Why doesn’t excessive ingestion of carrots cause yellow discoloration of the sclera?

Great question! “Carotenoderma” refers to the yellow discoloration of the skin caused by increased serum carotenoids1.  Carotenoids are absorbed by passive diffusion from the gastrointestinal tract which are partially metabolized in the intestinal mucosa and liver to vitamin A, and then transported in the plasma into the intercellular lipids of stratum corneum of the skin which has a high affinity for carotene1,2.

The maximal accumulation of carotenoids occurs in areas with an abundance of sweat glands (eg, the palms, soles, nasolabial folds). In the absence of strateum corneum, the sclera is spared.

Of note, there are many causes of carotenoderma besides excessive ingestion of carrots.  Among foods, increased ingestion of tomatoes, tangerines, red palm oil, and squash may also be responsible1,2.  Systemic diseases associated with increase in serum carotenoids (possibly related to decreased conversion to vitamin A, hyperlipidemia, or other factors) include hypothyroidism, diabetes mellitus, anorexia nervosa, nephrotic syndrome, and liver disease.

References 

  1. Horev L, Ramot Y, Klapholz L. Yellow feet in a patient with breast and thyroid carcinoma, due to oral intake of turmeric. Drug Saf-Case Rep 2015;2:4.https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40800-015-0006-4
  2. Maharshak N, Shapiro J, Trau H. Carotenoderma-a review of the literature. Int J Dermatol 2003;42:178-181. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1046/j.1365-4362.2003.01657.x/epdf

 

Contributed by Clara Yang, Medical Student, Harvard Medical School

Why doesn’t excessive ingestion of carrots cause yellow discoloration of the sclera?

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