Nutrition & bone health
Key vitamins for bone health — vitamin A
by Dr. Susan E. Brown, PhD
Vitamin A plays an essential role in the development of osteoblasts, the bone-building
cells that lay down new bone. A deficiency in vitamin A also limits calcium absorption and metabolism, which can result in poor bone growth.
Overall, low vitamin A levels are associated with osteoporosis and increased risk of fracture.
On the other hand, there is some controversy as to whether high vitamin
A intakes are actually helpful, or more of a hindrance to bone health. Some studies suggest high vitamin A can be bone-damaging, but
this relates only to the active forms of vitamin A, or retinoids. The jury
is still out on how — or even if — excess vitamin A intake actually
increases risk of osteoporosis and bone fracture. But in the meantime, we recommend
limiting intake of supplemental vitamin A — that is, preformed vitamin A,
or retinoid forms — to 5000 IU per day. This is still well below
the known tolerable upper limit (UL) of preformed vitamin A — around 10,000 IU per day.
What do we mean by “preformed” vitamin A? There are many forms of vitamin
A, with retinoids and carotenoids being the two main categories.
- Retinoids — natural, fat-soluble forms of vitamin A that are available
for immediate use in the body. Derived from animal sources, retinoids are a smaller
class than the carotenoids, and include retinol, retinal, and retinoic
acid, among others.
- Subgroup: Retinol — also referred to as “preformed vitamin
A,” retinol is regarded as the main active form for vitamin A in the body.
It is found naturally in some animal tissues, such as liver, which makes liver a
good dietary source of this vitamin.
- Carotenoids — a large class of natural, fat-soluble pigments found
principally in deeply-colored plant foods. Carotenoids, sometimes referred to as provitamins, are dietary precursors to the active forms of vitamin A in
the body. More than 600 carotenoids have been identified to date.
- Subgroup: Beta-carotene — the most well-known plant precursor source
of active vitamin A. Our bodies can convert beta-carotene into active vitamin A
when needed, storing or eliminating any extra.
A full description of the hundreds of forms and functions of vitamin A is beyond
the scope of this article, so here are a few key points to remember:
- Most of the vitamin A in our diets comes from plants in the form of beta-carotene,
which, again, is a precursor that is safely stored in our body fat and liver, where
it gets converted into active vitamin A forms as needed.
- Retinol, the primary form of active vitamin A, can be toxic if consumed at very
- Thanks to an inbuilt mechanism that shuts off our body’s conversion of beta-carotene
into retinol when levels are adequate, high intake of beta-carotene is generally
not of concern.
- Some recent research has, however, linked high-dose beta-carotene supplements to
increased risk of lung cancer among smokers — the opposite seems to be the
case among nonsmokers!
- Though there may be different thoughts on what constitutes “high-dose beta-carotene,”
amounts over 25,000 IU are typically considered to be in the higher range.
- Science is always evolving, but Better
Bones products have been well-formulated and contain useful, nontoxic amounts
of both forms as part of supplement regimen.
Today, for the approximately 44% of the US population that under-consume vitamin
A in their food, supplementing with both the above-described forms of vitamin A
is a wise move for bone health.
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The Personal Program for Better Bones: the approach I recommend for naturally strong bones.
At the Center for Better Bones we promote an all-natural approach to bone regeneration
and repair that includes nutrition, diet, exercise, lifestyle guidance, and support.
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Original Publication Date: 04/11/2000
Last Modified: 07/10/2012
Principal Author: Dr. Susan E. Brown, PhD