Ample A for Deep Immune Support

Posted by Healthful Elements Staff

[This post received some minor updates on Nov. 1, 2017.]

Soon, Thanksgiving will have come and gone but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have plenty of good reasons to keep eating pumpkin and sweet potatoes. Autumn’s abundant harvest of these, and other deeply pigmented orange foods like winter squash and golden beets, should be consumed regularly this time of year. These carotenoid-rich “superfoods” help to fortify the immune system with Vitamin A, keeping us healthy deep into winter.

What is Vitamin A and how does it work?
Vitamin A is an essential fat-soluble vitamin that’s critical for keen vision, healthy bone growth and development, and a well-functioning reproductive system. It reduces systemic inflammation and is a powerful antioxidant that protects the body from disease-causing pathogens.

It provides nourishment for the cells that line our mucous membranes found in our respiratory tracts, gastrointestinal tract, and genitourinary tracts. When we have healthy, well-nourished tissues that aren’t compromised by inflammation, we’re better able to prevent and fight off infections.

The term “Vitamin A” actually refers to a broad group of related nutrients including retinoids (retinol), and carotenoids (beta-carotene, astaxanthin, and lutein). Retinoids are found in animal foods and the best sources include shrimp, eggs, wild salmon, sardines, and tuna. Carotenoids are found in plant foods and the best sources are sweet potatoes, carrots, pumpkin, winter squash, and orange cauliflower plus dark green leafy vegetables like spinach, kale, collards, and Swiss chard.

Vitamin A and its carotenoid precursors play a critical role in immunity and become increasingly important for anyone suffering from autoimmune conditions. For autoimmune conditions of the thyroid such as Graves’ disease and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Vitamin A deficiency may be more common.

According to functional medicine expert, Dr. Mark Hyman, “Vitamin A is critical for activation of the thyroid receptor and making your thyroid hormone turn on the genes that improve your metabolism. It combines with the active hormone T3, which allows the hormone to ‘dock’ on its receptor or landing spot on the cell.” 

Mission: conversion
The body should be able to effectively convert carotenoid forms of Vitamin A into the more bioactive retinol form, nicknamed “true Vitamin A.” Thyroid hormones play a role in the conversion of carotenoids to Vitamin A, so when thyroid imbalances are present, deficiency may result.

Low thyroid function somewhat explains why so many have trouble converting beta-carotene to Vitamin A. Again, the body should be able to convert beta-carotene into retinol, but only a measly 3 percent gets converted in a healthy adult (source). Many don’t convert at all.

This conversion also takes place in the presence of sufficient bile salts and fat-splitting enzymes, which many with digestive dysfunction are deficient in. 

Digestive problems, bacterial imbalances in the digestive tract, elevated exposure to toxic chemicals, excessive alcohol use, and the use of certain medications are additional factors that have been implicated in reducing conversion.

While some experts feel that Vitamin A in the form of carotenoids isn’t really Vitamin A, I feel that both beta-carotene and retinol are important dietary considerations. If someone has issues with fat malabsorption, that’s problematic. They likely will convert little to nothing. But I don’t want to completely rule out carotenoids. I think there’s something beautifully important about our body being able to bio-regulate conversion of beta-carotene to active Vitamin A based on need.

I’m very “pro” orange veggies because it’s possible to become a better beta-carotene to retinol converter by way of:

  • Optimizing thyroid function
  • Immune modulation, achieved largely by healing the digestive system
  • Addressing toxic body burden and reducing exposure to chemicals and toxins (eating organic will get you a long way)
  • Optimizing gallbladder function, which helps us produce the bile acids and enzymes required to break down carotene and convert it to “true Vitamin A”

What about supplementation?
While taking a Vitamin A supplement may be tempting (and in some cases, it’s warranted), excessive amounts can be toxic. The ultimate goal is to prioritize carotenoids and Vitamin A from food sources and to support the body in effectively absorbing and converting them into their active form.

To help ensure you’re getting enough, try cooking a batch of A-rich foods each week. The flavors of winter squash, sweet potatoes, carrots, and pumpkin are deepened and sweetened when roasted and roasted vegetables make great leftovers. Creamy pureed soups made from sweet potatoes, pumpkin, or winter squash are wonderful one-pot meals that provide comfort and nourishment. Learning a few of these simple methods will warm your belly and keep you well this winter!

[You can go here to download the nutritional springboard for our Essential Thyroid Cookbook, where you’ll see Vitamin A-rich foods—both carotenoids and retinols.]

Pumpkin Chili with Grass-fed Beef

Pumpkin provides an exceptional source of thyroid and immune-supportive carotenoids. Canned pumpkin is a great pantry staple for autumn and winter cooking and can easily add natural sweetness and nutrient density when added to soups, stews, and desserts. 

When selecting canned pumpkin, choose BPA-free packaging or pumpkin packaged in a tetra-pak. If you’d like to cook your own, be sure to select a sugar pumpkin, the smaller culinary variety, as opposed to the larger varieties used for carving jack-o’-lanterns.


2 tablespoons ghee
1 small yellow onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and chopped
1 jalapeño, seeded and finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 pound ground grass-fed beef
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 (14.5-ounce) can* diced tomatoes, with their liquid
1 (15-ounce) can* pumpkin purée
1½ cups water
1 teaspoon sea salt
Ground black pepper, to taste
1 (15-ounce) canned* kidney beans, rinsed and drained


  1. Heat ghee in a large pot over medium high heat.
  2. Saute onion, garlic, bell pepper, jalapeño, and garlic over until they begin to soften, about 5 minutes.
  3. Add grass-fed beef, cumin, and chili powder and cook until meat is browned.
  4. Add tomatoes, pumpkin, water, salt, and pepper and bring to a boil.
  5. Reduce heat to medium low and add beans.
  6. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes to allow flavors to fuse.
  7. Ladle into bowls and serve.

 *For canned items that are BPA-free, we recommend: Muir Glen diced tomatoes, Farmer’s Market brand organic pumpkin in a tetra pak, and Whole Foods Market’s 365 Organic brand kidney beans in a tetra pak. 

Posted by Healthful Elements Staff

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