Fascinating Research on Vitamin A… from 1925

My colleague Pam Schoenfeld, MS, recently put me onto an eye-opening article on vitamin A. Titled “Tissue Changes Following Deprivation of Fat-Soluble A Vitamin,” by S. Burt Wolbach, MD and Percy R. Howe, MD, the article was published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine in 1925.

Butter from grass-fed cows is high in Vitamin A

This paper is interesting for several reasons.  The first concerns the changes these researchers observed when they deprived rats of vitamin A.

The main effect was keratinization of the epithelial tissues. The epithelial tissues are thin tissues that cover all the exposed surfaces of the body, such as the skin, the inner lining of the mouth, the digestive tract, secretory glands, the lining of hollow parts of every organ such as the heart, lungs, eyes, ears, the urogenital tract, as well as the ventricular system of the brain and central canals of the spinal cord.

Keratinization is the process by which the cells of the epithelium are filled with a hard protein called keratin—think hair and fingernails in humans, beaks, horns, scales and hooves in animals. When our skin sloughs off cells, they first become keratinized and form a thin protective surface on our skin. But mostly the epithelial tissue is soft and mucous-secreting, often composed of hair-like structures called cilia.

Wolbach and Howe found that vitamin A deficiency resulted in the substitution of “stratified keratinizing epithelium for normal epithelium in various parts of the respiratory tract, alimentary tract, eyes, and paraocular [surrounding the eyeball] glands and the genitourinary tract.” This led to the atrophy of many glands, arrest of growth, emaciation and eventually death. While the rats showed no signs of rickets (the test diet contained vitamin D), the bones and teeth stopped growing.

Notably, “Young rats respond to the deficiency more promptly than adults,” meaning that vitamin A deficiency is more serious in growing children than in their parents.

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They found that “deficiency results in loss of specific (chemical) functions of the epitheliums concerned.. .” In other words, these tissues no longer worked as they should. Interestingly, these changes did not occur in the liver, parenchyma of the kidney, stomach or intestines.

“In general the respiratory mucosa in nares [nostrils], trachea, and bronchi keratinized first, then the salivary glands, eye, genitourinary tract, then paraocular glands and pancreas.” The general view at the time was that the eyes were the first organs affected by vitamin A deficiency; the researchers found otherwise.

Following keratinization, many of the glands atrophied, followed by emaciation and localized edema of testes, submaxillary (salivary) gland, and connective tissue structures of the lungs and focal myocardial lesions. The same applies to glandular atrophy. According to the authors, “Glandular atrophy probably explains the loss of power of smell as a late but consistent symptom.”

Enamel formation in the teeth was inhibited. “The enamel-forming cells in advanced stages are either shrunken and atrophic or replaced by a narrow layer of stratified, non-keratinizing epithelium.”  Indeed, many of the changes superficially resembled scurvy.

Other effects included the disappearance of fat in adipose tissue throughout the body, reduction is size of the liver and spleen, and atrophy (wasting away) of a long list of glands: pancreas, thyroid, pituitary and thymus.  Large cysts composed of “desquamated keratinized epithelial cells” formed in the salivary glands, which interfered with swallowing and was often a cause of death; cysts also formed in the lungs “and were so numerous as to be the cause of death.” 

“Desquamated keratinized epithelial cells” often blocked the bladder and urethra.  Cysts were common in the prostate gland and seminal vesicles.

These findings beg the question of whether many cases of “cancer”—in the prostate, bladder, lungs, throat,  glands, etc., are due to the accumulation of sloughed off keratinized cells in these organs due to vitamin A deficiency. 

Wolbach and Howe described their observations with great care and detail.  They noted that “infection” occurred in certain glands and organs but only after the degeneration that followed withholding of vitamin A. “Infection and suppuration are very common, but not invariable and have nothing to do in initiating the epithelial change. . . Our own experiences in the care of the rats are in complete opposition to the importance of infection, either as an initiating factor in the pathology or as a cause of death.”

They also noted “edema” or what we call “inflammation” occurred in certain organs, again only after the changes induced by vitamin A deficiency. “The occurrence of transient edema in testes and salivary gland coinciding with a period of maximum atrophic change, suggests the hypothesis that this edema is the result of failure of epithelium to utilize transported material. . . [emphasis added].”

Today we blame disease on “infection” and “inflammation” but the researchers were careful to point out that these conditions arose as a result of vitamin deficiency, and were not the cause of disease.

By the way, “edema” most frequently occurred in the salivary glands and the testes—this sounds a lot like mumps to me!

A final detail that I found of interest:  the test diet contained lard to supply vitamin D but no vitamin A.  Yet food tables today indicate that lard contains a trace amount of vitamin A but no vitamin D!  The fact that lard can be a good source of vitamin D is one of those secrets the diet dictocrats don’t want you to know about.

The researchers were able to reverse the effects of vitamin A deprivation by adding butter to the diet, and vitamin A in the control diet was also supplied by butter.

The message for modern humans: include plentiful lard (from pigs raised outdoors) and butter from grass-fed cows in your diet in order to keep the lungs, the nasal passages, the bones and teeth, the uro-genital organs and many of the body’s important glands in good working order!

The Weston A. Price Foundation puts great emphasis on dietary sources of vitamins A and D (and also vitamin K2).  Consider becoming a member to support the work they do.

Author: Sally Fallon Morell

Sally Fallon Morell is best known as the author of Nourishing Traditions®: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats. This well-researched, thought-provoking guide to traditional foods contains a startling message: animal fats and cholesterol are not villains but vital factors in the diet, necessary for normal growth, proper function of the brain and nervous system, protection from disease and optimum energy levels.

8 thoughts on “Fascinating Research on Vitamin A… from 1925”

  1. Sally, this information makes me wonder if there was a role Vit. A deficiency had in the loss of smell symptom of “covid infections”, and if this could have something to do with the tendency to over dose on (synthetic) Vitamin D in modern medicine?
    Thanks for the continued posting of cutting edge information!

    1. I wondered the same…. I heard that during an acute infection/ detox, zinc is severely depleted and this causes the loss of taste. However perhaps zinc and Vitamin A affect each other….

    2. Yes, I found this fascinating also.  Any kind of illness will deplete vitamin A, and Covid being a serious reaction to 5G (in my opinion), will seriously deplete vitamin A, leading to loss of taste and smell.

      Best, Sally

  2. I now realize I most definitely have suffered through out my life from a vitamin A deficiency…… very poor teeth, skin keratosis, constant infections.
    Once I began bringing grass fed butter into my life, everything turned around- teeth strengthened, skin smoothed, better more robust health. I still don’t really need glasses at 58- so I’m pretty lucky as things could have been a whole lot worse!!!

  3. An amazing article! Years before Nourishing Traditions (& WAPF) I had worked with a man who had “edema of testes” and who’s diet definitely was not nourishing him. Had I known this back then I’d have prioritized his recovery diet with “plentiful lard … and butter from grass-fed cows”!

  4. I have just been diagnosed with Intertestitial Cystitis and am trying to understand how I can heal myself naturally since western medicine offers no hope. Maybe this is a key thing I have been missing even though I have already been eating lots of grass fed butter for years and following your other supplemental recommendations of cod liver oil.

  5. Isn’t beef fat better than pig fat?
    More accurately perhaps, is not the fat from a cud chewing animal better than a non-cud chewing animal?

    Also are not animal fats better for us than vegetable, derived fats?

    I save my bacon fat, as well as that which floats the top of a roast and use it in other dishes.

    Beef fat Is valued as it is solid and makes a more firm pemmican which I take camping and hunting as it does not require refrigeration and you can pack a lot of calories in a small package.
    Deer fat is noticeably firmer than beef fat, but being a wild animal, it is rare to get more than two or 3 pounds from each animal harvested.

    I purchased a 25 pound tub of grass fed beef fat after reading the superiority of beef over pork.

    I also noticed prior to that purchase that I could not find pure lard. It was all adulterated with Vegetable oil of some type.

    So, what is your opinion on the difference between the cud chewing versus non-cud chewing fat.

    I hope the non-chewing fat isn’t too bad because few things are better than my favorite chicken from Kentucky and not one piece of skin gets wasted!!!

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