The Arctic Endeavor! Vitamin A Scenario:
Here’s the scenario…
You decided this year’s vacation was going to be an Arctic camping extravaganza!
Imagine…really, really long days, bitterly cold breezes, miles upon miles of white snow secluded beaches, and native delicacies that are world renown (and unknown) and second to none.
Your travel arrangements are all set, you have your gear …and you’re off!
So there you are in the middle of the Arctic. Snapping gorgeous pictures of nature’s ice sculptures all the while you’re thinking “What a nice screen saver picture this will make.” You are detailing your adventures of “roughing it” on Facebook and relishing in your decision to leave civilization behind.
After a long, long, long day of nature at its fullest expression, it dawns on you that you’re hungry. Now you’ve watched all of the ‘Survivorman’ and ‘Man vs. Wild’ episodes on TV so you’re well prepared and perfectly skilled at setting traps to catch yourself a fresh meal.
Then…all of a sudden…it happens!
You find yourself in a life or death situation with a polar bear!
Now you are aware that although polar bears are not yet on an endangered species list, because that would make killing one would be in bad taste. Unless, of course your own life is endangered; and it is!
So, after a brutal battle you are victorious! The unfortunate bear will now be your dinner.
As this is your first kill, you really want to follow native traditions of eating the liver. After all, you remembered the scene from ‘Dances with Wolves’ and how the lieutenant (played by Kevin Costner) ate the tatonka (buffalo) liver because it was his first kill.
Anyway, you cut out the polar bear’s liver and take a massive bite!
Savoring your full belly, and while relaxing as your food begins to digest, you pick up your Arctic travel brochure for some leisure reading; and there it is:
!!WARNING: Eat Polar Bear Livers At Your Risk!!
You read all about how polar bear livers are loaded with Vitamin A (retinol); as much as 8,000,000 I.U.!
The brochure explains that Arctic explorers had eaten polar bear livers and allegedly died from Vitamin A toxicity. You begin to panic and wonder what your outcome is going to be.
‘Survivorman’ didn’t prepare you for this!
What will happen to you out there in the middle of the Arctic??
Dogmatic Beliefs about Vitamin A
The ending of this story has multiple variations depending, of course, on what your dogmatic beliefs about Vitamin A are. Let’s do some of our own exploring to investigate some of these possible endings to our story.
The obvious explorations lead us to two possible paths:
- Is this apparent high dose of Vitamin A, in the form of retinol, going to kill you or just make you sick…or neither?
- Might there be something else other than the high dose of Vitamin A that is the real guilty party here?
Now, because of the “deaths” of those explorers began the basis for Vitamin A toxicity bandwagon. However, interestingly enough, none of those explorers died!
There are some websites on the internet that basically state the following regarding arctic explorers and polar bear livers:
“The Arctic explorers who were said to have died actually lived, but did suffer from exfoliative dermatitis and hair loss. In 1988, a team of Swedish scientists discovered that polar bear and seal livers tend to accumulate the metal cadmium. The symptoms for cadmium poisoning are exfoliative dermatitis and hair loss.”
Of course this is implying that it was not the 8, 000, 000 IU of vitamin A (retinol), but rather an overdose of cadmium that caused their illness. If this is true, surely we would be told this…right?
Now, at first…I felt the proverbial “Ah Ha” and felt sure that I had my vitamin A controversy to write about. However, since I don’t simply repeat what I read on the internet but instead research everything, I found that the cadmium theory may not hold much water if we are talking about cadmium by itself, but in combination with arsenic it becomes something totally different.
Yes, the amounts of cadmium found in polar bear livers is more than enough to cause toxic symptoms in humans and one of the symptoms of the explorers was hair loss. Many heavy metals can cause this toxic reaction such as: lead, cadmium, mercury, iron, aluminum, copper and arsenic. However, we are only half-way to deducing that cadmium may be a culprit of the explorer’s illness in addition to the vitamin A toxicity theory.
The other symptom the explorers were said to have experienced was exfoliative dermatitis (massive scaling of the skin). So, if cadmium causes this condition as well, we are home free. Unfortunately, it appears that exfoliative dermatitis is not a symptom of cadmium poisoning, so… could there be another culprit that has been overlooked?
Arsenic has been found to be in extremely high levels in marine mammals (including polar bears) with higher concentrations found in the livers and other organs. Just as cadmium, arsenic can cause hair loss…but does it cause exfoliative dermatitis? Well according to the ‘Heavy Metal Handbook: A Guide for Healthcare Practitioners’, it absolutely does. And we haven’t even begun to look at mercury toxicity!
So the run down on toxicity symptoms looks something like this:
Now, the symptoms of vitamin A toxicity include the following:
- Blurred vision
- Joint pain
- Dry lips
- Scaly, dry skin (not defined as exfoliative dermatitis, which is far more serious)
- Excessive hair loss
Toxic symptoms of cadmium ingestion include the following:
- Abdominal pain
- Increased salivation
- Painful spasms of the anal sphincter
- Hair loss
Toxic symptoms of arsenic ingestion include the following:
- Gastric distress
- Diarrhea with blood present in the stools
- Dizzy spells
- Burning pain in the esophagus
- Low blood pressure
- Hair loss
- Exfoliative dermatitis
- Skin cancer
After many hours of research, here is the breakdown of possible causes of the arctic explorer’s illness:
- Vitamin A toxicity indeed causes hair loss and dry scaly skin; but not to the degree to be diagnosed as exfoliative dermatitis, which is far more serious.
- Cadmium indeed causes hair loss, but not exfoliative dermatitis.
- Arsenic indeed causes hair loss AND it also causes exfoliative dermatitis
So it would appear that after eating polar bear livers, the explorers illness may have been partially blamed on cadmium poisoning as well as the extremely high dosage of 8,000, 000 IU’s (that’s 8 MILLON) of retinol, but the more likely candidate for their illness appears to have been arsenic poisoning.
Now it is important to note that the explorers did not die, but were very sick and later recovered.
The notion that eating polar bear livers is a bad idea is not a new one. I mean if anyone was ever going to eat this organ meat, it would have been the Eskimos. And guess what? They don’t!
So what is the conclusion here?
Refrain from eating polar bear livers; and for 2 reasons:
- Thanks to man and his lack of environmental concern, polar bears (as well as seals) are loaded with toxic chemicals and heavy metals from the seas. Perhaps that should be a bigger concern than retinol toxicity!
- 8, 000, 000 IU’s is a crazy high of a dosage of vitamin A no matter how you slice it! Although vitamin A is not the toxic monster some are making out to be, we have to remember that everything can be potentially harmful if taken in extremes; including water.
So let’s be real folks, we are talking about extremes here. The idea that vitamin A (retinol) is toxic at low doses such as: 5000 IU, 10, 000 IU or even 100,000 IU is very misleading. In fact there are many studies that have used dosages as high as 300, 000 IU per day for a year with no ill effect.
Makes you wonder a bit doesn’t it? And it should!
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