Beta-carotene for breastfeeding: Why it's important

Allow us to introduce you to beta-carotene. One powerful antioxidant behind yellow and orange foods, plus all the health benefits it can bring.
Written by
Julia Hammond
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Last updated on
June 3, 2024
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Beta-Carotene Benefits: The Importance When Breastfeeding | Kin Fertility
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You've probably heard the saying that eating a rainbow of foods is good for your overall health. Well, allow us to introduce you to one powerful antioxidant behind yellow and orange foods, plus all the health benefits it can bring.

Whether you're a fit and healthy adult, a tiny infant or a breastfeeding parent; beta-carotene is essential for human health. Good beta-carotene levels have been linked to all kinds of health benefits like brain function and eye health.

Say what? You've never even heard of beta-carotene? That's understandable. We'll be answering all your pressing questions, like:

  • What is beta-carotene and why is it good for your health?
  • Do you need more beta-carotene when breastfeeding?
  • Is dietary beta-carotene better than taking beta-carotene supplements?
  • And, what are some dietary sources of beta-carotene?

Let's get to it.

What is beta-carotene?

Beta-carotene is a pigment that gives the colour to red, yellow and orange foods. The name beta-carotene comes from the Latin word for carrot [2][5].

Beta-carotene is also something known as a carotenoid, which is a type of antioxidant. We’ll get into more detail on that one later.

How does beta-carotene work in the body?

The basic summary is: your body turns beta-carotene into vitamin A which is an essential dietary vitamin. How does it manage that? Well, first of all, you need to understand there are two types of vitamin A.

The first type is preformed vitamin A. This is the real deal and it goes by the name of retinol. You can find retinol in animal products, fortified foods and some supplements [3].

The second type is the carotenoids (beta-carotene is one of these). Carotenoids are a precursor to preformed vitamin A. That means the body is able to convert them into vitamin A. Carotenoids are primarily found in plant foods [3]. 

There are around 50 different carotenoids available in the human diet. But, almost 95% of most people's carotenoid intake comes from a small number of sources — such as alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, lutein and lycopene [5].

What are the health benefits of beta-carotene?

The main benefit of beta-carotene is that it produces vitamin A — an essential nutrient for your health and wellbeing. Vitamin A has many beneficial effects, such as [2][3]:

  • Helping build a strong immune system
  • Protecting your eye health
  • Supporting your skin health
  • Stimulating the white blood cells, which are important for your bones and reproductive health

Another benefit of beta-carotene is it is considered a fairly safe nutrient. This is one reason that health professionals prefer dietary supplements with carotenoids like beta-carotene, rather than preformed vitamin A [3].

High doses of vitamin A can be toxic, but not all the beta-carotene that you consume is converted. Your clever body simply converts as much as it needs and ignores the rest [2].

But, there’s one more big, important benefit that you should know. Beta-carotene is a powerful antioxidant. It has the ability to fight free radical damage and might help protect you from certain diseases.

Beta-carotene and free radicals

Free radicals were first discovered in the 1990s when a few studies found that people with diets low in antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables had an increased risk of certain diseases [4].

The interesting thing is, free radicals are actually natural. They are produced when your body converts food into energy as well as when you exercise and can even be due to exposure to the sun [4].

Your body is able to handle some free radicals, but when too many are left to circulate — damage can occur. If left long enough, you can enter a state known as oxidative stress [1].

Oxidative stress is what contributes to chronic diseases and conditions like vision loss, arthritis and heart disease. It can also contribute to decreased cognitive function and on the less concerning side, it has been shown to accelerate signs of ageing [1].

Beta-carotene and a range of other antioxidants are the superheroes in capes who are here to help fight free radicals. They help to neutralise or remove them from the body, which in turn, removes the damage they can cause [1].

Studies have found that many different antioxidants have this effect — from beta-carotene to lutein. There is good evidence that beta-carotene in your diet will help protect you against free radical damage [1][2].

Why is beta-carotene important for breastfeeding?

New mums are another type of superhero — one who feeds, cuddles and cares for a newborn baby. One of the main ways you support your infant’s development is through your breast milk.

It’s a good source of vitamin A 

If you choose to breastfeed, then breast milk is likely to be the only source of nutrition for the first 6 months of your baby’s life. It’s important that it contains all the best nutrients — like vitamin B6, B12, vitamin C and vitamin A [6].

Vitamin A is an important nutrient in the early life stages as it helps with healthy infant growth and development [6]. Breastfeeding women tend to need extra vitamin A too, since they pass a lot of their reserves on to their baby [7].

Beta-carotene is a good source of vitamin A, so a top nutrient for breastfeeding women. It’s also something that you and your baby can’t make on your own; you need to get it from your diet or supplements [5].

It protects your baby from oxidative stress

That oxidative stress we mentioned before? It can harm your baby too. Since carotenoids like beta-carotene can help prevent oxidative stress, they can also help your baby develop a strong immune system that is protective against diseases [5]. 

We have a bit of good news too — beta-carotene concentrations are not affected by refrigerating, freezing or microwaving breast milk at low temperatures [7]. That means that pumped milk that you save for later is just as beneficial as the fresh stuff.

Are beta-carotene supplements a good idea?

Since beta-carotene is super important for both you and your baby’s health, you might be wondering if taking beta-carotene supplements is a smart idea. It can be, if you need a boost of nutrients.

For the first few days after giving birth, your body produces a special milk called colostrum. This thick milk is very high in carotenoids, which is what gives it a deep yellow colour [5]. At this stage, your body might not need any extra beta-carotene. But, you might still benefit from a postnatal vitamin with a range of nutrients.

By the third week, when your mature milk starts to come in, the beta-carotene content has dropped. This is when beta-carotene supplementation might be a good idea [5]. 

The typical dietary intake of beta-carotene for adults is 6-8mg per day. Coincidentally, this is exactly how much we use in Kin’s Postnatal Vitamins.

With 18 bioavailable ingredients, our Postnatal is designed to address postpartum depletion and support the nutritional needs of new mothers 6 months after birth and while breastfeeding.

Do beta-carotene supplements really work?

We do our best to give you as much information about supplements but it's still a good idea to check with your doctor before starting any vitamin and mineral supplementation. They are the best person to help you understand if it is safe and effective for you.

Many women have plenty of beta-carotene in their diet and supplementation doesn’t change much. But, for some women who are at higher risk of deficiency, beta-carotene supplementation is a great idea [6].

One study of rural communities in Indonesia and Vietnam found that taking beta-carotene supplements with 3-6mg per day led to higher levels of beta-carotene in the women’s breast milk [6]. 

On the flip side, another study of healthy women in the US found that supplementation had limited effects [6].

What foods are rich in beta-carotene?

Alongside any supplements you take, a varied and healthy diet is always essential. For beta-carotene, you should be looking for all the red, yellow and orange fruits and vegetables [2].

Generally, the more intense the orange or yellow colour, the higher levels of beta-carotene they have. Tasty foods to enjoy include [1][2]:

  • Apricots
  • Carrots
  • Cantaloupe
  • Mangoes
  • Pumpkin
  • Sweet potatoes

Beta-carotene may also be found in certain green vegetables and herbs; like spinach, broccoli, lettuce and parsley [1][2].

Eating 5 or more servings of fruit and vegetables per day should provide you with a healthy dose of around 3-6mg of beta-carotene [2].

Does beta-carotene have side effects?

In general, beta-carotene is considered a very safe nutrient. Since the body only converts what it needs, you don’t have to monitor your beta-carotene intake like you do with vitamin A [3].

Side effects are possible, though they are usually minor. Things to look out for include; skin discolouration, loose stools, bruising and joint pain [2].

Generally, any side effects will occur from having too much or not enough beta-carotene.

What happens if you have too much beta-carotene? 

It’s pretty unlikely, but not impossible to have too much beta-carotene. The main symptom to look out for is yellowing of the skin. This tends to appear in the fat beneath the skin, so you’ll most likely notice it in the palms or soles of the feet [5][7].

Babies can also develop a condition called carotenemia where they have a yellow nose [5]. Don’t worry, it won’t hurt them! Just have a chat with your doctor to get their high beta-carotene levels under control. 

Having too much vitamin A is a different story. Vitamin A is fat-soluble, which means that it can be stored in the body. If you continually take high doses or eat too many foods rich in vitamin A, you can build up an excess [3]. 

This excess can lead to vitamin A toxicity. Symptoms include nausea and vomiting, vision changes, bone pain and sensitivity to bright light [3].

It’s best to speak with your doctor if you experience any symptoms that concern you.

What about not enough beta-carotene?

A beta-carotene deficiency is also pretty unlikely, but again, not impossible. It’s most likely for people with an increased need for vitamin A. It’s also possible for people who have absorption issues, such as a chronic disease that affects the gut [3].

Symptoms of a mild vitamin A deficiency include fatigue, issues with fertility and experiencing infections fairly regularly [3]. Make sure to check in with your doctor whenever you feel unwell or have symptoms that concern you.

The good news is, low beta-carotene levels are easily fixed. Mix up your food intake to ensure you have a diet rich in beta-carotene foods like sweet potatoes and carrots. If your doctor recommends it, you might also start taking beta-carotene supplements as well.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Postnatal - 1 Month Supply

Designed to address postpartum depletion and support the nutritional needs of new mothers
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