What Is It?
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. What this means is that you’ll have to get far more than the government-established RDA for this vitamin to benefit from its ability to stave off disease and enhance overall health. Unfortunately, most foods containing vitamin E–nuts, vegetable oils and margarine, for example–are high in fat. So to get the protective punch of vitamin E without adding fats to your diet, you need to seriously consider taking supplements.
When summoned from the fatty tissue where it’s stored, this antioxidant springs 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 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 is changing as researchers also idenfity 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 powerful antioxidant, vitamin E plays a vital 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) may 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.
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 promise for preventing and treating such disorders as congestive heart failure, alcoholism, cancer, HIV infection, lupus, multiple sclerosis and nail problems. Recent findings suggest that a high-dose antioxidant cocktail of vitamins E and C may even block some of the damaging effects of a fatty meal.
Specifically, vitamin E may help to:
Prevent heart disease and related complications. Vitamin E’s ability to protect against cardiovascular disease, including stroke and heart attack, has been intensively studied. 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. And several clinical trials have shown that the supplement can inhibit the progression of atherosclerosis in individuals already suffering from heart disease.
In the Cambridge Heart Antioxidant Study, published in the British medical journal Lancet in 1996, people with existing heart disease (coronary atherosclerosis) who took vitamin E had a 77% lower risk of subsequent (nonfatal) heart attack than those who took a placebo. A separate study investigating the cholesterol-lowering effects of tocotrienols specifically–they appear to inhibit the liver’s synthesis of cholesterol–found that large doses could lower LDL cholesterol by 10%.
Whether vitamin E supplements can reduce the risk of heart disease in people who are healthy is still being explored. 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.
Vitamin E’s heart-healthy actions also extend to its ability to prevent blood clots–tocotrienols do this too–and minimize the inflammatory process involved in heart disease development. Still a matter of debate, however, is whether an antioxidant such as vitamin E (both in the form of tocopherols and tocotrienols) can prevent strokes, which aren’t directly related to atherosclerosis.
Protect against prostate and other cancers. As an antioxidant, vitamin E safeguards cell membranes and may play an important role in preventing certain cancers. One recent Finnish study reported a reduced incidence of prostate cancer (and death from the disease) in male smokers who took this antioxidant (50 IU daily) for five to eight years.
Prevent or delay cataracts and macular degeneration. Animal studies indicate that vitamin E protects against cataracts, a leading cause of blindness in older people. So far most studies have shown a minor protective effect, although one study of 764 people reported that taking vitamin E supplements cut the incidence of cataracts in half. One recent study in humans found that the risk of late-stage macular degeneration, a potentially blinding eye disorder, was significantly lower in older adults who had high levels of vitamin E in their bloodstream.
Slow Alzheimer’s disease. No one knows exactly what causes this progressive loss of memory and nerve function, but one theory is that over time, free radicals gradually damage nerve fibers. Columbia University researchers reported that very high doses of vitamin E (2,000 IU a day) slowed the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. In fact it proved as effective at this as selegiline, a prescription drug commonly used to treat Alzheimer’s.
No research has shown that vitamin E can actually prevent Alzheimer’s disease from developing in the first place, however. An intriguing recent study linked low levels of vitamin E in the bloodstream with memory problems in the elderly.
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 RDA for vitamin E is 8 mg for women and 10 mg for men, equal to 12 to 15 IU daily.
If You Get Too Little
Vitamin E deficiency can lead to neurological damage. This is quite rare, however, occuring 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 are on a well-balanced diet containing even a minimum amount of polyunsaturated fat.
If You Get Too Much
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.
General Dosage Information
Special tips: 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 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 400 to 800 IU daily.
For heart disease prevention: Take up to 1,200 IU daily.
For cancer prevention: Take up to 1,200 IU daily.
Be sure to check out our Dosage Recommendations Chart for Vitamin E, which lists therapeutic dosages for specific ailments at a glance.
Guidelines for Use
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. Aspirin could also present problems in this regard. Consult your doctor before taking such a combination.
Note:For information on interactions with specific generic drugs, see our WholeHealth Chicago Drug/Nutrient Interactions Chart.
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).
Acne 400 IU a day; this may be partially covered by your daily multivitamin/antioxidant
Angina 400 IU twice a day; may be partially covered by basic multivitamin and antioxidant.
Burns 400 IU a day until healed; may be partially covered by daily multivitamin/antioxidant complex
Cancer 400 IU twice a day; may be partially covered by daily multivitamin or antioxidant complex
Cancer Prevention 400 IU a day; may be covered by daily multivitamin and antioxidant complex
Cataracts 400 IU once a day; all or part may be covered by your multivitamin/antioxidant
Crohn’s Disease 400 IU twice a day; should be partially covered by your daily multivitamin and antioxidant.
Eczema 400 IU a day; may be partially or completely covered by your daily multivitamin and antioxidant complex.
Endometriosis 400 IU twice a day
Fibrocystic Breast Changes 400 IU twice a day in addition to the amount in your daily multivitamin and antioxidant
Gum Disease Break open a capsule and rub liquid contents into inflamed gum once every other day, alternating with vitamin C (above).
Heart Disease Prevention 400-800 IU a day; may be partially covered by your daily multivitamin
Hepatitis 400 IU a day in addition to a daily multivitamin and antioxidant complex
High Cholesterol 400 IU twice a day; may be partially covered by your daily multivitamin and antioxidant complex.
Infertility, Female 200 IU each morning. This may already be covered in your daily multivitamin.
Infertility, Male 400 IU a day in addition to the amount in your daily vitamin program
Lupus 800-1200 IU a day for discoid lupus (may be covered in part by your daily multivitamin and antioxidant complex)
Macular Degeneration 400 IU a day in addition to that found in your daily multivitamin and antioxidant
Menopause 400 IU twice a day. This may be covered by your daily multivitamin/antioxidant.
Multiple Sclerosis 400 IU once a day in addition to that found in your daily multivitamin and antioxidant
Perimenopause 400 IU twice a day. This may be covered by your daily multivitamin/antioxidant.
Raynaud’s disease 400 IU a day, in addition to that found in your daily multivitamin and antioxidant
Shingles Apply topical oil to skin for acute attacks. For post-shingles pain, take 400 IU orally twice a day; should be partially covered by your daily multivitamin and antioxidant.
Sunburn 400 IU twice a day until your sunburn heals; should be partially covered by daily multivitamin and antioxidant. Vitamin E cream can be applied as needed.
For hyper: 400 IU a day; may be partially covered by a daily multivitamin and/or antioxidant complex
Varicose Veins 400 IU a day; may be partially covered by daily multivitamin and antioxidant complex
Doctor Recommendations David Edelberg, M.D.
Vitamin E is a superstar nutrient with a slew of health benefits. It’s a powerful antioxidant. It has the ability to protect against important diseases such as heart disease and cancer. At the basic cell level, it may also be a potent anti-aging agent.
HOW IT HELPS HIGH CHOLESTEROL
Although vitamin E doesn’t actually lower cholesterol, it has an effect that’s possibly of equal importance. Before LDL (“bad”) cholesterol can collect inside your arteries (and subsequently block them), the LDL molecule must be oxidized by a trouble-making oxygen molecule called a free radical. As an antioxidant, vitamin E literally mops up free radicals in your body, helping to prevent the accumulation of the cholesterol along your blood vessels.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
The big question most people ask me about vitamin E is: What should I take? Anyone who’s visited the aisles of any large drugstore lately knows how easy it is to be overwhelmed by the number of varieties now available.
Vitamin E is actually an umbrella term for a number of compounds. Tocopherols are the best known compounds; they come in four forms–alpha, beta, delta, and gamma. Typically, vitamin E capsules usually feature either: Alpha tocopherols, the most potent form, subdivide into natural forms of the vitamin, usually labeled “d-alpha,” and synthetic forms, labeled “dl-alpha.” Mixed tocopherols is a combination of all four forms. Tocotrienols are a more recently identified series of compounds that comprise another basic component of vitamin E. They also come in four forms–alpha, beta, delta, and gamma. Tocotrienols are useful for lowering cholesterol and seem especially effective for heart disease prevention. The bottom line: When you go to buy vitamin E, you’ll need to look for the following: Both components: Tocopherols and tocotrienols both should be present to realize the full health benefit of vitamin E. Natural forms: Studies show that the natural forms are better absorbed by the body than synthetic ones.Two supplements. Although a single formulation with both tocopherols and tocotrienols is sure to be along soon, right now you’ll probably need to buy separate supplements.
For maximum benefit, your daily vitamin E dosage should provide 400 IU mixed tocopherols and 100 mg tocotrienols.
David Edelberg, MD