Since a 1995 report from the New England Journal of Medicine,8 women who are or could become pregnant have been told by doctors to take less than 10,000 IU (3,000 mcg) per day of vitamin A to avoid the risk of birth defect. A recent report studied several hundred women exposed to 10,000–300,000 IU (median exposure of 50,000 IU) per day.9 Three major malformations occurred in this study, but all could have happened in the absence of vitamin A supplementation. Surprisingly, no congenital malformations happened in any of the 120 infants exposed to maternal intakes of vitamin A that exceeded 50,000 IU per day. In fact, the high-exposure group had a 50% decreased risk for malformations compared with infants not exposed to vitamin A. The authors noted that some previous studies found no link between vitamin A and birth defects, and argued the studies that did find such a link suffered from various weaknesses. A closer look at the recent study reveals a 32% higher than expected risk of birth defects in infants exposed to 10,000–40,000 IU of vitamin A per day, but paradoxically a 37% decreased risk for those exposed to even higher levels. This suggests that both “higher” and “lower” risks may have been due to chance.
Excessive dietary intake of vitamin A has been associated with birth defects in humans in fewer than 20 reported cases over the past 30 years.10, 11 Presently, the level at which vitamin A supplementation may cause birth defects is not known, though combined human and animal data suggest that 30,000 IU per day should be considered safe.12 Women who are or who could become pregnant should consult with a doctor before supplementing with more than 10,000 IU per day.
Vitamin A supplements can both help and hurt children. Many people have heard that vitamin A supplements support immune function and prevent infections. This is true under some circumstances. However, vitamin A can also increase the risk of infections, according to the findings of a double-blind trial.13 In a study of African children between six months and five years old, a 44% reduction in the risk of severe diarrhea was seen in those children given four 100,000–200,000 IU applications of vitamin A (the lower amount for those less than a year old) during an eight-month period. On further investigation, the researchers discovered that the reduction in diarrhea occurred only in children who were very malnourished. For children who were not starving, vitamin A supplementation actually increased the risk of diarrhea compared with the placebo group. The vitamin A-supplemented children also had a 67% increased risk of coughing and rapid breathing, signs of further lung infection, although this problem did not appear in children infected with AIDS. These findings should be of concern to American parents, whose children are not usually infected with AIDS or severely malnourished. Such relatively healthy children fared poorly in the African trial in terms of both the risk of diarrhea and the risk of continued lung problems. Vitamin A provided no benefit to the well-nourished kids. Therefore, it makes sense to not give vitamin A supplements to children unless there is a special reason to do so, such as the presence of a condition causing malabsorption (e.g., celiac disease).
In a study of people with retinitis pigmentosa (a degenerative condition of the eye), participants received 15,000 IU of vitamin A per day for 12 years with no signs of adverse effects or toxicity.14 For other adults, intake above 25,000 IU (7,500 mcg) per day can—in rare cases—cause headaches, dry skin, hair loss, fatigue, bone problems, and liver damage.15 At higher levels (for example 100,000 IU per day) these problems become more common.
A controlled clinical trial showed that people who took 25,000 IU of vitamin A per day for a median of 3.8 years had an 11% increase in triglycerides, a 3% increase in total cholesterol and a 1% decrease in HDL cholesterol compared to those who did not take vitamin A.16 Although the significance of these findings is not clear, people at risk for cardiovascular disease should use caution when considering long-term vitamin A supplementation.
One study found that increasing the intake of vitamin A in the diet was associated with bone loss and risk of hip fracture, possibly due to a vitamin A-induced stimulation of cells that break down bone.17 In this study, a vitamin A intake greater than 5,000 IU per day, when compared to a lower intake, was associated with a reduction in bone mineral density that approximately doubles the risk of hip fracture. Beta-carotene (which can be used by the body to make vitamin A) has not been linked to reduced bone mass. Until more is known, people concerned about osteoporosis may consider taking beta-carotene supplements rather than supplementing with vitamin A.
Data from test tube, animal, and human studies show that excessive vitamin A intake can accelerate bone loss and inhibit formation of new bone, increasing the risk of osteoporosis.18 In humans, small studies have found these effects at about 85,000–125,000 IU per day. 19, 20