Alpha-Carotene

Alpha-carotene is an important provitamin, or precursor of vitamin A. The body is able to transform alpha-carotene and 50 other carotenoids into vitamin A or retinol. Since this carotene has a β-ring at one end and a ε-ring at the second, it is also named α-carotene. People who smoke or drink heavily can especially take advantage of the benefits of alpha-carotene. It is normally sourced from vegetables and fruits. The color of many vegetables and fruits is actually caused by alpha-carotene, due to the large content of a type of plant pigments similar to flavone, known under the general term of flavonoids.

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Alpha-carotene and beta-carotene are very similar but the location of double bonds in the structure of their rings is different. Beta-carotene is a lot more commonly found in nature. It is easy to spot the fruits that contain more beta-carotene than alpha-carotene, since they will have an orange color.

In a normal healthy diet, alpha-carotene will be one of the most common carotenoids. These compounds are very valuable because they are soluble in fat and can be converted by the body into vitamin A. The vitamin A is required for good vision, a strong immune system and the repair of skin and bones. While not as effective as beta-carotene, alpha-carotene is one of the precursors of vitamin A, also known as pro-vitamin A compounds. It is a powerful antioxidant on its own, being stronger than beta-carotene in this particular role. This is due to the content of flavonoids, a group of natural pigments that give fruits and vegetables their color. It is one of the reasons why nutritionists advise us to consume vegetables and fruits of all colors, in order to supply the body with a variety of flavonoids.

Antioxidant compounds have the ability to search for dangerous free radicals inside the body and neutralize them before any damage is done to tissues and cells. Scientists have discovered that oxidation causes many chronic conditions like cancer or strokes. Alpha-carotene also improves communication between cells, which is believed to reduce the risk of cancer by stimulating a proper cellular division.

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Since it is soluble in fats, alpha-carotene needs dietary fat in order to be absorbed and used by the body. Some conditions can impair the body's capacity to process carotenoids such as alpha-carotene because they prevent the proper digestion of fats. These include cystic fibrosis, liver diseases, Crohn's disease, pancreatic enzyme deficiency, gall bladder issues or the removal of the stomach through surgery.

The level of alpha-carotene in the blood can be decreased by several other issues and bad habits. It happens to people who smoke or drink regularly, to people on medication that lowers cholesterol or to people with poor diets that don't include fruits and vegetables or enough calories.

Benzopyrene is a widespread carcinogen agent found in cigarette smoke that also triggers a lack of vitamin A. This effect can be offset by a diet with plenty of carotenoids. Supplying carotenoids from supplements is a bad idea for smokers, since they can aggravate several lung diseases.

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The skin of fruits and vegetables provides most of the content of carotenoids. As a result, it is wise to consume them unpeeled, in order to ingest all of these essential nutrients. Some vegetables can be lightly steamed in order to make digestion easier, examples include carrots, tomatoes and spinach.

Since carotenoids are soluble in fat, combining them with a bit of oil can improve the body's ability to absorb them. A tablespoon of quality cold-pressed oil is enough. The best for this purpose are olive, coconut, fish, nut, rapeseed and other nutty oils.

The carotenoid family of phytonutrients includes a number of other essential compounds. Some of them are lycopene, lutein, zeaxanthin, beta-carotene or beta-cryptoxanthin.

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Carotene is actually a generic term for a number of compounds that have a similar chemical structure and play a role in photosynthesis due to their orange pigmentation. They absorb the energy provided by light and pass it to plant chlorophyll.

Where to get alpha-carotene?

Alpha-carotene can be sourced from turnip greens, broccoli, tomatoes, cilantro, green beans, carrots, spinach, collard greens, mangos, avocados, apples, kiwi and various other fruits and vegetables. Apricots, cantaloupes and a number of green vegetables and plants also supply alpha-carotene. A healthy diet should include a proper supply of this provitamin. Since carotenoids are fat-soluble, consume the fruits and vegetables combined with dietary fats for a better absorption. Cholestyramine and other medication that lowers cholesterol also reduce the overall level of fats and hamper the absorption of alpha-carotene. These drugs should not be used at the same time as foods rich in carotenoids.

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Fruit flavonoids are mainly located in their skin, so try to consume them whole and not peel them unless it's really needed. Carrots, spinach and a number of other foods are better ingested when mildly steamed, which actually boost the absorption of key nutrients.

Health benefits

In a normal diet, alpha-carotene is usually the most widely available of all carotenoids. Both alpha-carotene and beta-carotene can be transformed inside the body into vitamin A. This key vitamin is vital for a strong immune system, clear vision and the structure of skin and bones.

Free radicals are harmful chemicals that oxidize cells, breaking their natural structure. Alpha-carotene is an effective antioxidant agent that can search and destroy free radicals all over the body. This prevents many diseases started by them, such as cancer, heart problems or various chronic conditions.

The correct division of cells is facilitated by communication between them. This process is improved by alpha-carotene, which can prevent the anomalies that ultimately cause tumours to form.

Cancer and heart diseases can be avoided by a healthy diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables that are rich in carotenoids. This was proven by studies on people from various parts of the world. While this compound is available in food supplements, it is best when sourced from natural foods.

The health benefits of beta-carotene have been known for a very long time. However, fruits like the pumpkin are considered to be very healthy primarily due to their alpha-carotene content. Several scientific studies have found a direct connection between biological aging and the level of alpha-carotene. It is an inversed proportion: the more alpha-carotene is available from a healthy diet, the less your body shows the effects of aging. This essential compound slows down the overall aging process but at the same time it fights its effects, such as cataract or cancer. Several fruits and vegetables provide a potent mix of nutrients that prevents heart diseases, with a combination of folate, carotenes, potassium and magnesium.

Both alpha-carotene and beta-carotene are vitamin A precursors but the beta variety creates twice as much vitamin. For this reason, alpha-carotene has not been studied as extensively as its relative.

Vitamin A maintains the health of eye cells and promotes low-light sensitivity, so a good intake of alpha-carotene supports healthy vision. Alpha-carotene seems to have a similar impact on vision as beta-carotene does.

Studies on people vulnerable to type 2 diabetes have found that a high supply of alpha-carotene can decrease the risk of developing the condition by 48% in men and 39% in women. The overall intake of antioxidants did not have a significant influence on the results.

Alpha-carotene also seems to reduce the general risk of an early death. More than 15000 adult people in the USA took part in an extensive research program that concluded that the lowest risk of death, regardless of the cause, is in people with a high blood level of alpha-carotene. The risk of heart disease and cancer was found to be the same. According to the results, premature death can be avoided by regularly consuming fruits and vegetables.

Another study selected a group of more than 3000 people with high amounts of alpha-carotene in their blood. It concluded that alpha-carotene levels are more important than the ones of beta-carotene and greatly reduce the incidence of heart diseases.

An even more ambitious study followed a number of 1,242,000 people for a period of 10 years. A lower cancer risk was connected with high amounts of lycopene and alpha-carotene. The incidence of lung cancer was particularly low in people with a diet rich in various carotenoids.

Supplements prepared from palm oil or the Dunaliella algae provide a good amount of alpha-carotene and a number of other carotenoids. However, people who smoke should avoid these products. According to scientists, all types of carotenes are quite harmful in their case, which offsets the potential health benefits.

Alpha-carotene doesn't have any official Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA). However, the National Academy of Sciences advises at least five daily serving of fruits and vegetables, which provide a decent amount.

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