What Is Beta-Carotene?
Beta-carotene is one of many carotenes, a subclass of the carotenoids. Carotenoids are the natural plant pigments which give fruit and vegetables their bright, vibrant colors. The carotenoids are directly related to vitamin A, also known as retinol, with many such as beta-carotene being a precursor to vitamin A. Other carotenes include alpha-carotene, gamma-carotene, and lycopene. Beta-carotene is one of the most well-known and well-studied of these beneficial phytochemicals. It acts as a potent antioxidant in the body, and also is transformed into vitamin A in the liver, making the benefits of beta-carotene go well beyond the properties of the carotene itself.
Why Take Beta-Carotene?
Beta-carotene benefits are the same as the benefits of vitamin A. When the body needs this vital nutrient, it transforms beta-carotene into retinol. Vitamin A is needed for healthy eyes, immune health, healthy skin, bone and teeth formation, and new cell growth. It helps to protect the body from an infection by protecting and maintaining mucous membranes. As a powerful antioxidant itself, vitamin A helps to slow the aging process and prevent serious illnesses such as heart disease and cancer by neutralizing free radical activity.
Taking beta-carotene supplements is linked to a decreased sensitivity to the sun. Other benefits include protecting the brain from long-term oxidative stress, and therefore preserving cognitive function, improving skin problems such as acne, and a reduced risk of macular degeneration
Signs of a deficiency of vitamin A are dry skin and hair, eye problems, poor growth, fatigue, insomnia, and frequent respiratory infections. Taking beta-carotene supplements can easily remedy a deficiency in vitamin A.
Beta-Carotene Supplements vs. Vitamin A Supplements
Why take beta-carotene supplements if the primary benefits of beta-carotene are linked to its conversion to vitamin A? Vitamin A actually can be toxic to the body if large doses are taken over a long period of time. Both vitamin A and beta-carotene are fat soluble, meaning that excess of either nutrient is stored in fat cells rather than being quickly excreted. Vitamin A levels can build-up over time; this can put undue stress on the liver which has to process vitamin A. Also, excessive intake during pregnancy is linked to birth defects such as cleft palate and heart defects.
Unless the liver has trouble converting beta-carotene into retinol, which is possible for people who have hypothyroidism or diabetes, beta-carotene is non-toxic in large amounts. The only side effect of taking too many beta-carotene supplements is yellow-pigmented skin, which is completely harmless. Getting this nutrient from food sources such as carrots, sweet potatoes, red peppers, and cantaloupe, is never toxic.
Guidelines for Taking Supplements
Despite the fact that supplements of beta-carotene are non-toxic and there are many health benefits, there are still guidelines to follow when supplementing with this phytochemical. There have been studies which associate beta-carotene supplementation with a higher risk for lung cancer for people who drink and smoke. The studies where done with synthetic beta-carotene, not natural beta-carotene. No studies have found that the natural compound would have the same negative side effect.
Without conclusive evidence, talk to a doctor before taking supplements, especially if a heavy smoker or drinker, pregnant, or on any prescription medications. When taking supplements, only take a natural form, never a synthetic one. Also, as beta-carotene is fat-soluble, be sure to eat some sort of fat along with the supplement so the nutrient can be properly absorbed. The standard dose for a healthy adult is 15 to 50 milligrams of beta-carotene per day.
Balch, Phyllis A. " Prescription for Nutritional Healing." Fourth Edition (Penguin Books, 2006).
photo credit: John Morgan