Six Benefits of Beta-Carotene
Do you “carrot-all” about eye health, vision, a strong immune system, and healthy skin? Then beta-carotene, which the body converts into vitamin A, is an important phytonutrient that you’ll want to learn more about.
What are phytonutrients, anyway? Phytonutrients are chemicals produced by plants that help protect the plants as well as our bodies. They contain antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties highly beneficial in keeping us healthy. Phytonutrients can only be obtained from plants—hence the prefix “phyto,” the Greek word for plants. Fruits and vegetables are loaded with phytonutrients. Eat your greens—and the rest of the rainbow, too! Beta-carotene belongs to the carotenoid family of phytonutrients, which are part of the terpenoid or isoprene group.
First and foremost, we need to talk about how to get the benefits of beta-carotene. Nutrients— including vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals—can often be isolated or synthetic. These don’t even come close to natural nutrients in their whole food state; they are not the same. We believe in the synergistic effect of all phytonutrients. Read our helpful resource about how they are different and why natural nutrients, as opposed to isolated or synthetic, are safer and much more beneficial.
Harvard Medical School confirms that the best source of vitamins is from whole foods and that eating a diet rich in phytonutrients can lower the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer.
Beta-carotene is found in plenty of whole foods! It’s the reddish-orange pigment that gives many fruits and vegetables their rich color. Think carrots, sweet potatoes, apricots, cantaloupe, and pumpkin. Beta-carotene is also found in dark, leafy greens like kale and spinach. In fact, beta-carotene is the most common form of carotene and main safe dietary source of vitamin A.
Source of Vitamin A
Vitamin A (retinol) is essential for normal growth and development, immune system function, healthy skin, epithelia (tissue forming the outer layer of a body's surface), and vision. Beta-carotene is actually provitamin A, meaning the body uses it to make vitamin A. The amount you need depends on your age and sex. Vitamin A deficiency is rare in the United States but could come with various symptoms like xerophthalmia (the inability to see in low light).
Vitamin A affects vision, bone growth, reproduction, cell function, and the immune system. More specifically, vitamin A can remodel bone, maintain healthy endothelial cells lining the body’s interior surfaces, stimulate white blood cell activity and production, and regulate cell growth and division.
Nevertheless, just as you can lack vitamin A, you can also get too much of it. Vitamin A toxicity can come with vision changes, bone pain, nausea, vomiting, dry skin, and sensitivity to light. However, preformed vitamin A, including beta-carotene, is not toxic even at high levels when consumed through whole food.
A Powerful Antioxidant
Thanks to its antioxidant properties, beta-carotene can neutralize free radicals and combat reactive oxygen species. These can damage lipids, proteins, and DNA and contribute to the development of cardiovascular disease, inflammation, and cancer.
According to the International Journal of Medical and Biomedical Studies, “the eye is particularly susceptible to oxidative stress.” Reactive oxygen species can cause damage to ocular tissues. Beta-carotene combats reactive oxygen species; thus, it can prevent such damage. Moreover, vitamin A deficiency can also cause damage to the eye. So eat those foods high in provitamin A (a.k.a. beta-carotene) to protect your eye health! In addition, carotenoids have been long known to reduce risk of cataracts, age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and photosensitivity diseases.
Reduces Cancer Risk
Beta-carotene is noted for reducing the likelihood of developing many types of cancer, particularly lung cancer.
Beta-carotene consumed in its whole food form has anticancer activity due to its antioxidant characteristics and ability to encourage cell-to-cell communication. However, if taken as a synthetic supplement, it could actually increase risk and have adverse effects.  A study by Harvard School of Public Health published in Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention indicates that beta-carotene consumed as part of natural foods has no such negative effects.
Beta carotene can also induce cell differentiation and apoptosis (cell death) of some tumor cell types, especially in early stages of tumorigenesis (formation of tumors). Not to mention, it promotes the release of various cells such as lymphocytes and monocytes.
Boosts Immune System
Beta-carotene has also been observed to have immunostimulatory effects. As a result, it has been suggested that it could be a potential treatment for HIV by increasing CD4 counts. CD4 cells, also known as T cells, are white blood cells that fight infection and play an important role in your immune system. Beta-carotene has also been shown to increase T cells (OKT4 and OKT3).
The immune system plays a major role in cancer prevention, and it's been suggested that diets high in carotenoids, specifically beta-carotene, may enhance immune cell function.
Carotenoids combat the harmful effects of ultraviolet (UV) light, resist neoplastic development, and reduce the immunosuppressive effects of aging. Many of beta-carotene's effects are thought to be due to its conversion to vitamin A. One study showed that an increase in dietary carotenoids relieved ear infections in children.
Other studies have shown that beta-carotene enhances lymphocyte proliferative responses, effector T cell functions, and the production of interleukins. It also enhances macrophage and cytotoxic T cells and natural killer cell tumoricidal capacities. These are all involved in immune system function.
Solar radiation can be very harsh on skin; it can cause sunburn, premature aging, and skin cancer. Because beta-carotene protects against oxidative stress, it can protect against skin damage and acts as a photoprotective agent.
And, as mentioned, carotenoids can help combat harmful effects of UV light. UV light affects the skin in particular, causing redness. Beta-carotene reduces these effects and improves melasma (a pigmentation disorder). Too much beta-carotene can cause skin to appear yellow, but this is harmless.
The Last Bite
Turns out what we’ve been told since childhood—that carrots are good for our eyesight—wasn’t just a tactic to get us to eat our vegetables. Eat your greens—and your reds and oranges, too. This will give you a healthy dose of beta-carotene!
Beta-carotene can benefit your overall health due to its antioxidant and immunostimulatory effects. It also may reduce the risk of cancers and protect eye and skin health.
 Healthbeat. “Best source of vitamins? Your plate, not your medicine cabinet.” Harvard Health Publishing. 2020. Accessed April 18, 2020. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/best-source-of-vitamins-your-plate-not-your-medicine-cabinet
 Naghma Nazrana, Tejasvi Jain, and Sanjay Verma, “ROLE OF NUTRITION IN MAINTAINING NORMAL EYESIGHT-A REVIEW,” International Journal of Medical and Biomedical Studies (International Journal of Medical and Biomedical Studies, March 30, 2020), https://www.ijmbs.info/index.php/ijmbs/article/view/1068.
 Nancy Maurya, “A Spicy-Flavored and Colorful Platter to Support Healthy Brain and Eyesight,” International Natural Product Sciences Taskforce (International Natural Product Sciences Taskforce, May 15, 2020), https://inpst.net/blog/a-spicy-flavored-and-colorful-platter-to-support-healthy-brain-and-eyesight/.
 “The Effect of Vitamin E and Beta Carotene on the Incidence of Lung Cancer and Other Cancers in Male Smokers: NEJM,” The New England Journal of Medicine, April 14, 1994, https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/nejm199404143301501.
 Michael Alexander, Harold Newmark, and Richard G. Miller, “Oral Beta-Carotene Can Increase the Number of OKT4+ Cells in Human Blood,” Immunology Letters (Elsevier, November 12, 2002), https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0165247885900367.
 Hans K. Biesalski and Ute C. Obermueller-Jevic, “UV Light, Beta-Carotene and Human Skin-Beneficial and Potentially Harmful Effects,” Archives of Biochemistry and Biophysics (Academic Press, May 25, 2002), https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0003986101923136.