Skip to main content

Can a vitamin A deficiency contribute to diabetes?

Can a vitamin A deficiency contribute to diabetes?Researchers from Sweden and England have discovered a link between vitamin A and diabetes. According to their new study, vitamin A is essential for enabling pancreatic beta cells to produce insulin, the hormone that helps cells take up sugar. This discovery could open new doors to better diabetes therapies in the future. However, it is also important to focus on diet, weight management, and the intake of other nutrients like chromium for proper blood sugar control, which is necessary for preventing and treating diabetes.

Nearly 300,000 Danes have diabetes, and an estimated 750,000 Danes have early stages of the disease. The number of diabetics has doubled in the past 10 years, and the majority have type 2 diabetes that is related to diet and lifestyle. Type 2 diabetes is associated with impaired quality of life, and every day all year round, nearly two diabetics undergo amputations that are typically a result of foot ulcers. Diabetes is a serious condition that costs Danish taxpayers in the neighborhood of DKR 86 million each day, so it makes good sense to look more into prevention an and better treatment.

Vitamin A is important for pancreatic beta cells and for inflammation

Scientists from Sweden and England have discovered that the insulin-producing beta cells of the pancreas contain a large number of vitamin A receptors. Serving as a sort of antennae, these receptors are located on the surface of the cells. According to Albert Salehi, a senior scientist from the Diabetes Center at Lunds Universitet in Sweden, all receptors on human cells are there for a specific reason. Cellular receptors have special assignments, but in many cases, they are unidentified, which is why they are called “orphan receptors”
After discovering that the insulin-producing beta cells are equipped with vitamin A receptors, the scientists now assume that vitamin A plays a major role in the pancreas. They believe that vitamin A is vital for insulin production as well as for controlling inflammatory conditions.

Type 1 diabetes is a result of the immune system attacking the insulin-producing tissues in the pancreas. Patients have elevated blood sugar (glucose) because they lack insulin

Type-2 diabetes is linked to our lifestyle. Patients have elevated blood sugar and insulin levels (also known as insulin resistance) because their insulin does not work optimally. That is why the body produces larger amounts of the hormone.

A lack of vitamin A impairs the insulin production and causes inflammation

In order to take a closer look at vitamin A’s role, the scientists used insulin-producing cells from mice and insulin-producing cells from non-diabetics and type-2 diabetics. By blocking the vitamin A receptors of the beta cells and subjecting the cells to sugar (glucose), the researchers could see how the insulin production of the beta cells decreased. According to lead researcher Albert Salehi, a 30% reduction was observed, and the impaired cellular function and lowered insulin production are exactly the problems you see with type-2 diabetes.
The scientists also observed that the beta cells’ ability to withstand immune-induced inflammatory processes was reduced if there was too little vitamin A. In fact, a complete vitamin A deficiency caused the cells to perish. This discovery may be determining with respect to type 1 diabetes where beta cell development is hampered at an early stage in life, and where inflammatory processes occur in the pancreas.
Albert Salehi has conducted studies, in which he has shown that newborn baby mice need vitamin A in order to develop pancreatic beta cells. He assumes the same is the case with humans and believes that we need enough vitamin A throughout life.
His discovery may open new doors to better diabetes treatment in the future, and scientists plan to continue by investigating molecules that resemble vitamin A and can more effectively activate beta cell receptors.

How do we get enough vitamin A?

Pure vitamin A (retinol) is a lipid-soluble vitamin that is primarily found in fatty animal sources like meat, oily fish, eggs, and dairy products. Vegetable sources like carrots and spinach contain a water-soluble vitamin A precursor called beta-carotene.
The daily reference intake level (RI) for vitamin A is 800 micrograms/RE (retinol equivalents) for adults and 400 micrograms/RE for children. Vitamin A deficiencies are most common in developing countries. Nonetheless, it is important to focus on diabetes and other factors that may lead to a vitamin A deficiency.

Vitamin A deficiencies and poor utilization of the nutrient may be caused by:

  • Diabetes accompanied by poor ability to convert beta-carotene (a precursor)
  • Ageing processes
  • Unbalanced diets
  • Alcoholism
  • Impaired fat absorption due to gastrointestinal disease or medical drugs
  • Prolonged use of antacids
  • Pregnancy and lactation (pregnant women should, however, not consume more than 1,000 micrograms/RE of vitamin A daily

Chromium is also important for insulin and stable blood sugar

After eating or drinking, our body produces insulin that helps convey blood sugar (glucose) to our cells. It has been known for long that insulin works better when it attaches to a special chromium compound, because this helps the cells absorb more glucose. That way, they produce more energy, and we do not feel the urge to eat again right away.
Chromium is mainly found in brewer’s yeast, seeds, almonds, beans, nuts, fish, and meat. Low chromium levels in the soil result in crops with a low chromium content, and our refined diets only provide small amounts of the nutrient. A large intake of sugar and stimulants may cause the body’s chromium levels to drop additionally.

Chromium yeast has the best effect on blood sugar levels

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has concluded that organic chromium yeast is absorbed up to 10 times better than synthetically manufactured chromium sources like chromium picolinate and chromium chloride.

Other useful tips for controlling blood sugar levels

  • Eat three healthy main meals (possibly with in-between snacks)
  • Remember to include enough protein with all meals
  • Do not avoid fat, only stick with healthy and unspoiled fats
  • Choose coarse carbohydrates that are rich in fiber
  • Eat plenty of greens (primarily vegetables)
  • Avoid altogether or limit your intake of sugar, juice, and alcohol
  • Avoid altogether or limit your intake of caffeinated beverages
  • Remember to exercise and include many minor physical activities in your day


Lund University. The role of vitamin A in diabetes. ScienceDaily June 13, 2017

Honor Whiteman. Could lack of vitamin A be a cause of diabetes? Medical NewsToday. Published Wednesday 14 June 2017

Pernille Lund. Sådan får du styr på dit blodsukker og din vægt. Ny Videnskab 2013

  • Created on .