The vitamin A spectrum: from deficiency to toxicity

Am J Clin Nutr. 2000 Apr;71(4):878-84. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/71.4.878.


Dark adaptation has been used as a tool for identifying patients with subclinical vitamin A deficiency. With this functional test it was shown that tissue vitamin A deficiency occurs over a wide range of serum vitamin A concentrations. However, serum vitamin A concentrations >1.4 micromol/L predict normal dark adaptation 95% of the time. Other causes of abnormal dark adaptation include zinc and protein deficiencies. Stable isotopes of vitamin A and isotope-dilution techniques were used recently to evaluate body stores of vitamin A and the efficacy of vitamin A intervention programs in field settings and are being used to determine the vitamin A equivalences of dietary carotenoids. Vitamin A toxicity was described in patients taking large doses of vitamin A and in patients with type I hyperlipidemias and alcoholic liver disease. Conversely, tissue retinoic acid deficiency was described in alcoholic rats as a result of hepatic vitamin A mobilization, impaired oxidation of retinaldehyde, and increased destruction of retinoic acid by P450 enzymes. Abnormal oxidation products of carotenoids can cause toxicity in animal models and may have caused the increased incidence of lung cancer seen in 2 epidemiologic studies of the effects of high-dose beta-carotene supplementation. Major issues that remain to be studied include the efficiency of conversion of carotenoids in whole foods to vitamin A by using a variety of foods in various field settings and whether intraluminal factors (eg, parasitism) and vitamin A status affect this conversion. In addition, the biological activity of carotenoid metabolites should be better understood, particularly their effects on retinoid signaling.

Publication types

  • Case Reports
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Dark Adaptation
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Middle Aged
  • Vitamin A / administration & dosage
  • Vitamin A / adverse effects*
  • Vitamin A / physiology*
  • Vitamin A Deficiency* / etiology
  • beta Carotene / adverse effects


  • beta Carotene
  • Vitamin A