Beta-carotene is the best known of the carotenoids and a powerful antioxidant for disease prevention and general good health. A good intake of beta-carotene in your diet may also help protect your face from sun damage that leads to skin aging.
Carotenoids are a family of phytonutrient pigments that occur naturally in many fruits and vegetables, particularly ones with colors like orange and yellow and in dark green leafy vegetables (where the green chlorophyll takes dominance).
Whilst there are hundreds of carotenoids, only a few are known to be significant in the American diet. Alongside beta-carotene, which is the most commonly occurring, there is also alpha-carotene, gamma-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin, lycopene, lutein and zeaxanthin.
Beta-carotene is also one of roughly fifty carotenoids, known as pro-vitamin A compounds, that the body can convert into the active form of vitamin A – retinol. Alpha-carotene, gamma-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin can also be converted, but it seems not particularly well and are of far more value for their antioxidant properties.
Lycopene, lutein and zeaxanthin cannot be converted into vitamin A, but have many other important health functions, such as decreasing the risk of certain cancers and heart disease and protective properties for healthy eyes.
Beta Carotene into Vitamin A
Vitamin A is vital for protection from infection, a strong immune system, normal growth and development and healthy eyes and skin. We get vitamin A from animal derived sources such as liver, meats, eggs and dairy products.
The body can also usually convert carotenoids like beta-carotene into vitamin A when needed. It does this by basically splitting the carotenoid molecules in the intestine and then storing them ready for use as retinol, primarily in the liver.
The conversion rate however, for beta-carotene into retinol is estimated at around 12 to 1 and far higher for other pro-vitamin A carotenoids. You would need a fairly large and regular amount of beta-carotene rich vegetables and fruits to rely on plant sources alone for your vitamin A.
Beta-Carotene’s Antioxidant Power
When the body has enough vitamin A to not need to convert it, beta-carotene is an excellent antioxidant. Antioxidants protect our cells from being oxidized by damaging free radicals.
Free radicals occur when weak molecule bonds split, leaving the molecule with an unpaired electron. The unstable free radical steals an electron from the nearest stable molecule, making it a free radical and so on and so on, until something can stop the destructive chain reaction.
Antioxidants like beta-carotene neutralize free radicals by donating one of their own electrons, without becoming a free radical themselves. This process is happening inside us all the time, but if you smoke, drink alcohol, eat junk foods or are exposed to pollution in the air you breathe, your need for protective antioxidants is generally much higher.
While food sources of carotenoids like pumpkins and carrots are preferable, many of us aren’t getting that much of these in our processed modern diets. Mixed carotenoid supplements from a natural source like Dunaliella Salina, importantly taken with a meal containing some dietary fat, can be useful for increasing your intake if you feel your diet could use an antioxidant boost.
Beta-Carotene and Skin Aging
Getting a good amount of beta-carotene and other antioxidants in your food can greatly lessen the damage caused by free radicals in your body, lowering the chances of many diseases associated with oxidative stress, and even potentially lessening the visible signs of aging, like sagging skin and wrinkles. This is due to the way beta-carotene accumulates in the skin and helps prevent sunburn and damage to the collagen that keeps our skin firm and healthy, as shown in this research (Supplementation with beta-carotene with similar amount of mixed carotenoids protect humans from UV-induced erythema – Journal of Nutrition).
Beyond a good basic moisturizer, your face will probably look better if you spend your money on more carrots, pumpkins and dark green leafy vegetables for beta-carotene, rather than those expensive face creams. That’s probably not something the marketing men at L’Oreal and Garnier want to hear, but better nutrition will have a far greater effect on skin aging or skin conditions like acne, than the latest moisturizer marketing ploy.
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Photo credit with thanks: John-Morgan