Beta Carotene: What You Should Know and Why It’s Good For You

Not all food is good for you. All supplements are not created equal. With that in mind, it’s vital to learn why beta carotene is good for you.

Much of our lives seem to center around food. Holiday gatherings, family conversations and fun with friends typically have good food, laughter, sharing and plenty of the things that make you feel good. You can add beta carotene to that list of things that are good and good for you.

What’s so good about beta carotene?

They say you are what you eat. While health and diet fads continue to come and go, one compound that has stood the test of time for its health benefits is beta carotene. This is the natural pigment that gives yellow and orange fruits and vegetables their bright colors. Some of the foods rich in beta carotene include squash, carrots, apricots, and sweet potatoes.

It is a carotenoid, which means it acts as an antioxidant and helps to boost your immune system and fight off disease. It works by reducing oxygen damage to cells brought on by free radicals, UV light, smoke and other toxins. There are more than 500 carotenoids, approximately 50 of which we consume in our diets every day. Beta carotene is the most well-known, active and abundant.

Numerous health benefits have been associated with beta carotene consumption. You need vitamin A for healthy skin, reproductive organs and mucus membranes.  Also according to Science Daily and the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), beta carotene has been linked to the slowing of cognitive decline.

In the right amounts, beta carotene is responsible for healthy eyes, a reduction of wrinkles and other signs of aging and giving your skin a healthy glow. As little as one carrot a day can have a significant effect on your health. You can absorb it best when combined with fats. For example, it’s a good idea to cook your vegetables in butter or add oil to your salad.

As a natural color enhancer for food, people often use beta carotene to make foods look more appealing. This includes margarine, cereals, and energy drinks.

The benefits of beta carotene

Beta carotene supplements are ideal for those with a vitamin A deficiency. This type of shortage can occur in people who take certain medications, someone who is ill and unable to consume the recommended allowance of vitamin A rich foods and anyone with disorders of the liver. For example, those who suffer from celiac disease, cystic fibrosis, chronic diarrhea or cirrhosis of the liver are especially susceptible to this condition.

A change to eyesight is one of the telltale signs of a vitamin A deficiency. Children with this ailment often experience slow growth or frequent infections. Although there is no recommended daily allowance set for vitamin A or beta carotene, health experts suggest between 20 and 180 milligrams each day.

Sources of beta carotene

The best food sources include carrots, squash, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe and apricots. However, with today’s busy lifestyles, it can be difficult to prepare and consume enough of these foods to get the maximum benefit. Only about 10 percent of the beta carotene you consume converts into vitamin A (retinol). That’s where supplements come in handy.

It’s also extremely advantageous to vegetarians and vegans, since the best sources for vitamin A include eggs, beef liver, cod liver oil, and butter. Consequently, those who don’t eat meat or dairy products must consume this key nutrient from plant-based sources. However, since you would have to eat about 10 times as many vegetables to equal the amount of vitamin A you get from meat products, beta carotene increases are the way to go.

Vitamin A deficiency can occur if medications or other factors affect the absorption of beta carotene in the liver. It typically happens during times of dietary changes or something that interrupts how much your body absorbs, stores, or converts. This can lead to a weakened immune system, hair loss, night blindness and frequent rashes. It is also the leading cause of blindness in children in developing countries.

Some signs of deficiency include scaly skin, throat infections and sore eyelids. It can also have a detrimental effect on pregnant women and the development of their unborn fetus. You can usually avoid these conditions by increasing your intake of beta carotene.

Are there risks with taking beta carotene supplements?

The body cannot produce beta carotene.  It must be derived from food and supplements. Since your body converts only what it needs and flushes out the rest, there are few side effects associated with it. High levels could result in a yellowing of the skin, but this is temporary and goes away once your intake amount is normal again.

Those who should not take beta carotene supplements include smokers, people who use alcohol excessively and anyone on certain medications. For smokers, taking beta carotene supplements can increase your risk of developing heart disease and cancer. Extreme alcohol use combined with beta carotene could lead to liver damage. Cholesterol-lowering drugs, acid-reducing medications and some antibiotics may negatively interact with beta carotene supplements.

Additionally, breast-feeding or pregnant women should take care with any supplement intake. It’s essential to periodically review your vitamin intake and general state of health to address any deficiencies and ensure you’re not missing anything. Overall, if unsure, always consult with your physician.

What you need to know about taking beta carotene supplements

  • Alcohol consumption can interfere with how your body absorbs nutrients. For best results, avoid alcohol within four hours of taking supplements.
  • When feeling stressed or frazzled, check that you are getting enough antioxidants, fiber, and minerals.  Stress can effect how your body absorbs them.
  • As we age, our bodies become less proficient at using nutrients and supplements to maximum effectiveness. Make sure you adjust your supplements and intake accordingly.
  • Be very careful about food-drug interactions. This can sometimes affect your nutritional status and the helpfulness of supplements.
  • Beta carotene supplements can have some of the same pharmaceutical interactions as prescription drugs, just in a lower dosage or naturally occurring method. Read labeling carefully to avoid complications.