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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.” Takin beta-carotene by mouth can reduce sensitivity to the sun in people with erythropoietic protoporphyria.

Possibly effective for...

  • An eye disease called age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Taking beta-carotene by mouth along with vitamin C, vitamin E, and zinc daily, seems to help prevent vision loss and worsening of AMD in people with advanced AMD. Taking beta-carotene plus antioxidants but without zinc does not seem to improve advanced AMD. There isn’t enough evidence to know taking beta-carotene along with other antioxidants works for people with less advanced macular disease. There is conflicting evidence about whether beta-carotene supplements can help reduce the risk of developing AMD.
  • Breast cancer. Eating more fruits and vegetable that contain beta-carotene seems decrease the risk of breast cancer in pre-menopausal women who are at high risk of getting breast cancer, including those with a family history and those who use alcohol excessively.
  • Preventing complications of lung disease (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, COPD). Eating more beta-carotene in the diet seems to help prevent bronchitis and difficulty breathing in smokers with COPD, but beta-carotene supplements do not..
  • Asthma attacks triggered by exercise. Taking beta-carotene by mouth seems to reduce asthma attacks that are triggered by exercise.
  • White patches on the tongue and mouth called oral leukoplakia. Taking beta-carotene by mouth for up to 12 months seems to decrease symptoms of oral leukoplakia.
  • Osteoarthritis. Beta-carotene taken by mouth may prevent osteoarthritis from getting worse, but it does not seem to prevent osteoarthritis.
  • Ovarian cancer. Eating a diet rich in carotenoids, including beta-carotene, reduces the risk of ovarian cancer in women after menopause.
  • Physical performance. Eating a diet that contains a higher amount of beta-carotene seems to improve physical performance and muscle strength in older people.
  • Preventing complications post-childbirth. Taking beta-carotene by mouth before, during, and after pregnancy seems to reduce the incidence of diarrhea and fever post-childbirth.
  • Pregnancy-related complications. Taking beta-carotene by mouth seems to reduce the risk of pregnancy-related death, pregnancy-related night blindness, and post-childbirth diarrhea and fever in underfed women.
  • Sunburn. Taking beta-carotene by mouth may decrease sunburn in people sensitive to the sun. However, taking beta-carotene is unlikely to have much effect on sunburn risk in most people. Also, beta-carotene does not appear to reduce the risk of skin cancer or other skin disorders associated with sun exposure.

Possibly ineffective for...

  • Alzheimer’s disease. Eating a diet that contains a higher amount of beta-carotene does not seem to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Cataracts. Taking beta-carotene alone or in combination with vitamin C, vitamin E, and zinc, for up to 8 years does not reduce the incidence or progression of cataracts.
  • Cystic fibrosis. Taking beta-carotene by mouth for up to 14 months does not improve lung health in people with cystic fibrosis.
  • Diabetes. Some early research suggests that eating a diet containing higher amounts of beta-carotene is linked with a reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes. However, conflicting evidence exists. Taking beta-carotene supplements does not reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes or the risk of experiencing complications associated with diabetes.
  • Moles. Research shows that taking beta-carotene by mouth for 3 years does not reduce the development of new moles.
  • Overall risk of death. Some research suggests that taking supplements containing beta-carotene, vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, and zinc for about 7 years might lower the risk of death in men, but not women. However, other research shows that taking larger doses of beta-carotene in for up to 12 years may increase the risk of death in both men and women.
  • Stroke. Taking beta-carotene by mouth for about 6 years has no effect on the risk of stroke in male smokers. Also, there is some evidence that taking beta-carotene supplements increases the risk of bleeding in the brain in people who drink alcohol.

Likely ineffective for...

  • Preventing abdominal aortic aneurysm, or the enlargement of a large vessel running through the abdomen. Evidence suggests that taking beta-carotene by mouth for about 5.8 years does not reduce the occurrence of abdominal aortic aneurysm in male smokers.
  • Cancer. Beta-carotene does not seem to prevent or decrease death from 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.
  • 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. Evidence also shows that beta-carotene in combination with vitamin C and E does not decrease heart disease risk.
  • Colon cancer. Research shows that taking beta-carotene by mouth, alone or with vitamins C and E, selenium, and calcium carbonate, does not decrease the risk of colon tumor growth. In some people who have had colon tumors removed, taking beta-carotene supplements seems to reduce the risk of recurrence. However, in people that smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol, taking beta-carotene supplements increases the risk of new tumors. It is unclear if dietary beta-carotene reduces the risk of colon cancer.
  • Lung cancer. 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. Also, taking supplements containing beta-carotene, vitamin E, and selenium for about 5 years does not reduce the risk of death in people previously diagnosed with lung cancer.
  • Prostate cancer. Taking beta-carotene supplements does not prevent prostate cancer in most men. In fact, 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 daily along with a separate beta-carotene supplement have an increased risk of developing advanced prostate cancer. Also, men who smoke and take beta-carotene supplements have in increased risk of developing prostate cancer.

Insufficient evidence to rate effectiveness for...

  • Asthma. Eating a diet high in beta-carotene does not seem to be linked with a reduced occurrence of asthma.
  • Side effects from chemotherapy. Eating a diet high in beta-carotene is linked with reduced toxic effects in children undergoing chemotherapy for a blood cancer called lymphoblastic leukemia.
  • Mental performance. Some evidence suggests that taking beta-carotene for one year does not improve thinking skills and memory in older men. However, taking beta-carotene for up to 18 years may improve these outcomes.
  • Esophageal cancer. Taking beta-carotene supplements alone or in combination with vitamin A or vitamin E plus vitamin C doesn’t seem to reduce the risk of esophageal cancer.
  • Helicobacter pylori (H pylori) infection, which causes stomach ulcers. Taking beta-carotene by mouth, in combination with prescription drugs, does not help treat H. pylori infection better than prescription drugs alone.
  • HIV/AIDS. Some early research suggests that taking beta-carotene by mouth for 4 weeks helps improve immune system function in people with HIV. However, conflicting evidence exists.
  • Stomach cancer. Some evidence suggests that taking beta-carotene does not decrease risk of gastric cancer. Also, taking beta-carotene in combination with vitamins A, C, and/or E does not seem to reduce the risk of stomach cancer. However, some early evidence suggests that taking beta-carotene, vitamin E, and selenium might reduce the risk of stomach cancer but not the risk of death in underfed, Chinese people who are at high risk. Also, taking beta-carotene seems to help treat precancerous lesions in the stomach in people at risk for stomach cancer.
  • Swelling and deterioration of the lining of the mouth (oral mucositis). Taking beta-carotene by mouth doesn’t appear to prevent the development of oral mucositis during radiation therapy or chemotherapy.
  • 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.
  • A skin rash due to sun sensitivity called polymorphous light eruption. Some evidence suggests that taking beta-carotene by mouth can improve sensitivity to sun exposure in people with polymorphous light eruptions. However, conflicting evidence exists.
  • Alcoholism.
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).
  • Depression.
  • Epilepsy.
  • 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 in adults and children when taken by mouth in appropriate amounts for certain specific medical conditions. However, beta-carotene supplements are not recommended for general use.

Beta-carotene is POSSIBLY UNSAFE when taken by mouth 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, increase the risk of certain cancers, and possibly other serious side effects. In addition, 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: Beta-carotene is LIKELY SAFE when taken by mouth in appropriate amounts. However, large doses of beta-carotene supplements are not recommended for general use during pregnancy and breast-feeding.

Smoking: In people who smoke, beta-carotene supplements might increase the risk of colon, 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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