Monday Pharmaceutical Mystery: July 27


Which vitamin is so dangerous you can actually get too much of it in food form?

A group of arctic explorers found themselves in a survival situation due to the isolation and cold. Desperate for food, they hunted a polar bear and a seal. The explorers ate the meat, and made a soup that included internal organs, including livers.

Soon after eating the soup, the explorers experienced nausea, vomiting, headaches, and body aches. The explorers’ skin started to become irritated, and peeled off like a very bad sunburn, starting near the mouth. Some of the explorers experienced joint and bone pain. A few fell into a coma and passed away. The deceased were taken to civilization and autopsies was performed. The cause of death was determined to be hypervitaminosis, or death from too much of 1 particular vitamin.

Mystery: Which vitamin is so dangerous you can actually get too much of it in food form?

Solution: Vitamin A. The livers of the polar bear and seal are very high in Vitamin A, for which unnaturally high doses systemically have negative health consequences.

Nature has devised beta-carotenes to protect humans from too much vitamin A in many foods. Beta-carotenes from food have vitamin A activity without the toxicities. Some beta-carotenes are stored in the liver, and then converted into active vitamin A when the body needs it.

Vitamin A is an essential nutrient that our bodies need to survive. All pills are both good and bad depending on the situation, and vitamins must be in the natural zone: not too high, and not too low.1 This is especially true for vitamin A.

This case is based on a true story.2


  • Siska G. The Beauty of Vitamin A and Drug Spinoffs. Pharmacy Times website. Published April 30, 2019. Accessed July 27, 2020.
  • Rodahl K, Moore T. The vitamin A content and toxicity of bear and seal liver. Biochem J 1943;37:166-8. [PubMed abstract]

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