Tears welled up as I threw away my first bottle of prenatal vitamins. Three months had gone by and it was empty – I still wasn’t pregnant. So instead of heading to the store to pick up a pregnancy test, I was on my way to pick up my prescription vitamins, the ones my doctor told me to take, and I thought it was all I needed to do. If only I had known how much of a difference changing my nutrition would make in my reproductive health! If only I had known how much Vitamin A and fertility were linked.
What is Vitamin A?
This fat-soluble vitamin plays an important role in supporting many functions of the body and is available to us in two forms: retinol and carotenoids. The retinol, or active form of the vitamin, is found only in foods that come from animals (meat, milk, eggs, liver). Carotenoids (the most common being beta-carotene) is found in plants, specifically orange vegetables and dark leafy greens. There are ample food sources to ensure that, with a proper diet, food sourced vitamin A should be sufficient for most. But many people don’t eat near enough foods that contain vitamin A and your fertility may suffer because of it.
If you’re struggling with infertility it’s possible that you are one of the 15% of Americans who has a vitamin A deficiency as a contributing factor.
What does Vitamin A do in the body?
- helps to protect the body from cancer and disease by neutralizing damaging free radicals in the body,
- assists your body in the metabolism of fat,
- contributes to the function of healthy eyes, hair, teeth, gums, and mucous membranes, and
- plays a role in immune function and skin health.
Vitamin A is also a crucial component of fertility health.
Vitamin A and fertility
Traditional cultures actually used to give couples, especially women, certain foods that were thought to increase fertility. It was quite common for them to reserve special foods for women about to be married as well as for newlyweds, sometimes even holding marriages only during the summer when these foods were plentiful.
Dr. Weston A. Price, a dentist that traveled the world researching why the Western world had a massive issue with tooth decay, ended up figuring out why these people groups also had robust fertility rates as well as children that grew up with cavity free straight teeth. He did multiple studies all over the world and found that in cultures with very fertile women and healthy strong babies, they were fed diets high in fish, organ meats, and butter from grass-fed cows.
While these people had no scientific research to back how they ate (and were pretty much isolated from the industrial world), they knew which foods would give them healthy, strong bodies that conceived easily and birthed healthy babies. The foods that were so important to them were also high in Vitamin A.
Why women need Vitamin A
This essential nutrient can help support a woman’s fertility in many ways, most noticeably is that it promotes better cervical fluid. Not only can it help your body to produce more fluid (making it easier to figure out Natural Family Planning) but the fluid itself is more nourishing for the sperm and helps them to live longer, allowing for more time to fertilize the egg.
Vitamin A also assists the follicles in maturing properly. Both in the maturation of an egg and then in assisting the follicle in producing the hormones needed to aid the fertilized egg into the uterus. So if your body is low on vitamin A, a follicle may not be able to function correctly.
Why men need Vitamin A
As an antioxidant, Vitamin A is important for protecting the sperm from free radical damage which can then decrease the risks of infertility and miscarriage. Beta-carotene has also been shown to help improve sperm quality and motility.
Retinol (animal) vs Carotenoid (plant)
Both forms of Vitamin A are important for our health. However, the animal-based version is considered the active form that is ready to be absorbed and used by the body. Plant-based beta-carotene is actually considered a pre-vitamin in the aspect that your body must convert it in order to be utilized by cells, but this conversion will vary based on a person’s health and age. You may actually have to consume about six times more beta-carotene than retinol to absorb the same amount of Vitamin A. For this reason, while plants are an amazing source of nutrients and offer many health benefits, we shouldn’t solely rely on them for our Vitamin A consumption.
These two types of vitamin A also offer somewhat different health benefits. Retinoid forms can be especially important with respect to pregnancy and childbirth, infancy, childhood growth, night vision, red blood cell production, and resistance to infectious disease while most carotenoid forms of vitamin A function as antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrients. (source)
A combination of animal foods like butter, eggs, and even organ meats along with ample Vitamin A-rich plants will ensure that you’re getting enough of this important nutrient to support your reproductive health and fertility.
If you don’t consume animal products at all, seem to be low on cervical fluid and have a hard time charting cervical fluid for natural family planning, or have been trying to get pregnant for a while without success, you may want to think about adding a real food supplement, such as cod liver oil, to your diet along with your normal prenatal supplement.
CAUTION: You can get too much Vitamin A, especially when taken in synthetic supplement form! In excess of 10,000 IU’s a day, the synthetic version of vitamin A has shown to increase the chances of birth defects as well as cause health problems. Dr. Price found that many cultures consumed much more than this through whole foods and it’s thought that this was safer as the foods also contained Vitamins D and K2, which are cofactors with Vitamin A. It’s important to consume Vitamin A in foods rather than supplements whenever possible.
The recommended daily amount for vitamin A:
- men, ages 19-70, is at least 700 – 900 mcgs (average of about 5000 IUs)
- women, ages 19-70, we need 700 mcgs and up to 1300mcgs per day when breastfeeding (conversions between mcgs and IUs are difficult as it depends on which foods are consumed, but around 5000IUs are also recommended for women)
Good sources of animal-based vitamin A
- Whole milk
- Cheddar cheese
- Fresh, unprocessed butter from grass-fed cows
- Whole eggs
- Liver (liver is one of the highest sources, so sneaking it into meals here and there can be helpful)
Good sources of plant-based vitamin A
- Sweet Potatoes
For more food sources of vitamin A, check out World’s Healthiest Foods list.
As you can see, Vitamin A is super important for our fertility, but just as importantly, it’s also necessary for proper fetal development! For this reason, it’s important to begin eating a well-rounded fertility diet at least 3-4 months before trying to conceive.
And yes, I do still take prenatal vitamins (though I’ve done a bit more research about them and switched brands!), but my goal now is to get most of what my body needs from food. Nature knows best!