitamin D3 increases the secretion of matrix Gla protein and vitamin K2 activates it. Is it any surprise that the optimal proportions of A, D and K occur effortlessly in a lifestyle that includes outdoor activity and whole, natural animal foods? This is the blind spot of the researchers who have warned of vitamin A toxicity: uncontrolled reductionism. Vitamins do not act in a vacuum; they interact with one another. If your theory doesn't agree with empirical observations from healthy cultures, it's back to the drawing board.

High-vitamin cod liver oil is an excellent source of vitamins A and D because it contains a balanced amount of both. Unfortunately, many brands use processing methods that reduce the amount of one or more vitamins. See the Weston Price foundation's recommendations for the highest quality cod liver oils. They also happen to be the cheapest per dose. I order Green Pasture high-vitamin cod liver oil through Live Superfoods (it's cheaper than ordering directly).

This suggests that vitamin A toxicity may be less of a concern when vitamin D status is good.