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Beta-carotene


What is it?

Beta-carotene is one of a group of red, orange, and yellow pigments called carotenoids. Beta-carotene and other carotenoids provide approximately 50% of the vitamin A needed in the American diet. Beta-carotene can be found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. It can also be made in a laboratory.

Beta-carotene is used to decrease asthma symptoms caused by exercise; to prevent certain cancers, heart disease, cataracts, and age related macular degeneration (AMD); and to treat AIDS, alcoholism, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, epilepsy, headache, heartburn, high blood pressure, infertility, Parkinson’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, schizophrenia, and skin disorders including psoriasis and vitiligo.

Beta-carotene is also in used in malnourished (underfed) women to reduce the chance of death and night blindness during pregnancy, as well as diarrhea and fever after giving birth.

Some people who sunburn easily, including those with an inherited disease called erythropoietic protoporphyria (EPP), use beta-carotene to reduce the risk of sunburn.

There are many authorities – including the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, the World Cancer Research Institute in association with the American Institute for Cancer Research, and the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer – that recommend getting beta-carotene and other antioxidants from food instead of supplements, at least until research finds out whether supplements offer the same benefits. Eating 5 servings of fruits and vegetables daily provides 6-8 mg of beta-carotene.

How effective is it?

Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database rates effectiveness based on scientific evidence according to the following scale: Effective, Likely Effective, Possibly Effective, Possibly Ineffective, Likely Ineffective, Ineffective, and Insufficient Evidence to Rate.

The effectiveness ratings for BETA-CAROTENE are as follows:

Effective for...

  • Treating sun sensitivity in people who have a form of inherited blood disorder called “erythropoietic protoporphyria.”

Possibly effective for...

  • Reducing the risk of breast cancer in women before menopause when fruits and vegetables containing beta-carotene are consumed. Beta-carotene seems to be especially effective for women who are at high risk of getting breast cancer, including those with a family history and those who use alcohol excessively.
  • Treating an eye disease called age-related macular degeneration (AMD) when used with other medicines. Taking 15 mg of beta-carotene by mouth along with 500 mg of vitamin C, 400 IU of vitamin E, and 80 mg of elemental zinc daily, seems to help prevent vision loss and worsening of AMD in people with advanced AMD. There isn’t enough evidence to know if this combination works for people with less advanced macular disease.
  • Preventing sunburn in people who are sun sensitive. However, beta-carotene is unlikely to have much effect on sunburn risk in most people.
  • Keeping a form of arthritis called osteoarthritis from getting worse. But taking beta-carotene doesn’t seem to prevent osteoarthritis.
  • Preventing bronchitis and difficulty breathing in smokers. Beta-carotene from the diet seems to help, but beta-carotene supplements do not.
  • Reducing the risk of ovarian cancer in women after menopause.
  • Reducing the risk of pregnancy-related death, night blindness, and diarrhea and fever after delivery in underfed women.
  • Preventing asthma attacks triggered by exercise.
  • Treating a tongue disease called oral leukoplakia.
  • Improving physical performance and strength in the elderly.

Possibly ineffective for...

  • Diabetes.
  • Preventing stroke in male smokers.
  • Preventing cataracts or keeping cataracts from getting worse.
  • Preventing Alzheimer’s disease.

Likely ineffective for...

  • Preventing heart disease. A Science Advisory from the American Heart Association states that the evidence does not justify use of antioxidants such as beta-carotene for reducing the risk of heart disease.
  • Preventing cancer. Beta-carotene does not seem to prevent uterine cancer, cervical cancer, thyroid cancer, bladder cancer, skin cancers (melanoma, basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma), brain cancer, and blood cancer (leukemia). However, some research suggests a combination of beta-carotene with vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, and zinc might lower cancer rates in men, but not women. Researchers speculate that men have lower intake of dietary antioxidants and therefore might benefit more from supplements.
  • Preventing lung cancer in smokers. Taking beta-carotene actually seems to increase the risk of lung cancer in people who smoke (especially those smoking more than 20 cigarettes per day), former smokers, people exposed to asbestos, and those who use alcohol (one or more drinks per day) in addition to smoking. However, beta-carotene from food does not seem to have this adverse effect.
  • Preventing prostate cancer. Taking beta-carotene supplements does not prevent prostate cancer in most men. There is some concern that beta-carotene supplements might actually increase the risk of prostate cancer in some men. There is evidence that men who take a multivitamin more than 7 times per week and who also take a separate beta-carotene supplement have a significantly increased risk of developing advanced prostate cancer.

Insufficient evidence to rate effectiveness for...

  • Colorectal cancer. Research shows conflicting results.
  • Esophageal cancer. Taking beta-carotene supplements alone or in combination with other antioxidants such as vitamin A or vitamin E plus vitamin C doesn’t seem to reduce the risk of esophageal cancer.
  • Pancreatic cancer. Taking beta-carotene supplements alone or in combination with other antioxidants such as vitamin A or vitamin E doesn't seem to reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer.
  • Side effects from chemotherapy. Increasing beta-carotene from dietary sources seems to prevent some side effects in children undergoing chemotherapy for a blood cancer called lymphoblastic leukemia.
  • AIDS.
  • Alcoholism.
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).
  • Depression.
  • Epilepsy.
  • Stomach cancer.
  • Headaches.
  • Heartburn.
  • Hypertension.
  • Infertility.
  • Parkinson’s disease.
  • Psoriasis.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Schizophrenia.
  • Other conditions.
More evidence is needed to rate beta-carotene for these uses.

How does it work?

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Beta-carotene is converted to vitamin A, an essential nutrient. It has antioxidant activity, which helps to protect cells from damage.

Are there safety concerns?

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Beta-carotene is LIKELY SAFE when used for certain specific medical conditions and taken in appropriate amounts. However, beta-carotene supplements are not recommended for general use.

Beta-carotene is POSSIBLY UNSAFE in high doses, especially when taken long-term. High doses of beta-carotene can turn skin yellow or orange.

There is growing concern that taking high doses of antioxidant supplements such as beta-carotene might do more harm than good. Some research shows that taking high doses of beta-carotene supplements might increase the chance of death from all causes and possibly other serious side effects. There is also concern that taking large amounts of a multivitamin plus a separate beta-carotene supplement increases the chance of developing advanced prostate cancer in men.

Special precautions & warnings:

Pregnancy and breast-feeding: Not enough is known about the use of beta-carotene during pregnancy and breast-feeding. Stay on the safe side and avoid use.

Smoking: In people who smoke, beta-carotene supplements might increase the risk of lung and prostate cancer. Don’t take beta-carotene supplements if you smoke.

History of asbestos exposure: In people who have been exposed to asbestos, beta-carotene supplements might increase the risk of cancer. Don’t take beta-carotene supplements if you have been exposed to asbestos.

Angioplasty, a heart procedure. There is some concern that when antioxidant vitamins, including beta-carotene, are used together they might have harmful effects after angioplasty. They can interfere with healing. Don’t use beta-carotene and other antioxidant vitamins before or after angioplasty without the recommendation of your healthcare provider.

Are there interactions with medications?

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Moderate

Be cautious with this combination.

Medications used for lowering cholesterol (Statins)
Taking beta-carotene, selenium, vitamin C, and vitamin E together might decrease the effectiveness of some medications used for lowering cholesterol. It is not known if beta-carotene alone decreases the effectiveness of some medications used for lowering cholesterol.

Some medications used for lowering cholesterol include atorvastatin (Lipitor), fluvastatin (Lescol), lovastatin (Mevacor), and pravastatin (Pravachol).

Niacin
Taking beta-carotene along with vitamin E, vitamin C, and selenium might decrease some of the beneficial effects of niacin. Niacin can increase the good cholesterol. Taking beta-carotene along with these other vitamins might decrease the good cholesterol.

Are there interactions with herbs and supplements?

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There are no known interactions with herbs and supplements.

Are there interactions with foods?

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Alcohol
Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol can reduce the level of beta-carotene in the body and increase the level of another chemical called retinol. Researchers are concerned that this might increase the risk of cancer. But more research is needed to find out whether this concern is justified.

Olestra (fat substitute)
Olestra may interfere with the action of beta-carotene in the body. Olestra lowers serum beta-carotene concentrations in healthy people by 27%.

What dose is used?

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The following doses have been studied in scientific research:

BY MOUTH:
  • For erythropoietic protoporphyria (EPP): dosage is based on age. For age 1 to 4, the daily dose is 60-90 mg; age 5 to 8 years, 90-120 mg; age 9 to 12 years, 120-150 mg; age 13 to 16 years, 150-180 mg; and age 16 and older, 180 mg. If people still remain too sensitive to the sun using these doses, beta-carotene can be increased by 30-60 mg per day for children under 16 years old, and up to a total of 300 mg per day for people older than age 16.
  • For preventing sunburn in sun-sensitive people: beta-carotene 25 mg orally daily.
  • For treating age-related macular degeneration (AMD): beta-carotene 15 mg plus vitamin C 500 mg, zinc oxide 80 mg, and vitamin E 400 IU daily.
The recommended daily intake of beta-carotene has not been set because there hasn’t been enough research.

Beta-carotene supplements are available in two forms. One is water-based, and the other is oil-based. Studies show that the water-based version seems to be absorbed better.

Other names

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A-Beta-Carotene, A-Bêta-Carotène, Beta Carotene, Bêta-Carotène, Bêta-Carotène Tout Trans, Beta-Caroteno, Carotenes, Carotènes, Carotenoids, Caroténoïdes, Caroténoïdes Mélangés, Mixed Carotenoids, Provitamin A, Provitamine A.

Methodology

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To learn more about how this article was written, please see the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database methodology.methodology (http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/methodology.html).

References

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To see all references for the Beta-carotene page, please go to http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/999.html.

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