Scientists identified vitamin E about 80 years ago, but only in the past few decades has its power as an antioxidant been revealed and fully appreciated. Initially, there was great interest and excitement regarding what this vitamin could do for a number of ailments, particularly heart disease. Well-designed studies completed recently, however, have found that the effect may be a less beneficial than once thought.
One point on which most sources agree is that vitamin E-rich foods are the optimal way to ensure adequate levels of this nutrient in the body. Wheat germ, almonds, peanuts, vegetable oils (safflower, corn, soybeans), green leafy vegetables, and walnuts are just a few prime sources. Given that many of these foods are also high in fat and calories, however, it's also worth considering a vitamin E supplement of 400 IU daily.
When summoned from the body's fatty tissue where it's stored, vitamin E--and it's antioxidant powers--go into action, protecting cells by deactivating or destroying the potentially damaging oxygen molecules called free radicals. Vitamin E also helps in the formation of red blood cells and facilitates the use of the trace mineral selenium and vitamins A and K.
Vitamin E is actually an umbrella term for a group of compounds called tocopherols and tocotrienols. Until recently, most vitamin E products contained only tocopherols (alpha-, beta-, delta-, and gamma-tocopherols), with alpha-tocopherol recognized as the body's predominant and most potent form.
But this thinking is changing as researchers also are identifying heart-healthy powers in the tocotrienols. Manufacturers now offer combination products, although tocotrienols are still easiest to find in single supplement form. To realize vitamin E's full health benefits, however, you really need both tocopherols and tocotrienols.
As a key antioxidant, vitamin E appears to play a modest but notable role in protecting the body from many chronic disorders. It may even slow the aging process and guard against damage from secondhand smoke and other pollutants. According to test-tube studies, the tocotrienols (alpha-tocotrienol, specifically) appear to be the most powerful of the vitamin E antioxidants. Circulatory disorders, skin and joint problems, diabetes-related nerve complications, high cholesterol, endometriosis, immune-system function, and memory are also believed to benefit from vitamin E. To date, however, research has been more intriguing than definitive.
The healing powers of regular vitamin E supplements (that is, those containing tocopherols only) are often merged with those of vitamin C, a sister antioxidant that actually increases the effectiveness of vitamin E. This combination holds some promise for preventing and possibly easing complications of such disorders as congestive heart failure, alcoholism, cancer, HIV infection, lupus, multiple sclerosis and nail problems.
On the other hand, a number of disappointing or ambiguous clinical trial results were published in the late 1990s and early 2000s. A large study on Parkinson's disease, a neurologic condition, for example, indicated that taking vitamin E neither helped nor hurt its symptoms.
Specifically, vitamin E may help to:
·Prevent or delay heart disease and related complications. Vitamin E's ability to protect against cardiovascular disease has been intensively studied and was initially thought to be very promising. The vitamin appears to prevent the oxidation of LDL ("bad") cholesterol, the first step in the development of atherosclerosis, a buildup of plaque in the arteries that inhibits normal circulation.
Additionally, vitamin E is believed to help prevent the formation of blood clots and to minimize the inflammatory process involved in heart disease development. Still a matter of debate, however, is whether an antioxidant such as vitamin E (including both tocopherols and tocotrienols) can prevent strokes, which aren't directly related to atherosclerosis.
Studies designed to answer the question as to whether vitamin E can actually prevent heart disease in people who are currently healthy (with no heart disease) are generating confusing and conflicting results. In two large studies at the Harvard School of Public Health, vitamin E supplements lowered the risk of heart disease in both women and men by about 40%. Other positive lifestyle factors may partially account for this apparent benefit, however, leaving the true contribution of the supplements in question.
In 2003, a major study published in the American Heart Association's journal, Circulation, indicated that vitamin E showed no benefit for preventing heart attacks. The researchers, again from Harvard, followed the levels of major carotenoids (including beta-carotene) and certain tocopherols from vitamin E in the blood of otherwise healthy physicians over the course of 13 years. They found that levels of beta-carotene and tocopherols in 531 physicians who went on to have a heart attack were similar to levels in a group of 531 similar men who did not have a heart attack.
Vitamin E supplements also appear to produce no actual therapeutic (healing) effect in people who are already sick with heart disease. Major, well-designed trials comparing vitamin E supplements to other drugs such as statins or a placebo (a dummy pill) proved disappointing, with vitamin E showing no benefit over the placebo in most cases. One clearly positive effect of statins is to raise HDL ("good") cholesterol; recent studies, however, indicate that vitamin E and other antioxidant supplements seem to actually reduce this beneficial effect.
·Retard the aging process and boost immune function. With age, the immune system becomes less efficient at fighting off microbes and viruses. Part of this decline may be due to low levels of vitamin E in the bloodstream. Some studies have shown improved immune responses in older people who take vitamin E supplements. Vitamin E may also slow the effects of aging by protecting cells from free-radical damage.
·Promote healing of burns, eczema, and other skin problems. When applied to the skin, vitamin E-containing creams or oils are believed to promote healing, protecting cells from free-radical damage and reducing itchiness. Many people use such products to ensure optimal skin health.
Note: Vitamin E has also been found to be useful for a number of other disorders. For information on these additional ailments, see our Dosage Recommendations Chart for Vitamin E.
The current Recommended Intake (or RDA) for vitamin E is 15 mg, equal to about 23 IU daily.
A vitamin E deficiency can lead to neurological damage. This is quite rare, however, occurring primarily in people suffering from metabolic diseases that inhibit fat absorption (vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin). The RDA is easy for most people to obtain if they eat a well-balanced diet containing even a minimum amount of polyunsaturated fat.
Vitamin E appears to be safe when consumed in amounts up to 1,000 IU a day, although diarrhea and headaches have been reported in some people. Doses of over 800 IU a day of vitamin E may interfere with the body's ability to clot blood, posing a risk to people taking blood thinners (anticoagulants). In addition, high doses of vitamin E may inhibit the absorption of vitamin A.
Special tips: For most people, supplement dosages for vitamin E should be relatively low (400 IU or less), as there are apparent risks in taking very high doses. It turns out that in some situations antioxidants such as vitamin E can actually turn into potentially cancer-promoting pro-oxidants. The exact amount of vitamin E needed for disease-protecting effects remains to be determined. It most likely varies from person to person.
--Vitamin E is particularly effective when taken with vitamin C, which increases its absorption by the body.
--For topical use, commercial creams containing vitamin E are easy to find. Alternatively, you can break open a capsule or prick at softgel and gently rub the oil directly into the affected area.
--Vitamin E is available in natural and synthetic forms. The latest findings indicate natural vitamin E supplements seem to be superior to the synthetic forms. Most studies showing health benefits for vitamin E have used synthetic forms, which are cheaper and more widely available than the natural ones. (Natural forms will be designated with a "d," as in d-alpha. Synthetic forms will be designated with a "dl," as in dl-alpha.)
--Products marked as "mixed tocopherols" (alpha, beta, delta and gamma) are absorbed well and also make a good choice.
--In addition to the following vitamin E dosages for tocopherols indicated below, take 100 mg tocotrienols daily.
For general health:
Take 200-400 IU daily.
* For heart disease prevention: Take up to 800 IU daily.
* For cancer prevention: Take up to 800 IU daily.
·Try to take vitamin E at the same time each day.
·To promote absorption and lower the risk of stomach irritation, take this fat-soluble vitamin with food that contains some fat.
·Once vitamin E squelches free radicals, it becomes a weak free radical itself. For this reason, make sure to get plenty of vitamin C as well; it not only recycles vitamin E that has used up its antioxidant fuel but also restores its free-radical-fighting power.
·Tocotrienols can't perform many of the important health functions of tocopherols, so don't substitute tocotrienol supplements for your regular vitamin E capsules. The two can safely be combined, however. You can also get tocotrienols naturally by eating foods that contain it, such as cereal brans (barley, oats, rice) and palm oil.
* Vitamin E's mild blood-thinning effect could cause problems if it is routinely taken with anticoagulant (blood-thinning) drugs such as warfarin or blood-thinning dietary supplements such as ginkgo. Aspirin could also present problems in this regard. Consult your doctor before taking such a combination.
·Because of vitamin E's effect on blood clotting, don't take supplements for two days before or after any type of surgery (including dental surgery). The minimum amount of vitamin E it takes to alter blood clotting is about 30 IU a day.
·A number of chemotherapy and radiation treatments are designed to actually create free radicals for the purpose of killing cancer cells. If you are undergoing cancer treatment, don't take antioxidants such as vitamin E supplements without consulting your oncologist first. Otherwise, you may be working counter to what the cancer treatment is designed to do.
·Consult your doctor before taking vitamin E if you have high blood pressure that is poorly controlled; the increased risk for bleeding with vitamin E could possibly lead to a greater risk for the complications of high blood pressure, such as hemorrhagic stroke (bleeding in the brain).