Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin that plays an important role in a number of biological processes. There are two forms of vitamin A that can be acquired through the diet, called preformed vitamin A and provitamin A [1, 2].
Preformed vitamin A is a collective term for a group of active compounds better known as retinol, retinal, and retinoic acid, as well as one form that is stored in the liver, called retinyl ester .
The body converts retinyl ester into retinoic acid and transports it to the bloodstream when the body needs it .
Foods such as meat (especially liver), dairy products (e.g., cheese, eggs, milk), and fish are good sources of preformed vitamin A.
Provitamin A is the inactive plant-based form of this vitamin, with beta-carotene being the most biologically important type. There are specific enzymes in the body that convert provitamin A (e.g., beta-carotene) to the active form the body can use [2, 3].
This type of vitamin is primarily found in yellow corn, papayas, carrots, green leafy vegetables (e.g., spinach, amaranth), mangoes, and squash . In order to experience the health benefits from the active or inactive forms of vitamin A, they must be consumed with food that contains oils and fats.
More specifically, fat-soluble vitamin A is more readily absorbed by the intestines when it is combined with foods such as buttered toast, nuts, olive oil, or a glass of milk. It is vital to consume adequate levels of vitamin A daily because it influences cognition as well as the production and activity of various chemicals in the brain.
Research also shows that some children who have developmental delays such as autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have vitamin A deficiencies [4, 5].
Autism, in particular, appears to be correlated to abnormalities in serotonin activity as children with this condition tend to have significantly higher levels of serotonin than typically developing children . This appears to be related to a vitamin A deficiency.
One study shows that autistic children have the highest rate of deficiency for vitamin A in comparison to other nutrients (e.g., vitamin B9, B12, and D) and low vitamin A levels are associated with lower Childhood Autism Rating Scale (CARS) scores . CARS scores reflect behavioral and mental performance. Accordingly, research demonstrates that vitamin A supplementation helps lower serotonin levels in children with autism and this subsequently improves autistic symptoms .
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Similarly, low levels of vitamin A may negatively affect children with ADHD as this vitamin is essential for healthy cognitive function, behavioral development (e.g., motivational behavior), sensory processing, and progressive maturation . Therefore, it is important to ensure that children with developmental delays are receiving sufficient amounts of this essential vitamin daily.
Moreover, research suggests that children with autism and ADHD actually have higher micronutrient needs than typically developing children, and this makes consistent nutritional intervention especially vital for children with special needs [8, 9].
However, the amount of vitamin A that is administered must be carefully monitored because supplementing the diet with high concentrations of vitamin A can lead to toxicity which can worsen cognitive impairments, agitation levels, and mood fluctuations .
One strategy that can help prevent this type of issue involves having a child’s nutrient levels measured before making a decision about the serving of vitamin A that will be administered. This will reveal whether the child is suffering from a vitamin A deficiency.
Working with a healthcare professional who can periodically measure nutrient levels can help ensure that children with ADHD or autism are getting the right amount of vitamin A. This vital nutrient dramatically improves the quality of life for children with developmental delays and steps must be taken to provide their bodies with the serving they truly need.
- Gilbert C. What is vitamin A and why do we need it? Community Eye Health. 2013;26(84):65.
- O’Byrne SM, Blaner WS. Retinol and retinyl esters: biochemistry and physiology. J Lipid Res. 2013;54(7):1731-43.
- von Lintig J. Colors with functions: elucidating the biochemical and molecular basis of carotenoid metabolism. Annu Rev Nutr. 2010;30:35-56.
- Guo M, Zhu J, Yang T, et al. Vitamin A improves the symptoms of autism spectrum disorders and decreases 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT): A pilot study. Brain Res Bull. 2018;137:35-40.
- Mawson AR. Toward a theory of childhood learning disorders, hyperactivity, and aggression. ISRN Psychiatry. 2012;2012:589792.
- Kolevzon A, Newcorn JH, Kryzak L, et al. Relationship between whole blood serotonin and repetitive behaviors in autism. Psychiatry Res. 2010;175(3):274-6.
- Liu X, Liu J, et al. Correlation between Nutrition and Symptoms: Nutritional Survey of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder in Chongqing, China. Nutrients. 2016;8(5). pii: E294.
- Delgado-Lobete L, Pértega-Díaz S, et al. Sensory processing patterns in developmental coordination disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and typical development. Res Dev Disabil. 2020;100:103608.
- Clayton G, Carrera HA, Martin ER, Morrison D, Bawazir AA. A Biomedical Approach Via Telemedicine in the Treatment of a Child With Sensory Processing Disorder Using Diet and High-dose Biotin Intervention: A Case Report. Integr Med (Encinitas). 2018;17(4):52-58.
This article was featured in Issue 106 –Maintaining a Healthy Balance With ASD