Beta-carotene is the element that gives fruits and vegetables their orange or yellow appearance. The name itself comes from the Latin word for carrot. Beta-carotene can be found in plants, algea, and photosynthetic bacteria. It is a safe source of vitamin A, which is vital for good eye health and vision, a strong immune system, and healthy skin. This helpful nutrient is also antioxidant that helps decrease the risk of contracting cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and chronic inflammation.
Doctors recommend obtaining beta-carotene from food rather than dietary supplements. Current research, however, has not yet determined whether a minimum level of beta-carotene consumption is essential for health. Beta-carotene is the most common type of pro-vitamin A, the substances obtained from plant-based foods that our body then turns into the vitamin. Preformed vitamin A is found in animal products such as meat, poultry, fish, and dairy products.
Foods with the beta-carotene content include dark green and orange-yellow vegetables, such as carrots, sweet potatoes, squash, spinach, broccoli, romaine lettuce, apricots, and green peppers. The recommended intake ranges from two to six milligrams of beta-carotene per day for adults. The top foods with the highest amount of beta-carotene? Carrots (canned and fresh), canned pumpkin, canned or boiled sweet potato, and fresh or canned spinach.
A study conducted in 2010 indicated beta-carotene can help in the prevention or treatment of numerous diseases including age-related macular degeneration, Alzheimer's disease, asthma, cataracts, depression, headaches, heartburn, heart disease, high blood pressure, Parkinson's disease, psoriasis, and rheumatoid arthritis. In addition, beta-carotene was found to increase fertility and boost the body's immune system.
Current research shows a diet high in beta-carotene may help curb the risk of breast cancer in a high-risk group: pre-menopausal women. There's also some evidence that beta-carotene may help prevent exercise-induced asthma attacks, protect against bronchitis in smokers with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and slow the progression of osteoarthritis. However, some studies conclude long-term, high-dose supplements of beta-carotene may actually increase the risk of lung cancer in heavy smokers and those who worked with asbestos for long periods.
Want to keep your heart healthy and functioning as you age? Studies have found high levels of dietary beta-carotene in the blood can lower the risks of some heart diseases. Along with other carotenoids, such as lycopene -- the naturally occurring chemical that gives the tomato its red color -- evidence is growing supporting these elements and their ability to prevent heart attacks and atherosclerosis.
Beta-carotene, vitamin C, vitamin E, and zinc may have long-term effects against age-related macular degeneration. A population study of more than 4,700 older adults over a seven-year period determined a quarter of those taking these nutrients in combination lowered the risk of age-related macular degeneration by about 25%. Other studies have reported the positive effects of beta-carotene on cataracts.
The skin, which covers about 20 square feet in total, is the largest organ of the body. Recent studies have found beta-carotene, alone and in combination with other carotenoids and sunscreen, can protect the skin from sun damage. Some studies now suggest high doses of beta-carotene may even decrease sensitivity to the sun, and these increased amounts are recommended for people with erythropoietic protoporphyria, a rare genetic condition that causes severe sun sensitivity.
When scientists began to note the cancer-fighting properties of beta-carotene, they suspected the substance might also enhance the immune system in general. The general conclusion of these studies is that this compound can enhance cell-mediated immune responses, particularly in older people.
Some studies have indicated beta-carotene supplements are likely safe when taken in moderation for specific health reasons, despite the fact that general supplementation is often not recommended. There is some concern that taking large amounts of a multivitamin plus a separate beta-carotene supplement could increase the risk of developing advanced prostate cancer. Always speak to a doctor before supplementing; you could be getting enough from the foods you eat.
Health researchers in the U.S. and Europe have found insufficient evidence to create comprehensive intake recommendations for beta-carotene. However, they still recommend consumption of foods rich in beta-carotene. Most conclude two to six milligrams of dietary beta-carotene each day is adequate for adults. Despite the mounting evidence that beta-carotene is an important micronutrient in its own right, most people in the U.S. and Europe receive less than this amount.
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