Vitamin A and pregnancy: Does it really cause birth defects?

Vitamin A and pregnancy: Does it really cause birth defects?

Vitamin A has long been said it is unsafe for pregnancy as it can cause birth defects- but how true is this really?


You might have heard that you can’t eat foods that are in vitamin A, you can’t take supplements with vitamin A and you must stop using your skin care products which contain retinoids (a form of vitamin A). So, let’s break down this- Why is Vitamin A deemed so unsafe?

 There is still little information available on different doses of vitamin A that make cause a risk during pregnancy. It is important to stress that both Vitamin A deficiency & Vitamin A excess can lead to negative consequences for baby.

Let’s cover Vitamin A deficiency first.

Your baby relies solely on you, to get all their Vitamin A needs. If you are deficient, then baby will be unable to get any Vitamin A leading to negative consequences. Vitamin A is essential in early pregnancy to support organ development and to maintain a healthy placenta. Maternal Vitamin A deficiency is perhaps one of the main causes of foetal growth restriction during pregnancy. Low levels of Vitamin A have also been linked to congenital malformations, increase risk of otitis media (ear infection that can lead to hearing loss), poor eye development and reduced immune function. Furthermore, Vitamin A deficiency is linked to increase risk of the child developing type 2 diabetes later in life.



Now let's look at Vitamin A toxicity.

 Vitamin A toxicity may occur during pregnancy when consumption of pre-formed vitamin A is over 15,000IU from dietary sources of 10,000IU from supplemental sources. High doses of pre-formed Vitamin A from supplements, over 10,000IU (retinoic acid) during the first trimester of pregnancy, has been associated with risk of miscarriage and birth defects- in particular heart malformation. It is NOT recommended to use Vitamin A supplements during pregnancy because of this risk.


How do you know if you are at risk of Vitamin A deficiency?

Currently, developing nations are at a higher risk of Vitamin A deficiency, while developed nations such as Australia are not typically at risk. However, this largely depends on the mother’s diet quality and variety.

Vitamin A can be found in two different ways through food. Animal products contain preformed Vitamin A, typically in the form of retinyl esters, while provitamin A (also known as β-carotene) comes from plant-based foods that need to be converted to Vitamin A in the body. These forms are different to the retinoic acid form typically found in supplements, which excessive consumption may lead to birth defects.


It is still currently recommended that you consume a well-balanced diet, that contains both preformed and provitamin A to support a healthy pregnancy. Dietary sources include:

Preformed: Organic chicken liver (consume NO more than 1-2x per week, approx. 1 tbsp), grass-fed butter, cod liver oil, full fat dairy, salmon, sardines

Provitamin A/ β-carotene: carrots, broccoli, pumpkin, squash, sweet potato, kale, cooked spinach, dried apricots, baked beans, tomato juice, rockmelon, mango

Synthetic forms of vitamin A (the forms you find in supplements) are contraindicated in pregnancy and are best to be avoided. In regards to skincare, there is still debate about the use of topical retinoids, however, as they may cross the skin barrier it is best to stop using products with retinoids in them during your pregnancy.

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