What Are Carotenoids?

Carotenoids are a type of natural pigment. Carotenoids give yellow, orange and red fruits and vegetables their color, but they’re also found in leafy green vegetables like spinach. Beta carotene, lutein, lycopene, gamma carotene and alpha carotene are all common carotenoids. 

How Carotenoids Function in Your Body

Carotenoids help your body produce retinol, a form of vitamin A, and can therefore help prevent vitamin A deficiency. Carotenoids also have potent antioxidant powers and can help boost immunity, detoxify the body, prevent oxidative cell damage, protect against cancer and support cardiovascular health. Carotenoids may also play an important role in female reproduction, though scientists don’t yet understand what that role is.

Carotenoids can help prevent or treat a number of illnesses, including AIDS, vaginal yeast infections, asthma, cervical cancer, heart disease, lung cancer, skin cancer and pneumonia.

Symptoms and Causes of Carotenoid Deficiency

While carotenoid deficiency in and of itself doesn’t cause any adverse symptoms, it can contribute to vitamin A deficiency, since your body uses carotenoids to synthesize much of its vitamin A. Long term carotenoid deficiency may increase your risk of cancer, illness and cardiovascular disease. Carotenoid deficiency can contribute to oxidative cell damage caused by free radicals.

Those who smoke and drink are at the highest risk of carotenoid deficiency, simply because smokers and drinkers generally don’t eat a lot of carotenoid rich foods. Adolescents and young people are also at an increased risk for carotenoid deficiency, since these groups also don’t typically consume carotenoid rich foods. 

Carotenoids are fat soluble, which means that your body need some dietary fat in order to absorb and use them. Those who eat especially low fat diets are at risk for carotenoid deficiency, since their bodies won’t get the fat they need to help absorb adequate amounts of carotenoids. Those with certain disorders that impair the body’s ability to absorb fat, such as Crohn’s disease or liver disease, are also at increased risk for carotenoid deficiency.

Carotenoid Toxicity

It’s possible to get too many carotenoids, which causes a minor condition known as carotenodermia. This condition causes yellowish skin discoloration, usually on the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet. A related condition, lycopenodermia, occurs when you eat too much lycopene, and causes orange discoloration of the skin. Both of these conditions are unsightly, but otherwise harmless and will clear up if you stop eating so many carotenoids.

Getting Enough Carotenoids in Your Diet

Orange, yellow and red fruits and vegetables are a great source of carotenoids. Carrots, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, mangoes, apricots and squash all contain high levels of carotenoids. Leafy green vegetables, like spinach, collard greens and kale, also contain high levels of beta carotene and other carotenoids like lutein. Egg yolks, salmon, shellfish and milk are all good sources of carotenoids. 

Many spices contain carotenoids, and adding spices to your food is a great way to get more carotenoids into your diet. Try spices made from red, yellow and orange foods, like chili powder, paprika or cayenne pepper.

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