The Blind Man and the Elephant: Understanding Vitamin A

The Blind Man and the Elephant: Understanding Vitamin A


Once upon a time, there were a group of blind men who were invited by a Queen to visit an elephant for the first time. Each blind man had heard about this animal for a long time. They were excited to touch it.  The first blind man ran his hands over the trunk, and said “An elephant is soft and twists like rope.” The second blind man pulled on the large ear and declared, “An elephant is floppy like a magic carpet.”  The third blind man poked his fingers over the side and announced, “I knew it! Can’t you see an elephant is leathery like a field of grass.”

This is exactly how scientists discovered vitamins, specifically vitamin A. 

The first scientist studied the eye and declared vitamin A to be necessary for the retinal cells to function properly. He was right and published that Vitamin A is essential for sight.  The second scientist studied the skin and found vitamin A to be necessary to prevent dry skin.  He was right and declared vitamin A the skin nutrient.  A third scientist focused his attention on the ear and found the highest concentration of vitamin A to be inside the ear. He was right and broadcast that vitamin A was most important for hearing. 

Like the blind man, each scientist thought their discovery about vitamin A was the best, the most important and the only right one.  If vitamin A is in the eye, the skin and the ears then the carotenoids are the elephant.  There are 1100 different carotenoids that are important to health. The vitamin A carotenoids and the non-vitamin A carotenoids such as the lycopene, lutein, and astro xanthenes are all part of a greater whole. 

We get carotenoids from eating plants with primary colors like red, orange and green like kale, papaya and sweet potatoes.  The darker the green the higher the carotenoid content. The reds and shades of red come from lycopene, xanthenes – these are the oxygen containing carotenoids.  The purple and the blue vegetables comes from the flavonoids.

Vitamin A is fat soluble that means it needs fat in order to be digested better. This is why cooked tomatoes with olive oil, also known as marinara sauce, have more vitamin A available than raw tomatoes. 



Vertebrates do not make carotenoids; they have to eat plants, algae, microbes and fungi that do make carotenoids. There is an insect and spiders, but in general most animals do not make carotenoids.

Vitamin A is how animals trap light and the power that light contains. This is primarily through the eyes and the skin because these are light sensitive organs.   Vitamin A and the carotenoids are important to all cells that cover organs. We call those cells epithelial cells.  Epithelial cells cover the skin, the eye, mucous membranes, intestine, kidney, bladder and the lining of the ear-all organs. In order to have strong epithelial cells you need to have good carotenoid content which you get from all plants that have color. 

The scientist that studied the eye may not have known that the colored portion of the eye or the retinal cells are epithelial cells.   It is the intimate interaction between the retinal cells and the neuro-chemical cells that converts light into vision.  Any interruption at the retinal epithelial pigmented area will inhibit the production of vision despite the presence of light.  We get pigment in colored fruits and vegetables and use those oranges, red and blues to see, like a printer.  

The pigment in the retinal cells comes from the carotenoids which are segmented into other retinal cells.  Our eyes require lutein, xanthene, astroxanethien and vitamin A in the right concentration to allow the optimization of visual acuity.  

The power of light and the ability to move light through the eyes to result in vision is one important function of the carotenoids.  They improve sight.  The less vitamin A you have the less light you can trap, so as the amount of light decreases you have less vision. This is known as night blindness. In bright light you can see but as the light decreases towards night time you see less and less. When it is there for a long time it leads to total blindness that is reversed by replacing vitamin A in the diet. Worldwide vitamin A, and thus carotenoid deficiency, is one of the leading causes of blindness.  

In the plant kingdom, vitamin A is produced as pro-vitamin A.  Then in the body it is converted and stored as retinoic acid. Retinoic acid is the active form of vitamin A.  The cell converts retinoic acid to vitamin A on demand which is crucial if you try to bypass nature.  Many people know the importance of vitamin A and try and take in large amounts of vitamin A as a supplement when the body can only handle so much. When you take in too much it is just as bad as not having enough because then you can become toxic.

An important difference between the types of carotenoids is that our body does not store all of them.  The lycopene, astro xathenes and other oxygen containing carotenoids are usually taken as completed products. These deficiencies have real world implications. If you are sufficient in them taking extra does not make a difference, but when you are deficient it makes a world of difference



If you break things down by organ system, you think you are dealing with a myriad of problems. But if you think of things holistically, you know that if you are vitamin A deficient, and thus carotenoid deficient, you will have problems wherever you have epithelial cells.  

All epithelial cells need to be protected against singlet oxygen, also known as free radicals.  

When you are deficient in these things you will have problems in all of your cells

Depending on your genetic basis and on your blood supply, certain cells will be more starved than other cells.  If you are in a noise toxic environment like listening to headphones, working in the military, or living next to a highway, you would expect your ear cells or the cochlea cells to be more symptomatic than your dermal cells. The same population with the same degree of carotenoid deficiency not living in a noise polluted environment will have less ear problems. 

The skin is covered entirely by epithelial cells, so an increase in carotenoid content decreases the risk of sunburn. The lung is lined with epithelial cells, so if there is adequate carotenoid content then there is a decrease in allergic symptoms like asthma. 

This is not the only ingredient for optimal epithelial function but in our society it is very common to have decreased intake of these specific nutrients.


Carotenoids like the elephant with its winged ears, squishy trunk and hard tusk are now coming into view for the blind man.  This nearsighted doctor is leading the way with Wise Medicine.