Vitamin E may well be one of the most powerful antioxidants of our time. There have been many studies indicating that it can boost one’s immune system, reduce age-related changes, prevent heart disease, increase resistance to infections, and lessen respiratory problems.
Vitamin E is the body’s most important fat-soluble antioxidant. It is especially useful in protecting fats in our bodies from the damaging effects of uncontrolled oxidation and free radicals. Oxidation occurs because of the ingestion of polyunsaturated fats and hydrogenated oils which cause free radicals — unstable molecules that can damage healthy cells and lead to chronic inflammation. Excess free radical damage is capable of causing a wide variety of diseases such as age-related macular degeneration, hypertension, arthritis, heart disease and even some cancers. Free radicals attack the unsaturated fatty acids in cell membranes in a process called lipid peroxidation, which is a chain reaction that, if left uncontrolled, can damage cell functions. Vitamin E serves as the body’s first line of defense against this, by effectively breaking this chain reaction.
One of the places where vitamin E exerts its antioxidant effect is in the lungs, where our cells are exposed to large amounts of air pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide or ozone which can initiate damaging free-radical reactions. A recent study presented at the American Thoracic Society’s International 2010 Conference in New Orleans showed that women taking 600 IU of vitamin E every other day had a 10 percent reduction risk of chronic obstructive lung disease.
Another area in which vitamin E has shown positive benefits is in eye health. Cataracts are a common visual impairment, especially among the elderly. One of the main causes of cataracts is the cumulative effect of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation on the eyes, causing oxidative damage in the eye’s lens. Some researchers feel that optimal levels of vitamin E might slow cataract formation or prevent them from forming in the first place. In a study at the National Epidemiology Program at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center, women who supplemented their diets with vitamin E for 10 years or more had significantly less cataract progression at the 5-year follow-up exam. And scientists in the AREDS trial, sponsored by the National Eye Institute, found that “people at high risk of developing advanced stages of age-related macular degeneration (AMD) lowered their risk by about 25%” when using a multi-vitamin containing vitamin E.
Another area where vitamin E seems to prove beneficial is with heart disease. Vitamin E is effective in lowering bad cholesterol by preventing the buildup of plaques in the arteries. It also has the capability of acting as a blood thinner — allowing blood to flow more easily through the arteries. In fact, some studies have even shown vitamin E to be more protective than aspirin for prevention for heart attacks, with no harmful side effects. In a study published in the journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology, Vitamin E was shown to benefit diabetics who carry a version of a specific gene which determines whether an individual with diabetes is more likely to develop heart disease. In the study, individuals who took 400 IU of vitamin E per day had 50 percent fewer heart attacks and strokes.
The results of a recent study presented at the American Geriatrics Society in Chicago showed that “vitamin E may slow the decline of mental and physical abilities in people with Alzheimer’s disease over the long term.” Most of the patients in the study took between 800 IU per day to 1000 IU twice per day of vitamin E. Each person’s performance on cognitive tests and their ability to carry out daily functions were evaluated every six months. After three years, it was reported that the treatment benefits increased with time. And another study presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s annual meeting followed 847 people with Alzheimer’s for five years, and showed that supplementation of 2,000 IU of vitamin E was able to slow the progression of the disease by 26 percent.
Vitamin E has also been shown to improve liver health. In April of this year, The New England Journal of Medicinereported that 43 percent of people receiving a daily dose of 800 IU of vitamin E showed a significant improvement of the liver, compared with only 19 percent of those receiving a placebo.
An increasing number of scientists believe that vitamin E may establish itself as a key player in cancer prevention. In a study published earlier this year in Cancer Causes and Control, researchers looked at the association between bladder cancer and vitamin E. They observed that regular use of vitamin E was linked to a 35 percent reduced risk of contracting bladder cancer. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition last year found that male smokers who supplemented their diets with the tocopherol form of vitamin E had less chance of contracting pancreatic cancer than those men who did not take the supplement. And to treat skin cancer,British scientists found that injecting the tocotrienol form of vitamin E directly into the bloodstream had the ability to shrink skin tumors in ten days.
Vitamin E has also been shown to prevent the formation of atypical blood clots and protect membranes from oxidative damage. In the Women’s Health Study, where 40,000 women received 600 IU of natural vitamin E for 10 years, it was shown that there was a 21 percent reduction risk of developing deep vein thrombosis.
Vitamin E supplements can be very helpful in relieving common muscle cramps. In an article written last year in the American Journal of Therapeutics, it was noted that when patients underwent dialysis, vitamin E was effective in treating the muscle cramps that often occur during treatment.
Vitamin E has been shown to heal skin lesions, ulcers, burns, skin rashes, and dry skin and can reduce the appearance of scars due to injury or surgery. Researchers have shown that applying natural vitamin E oil to the skin before sun exposure can prevent irritation and skin damage. Taking 400 IU internally can also have an affect on reducing sun damage. People who take vitamin E supplements in the long term lessen the chance of burning their skin when exposed to UVB radiation. Furthermore, researchers saw a reduction in DNA damage within skin cells, leading them to conclude that antioxidants like vitamin E may play an important role in the prevention of DNA damage.
Daily supplements of vitamin E complex may increase hair growth in people with male pattern baldness, suggests a new study performed at the School of Pharmaceutical Sciences in Malaysia. Twenty-eight volunteers with hair loss took a Vitamin E tocotrienol complex of 100 mg for a period of eight months. Researchers found that there was an increase in hair growth by about 42 percent in the group who took the vitamin E supplements, compared to no significant hair growth in the placebo group.
For various women’s problems, studies have shown that vitamin E can be very effective in relieving relieve hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, headaches and other problems of menopause. It has been used both topically and orally with some success to relieve symptoms of fibrocystic breast disease.
Vitamin E consists of a family of eight different but related molecules that fall into two major groups: the tocopherols and the tocotrienols. Within each group there are the alpha, beta, gamma, and delta forms. D-alpha tocopherol is the most biologically active, but gamma-tocopherol is the most potent. Natural sources are better than synthetic ones, because natural vitamin E may be up to twice as bioactive as the same amount of the synthetic version. The natural form of the vitamin is written as d-alpha-tocopherol, whereas the synthetic form is dl-alpha-tocopherol. Ideally, vitamin E should be consumed in the wider family of mixed tocopherols and tocotrienols to get the greatest benefits.
Some people experience a temporary rise in blood pressure when they first begin using vitamin E. Heart disease patients should start with low doses (200 IU daily) and increase the amount slowly to the desired level. People on blood thinners, should not take more than 1,200 IU of vitamin E per day. Toxicity from vitamin E is unlikely, because it is not stored as easily as other fat-soluble vitamins. Vitamin E should not be taken with an inorganic iron supplement (ferrous sulfate) because if taken together, the absorption of both is reduced. Vitamin E loses its potency when heated or exposed to light or air.
About twenty percent of the vitamin E in the diet comes from cold-pressed vegetable oils and products made from them. Another twenty percent comes from fruits and vegetables, and smaller percentages come from meats, poultry, fish, eggs, nuts and seeds. The richest sources of vitamin E are found in vegetable oils and are best consumed raw as salad dressings rather than heated, as vitamin E is readily destroyed by heat. Other foods containing vitamin E are wheat germ and wheat germ oil, sweet potatoes, egg yolk, butter, liver, whole-grain products, and dark green leafy vegetables. Vitamin E should be consumed with some type of fat-containing food for better absorption.
Vitamin E deficiency is somewhat rare with vague symptoms that are not easy to identify, as there is no apparent deficiency disease in humans. Low levels have been linked to anemia, infections, periodontal disease, visual impairments, gallstones, muscle and nerve degeneration, premature senility, infertility, menstrual problems, and some cancers.
In recent years, some scientific studies have shown no benefit in vitamin E supplementation. For example, two important trials testing the efficacy of vitamin E, the “HOPE-TOO” study and the “SELECT” study, showed no benefits in using vitamin E. And Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine published a controversial analysis of vitamin E claiming that vitamin E supplements in doses above 400 IU a day caused a higher risk for early death. Differences in outcomes of these studies may very well stem from the fact that a synthetic form of vitamin E was used, instead of the natural alpha, beta, gamma and delta forms. And in the “HOPE-TOO” findings, the participants in the study were over the age of 70, had a previous history of heart disease, stroke or diabetes, and were on various medications.
The RDA for vitamin E is 400-600 IU daily. It is best to start with a lower amount and gradually increase your dosage over several weeks. For therapeutic effects, an amount between 800-1600 IU daily is suggested. Sufficient amounts are difficult to obtain from dietary sources alone. Even diets that include many vitamin E-rich foods don’t supply high amounts, so supplementation may be in order. Levels over 1,600 IU per day are not advised unless under the care of a qualified health professional. Look for mixed tocopherols or try to obtain some gamma tocopherol along with the commonly available alpha-tocopherol. It is a good idea to discontinue use of vitamin E two weeks before and after any surgery, unless advised by your physician, because it has anti-platelet properties and reduces clot formation.