Where it comes from: Vitamin E is the collective name for fat-soluble compounds with antioxidant activities. It's found naturally in some foods, added to others and is also made as a supplement. Vitamin E comes in eight chemical forms (technically called isomers); Alpha-tocopherol is the most active form in humans, and most likely, the one you're familiar with.
What it'll do for you: "For years, vitamin E has been surrounded by pseudoscientific myths and misguidedly acclaimed as a cure for almost all that ails you: from curing infertility and preventing aging to curing heart disease and cancer and improving athletic performance," begins Sari Greaves, RD and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "The benefits of vitamin E don't quite extend to these super-power extremes, but the vitamin does appear to play a broad role in promoting your health."
Aside from the treatment of vitamin E deficiency (which is rare), no studies have proven a solid medicinal use of vitamin E supplementation beyond the recommended daily allowance. The main role of vitamin E is as an antioxidant. It may help prevent the oxidation of LDL (bad cholesterol), which contributes to plaque buildup in the arteries. "Although vitamin E is not a magic bullet to prevent or cure heart disease, stroke and cancer, it may help protect cells from damage that can lead to these chronic diseases," says Greaves. Experts are doing more research to see if vitamin E can play a bigger role in preventing numerous diseases, particularly cancer and heart disease. Here, a closer look:
- Preventing heart disease
A Finnish study followed a group of 5,133 men and women for about 14 years and found those with higher vitamin E intakes from food had a decreased mortality rate from coronary heart disease. However other clinical trials have not found the same results and cast doubt on the efficacy of vitamin E supplements to do the same. Two Heart Outcomes Prevention Evaluation studies followed patients with high heart attack or stroke risks for extended periods of time. The results? Participants taking natural vitamin E supplements experienced no fewer cardiovascular events or hospitalizations for heart failure or chest pain than participants taking a placebo. In the second study, 13 percent were more likely to experience, and 21% more likely to be hospitalized for, heart failure. Critics of these studies point out the participants are mostly middle-aged or elderly individuals with preexisting risk factors. More research is certainly needed.
- Protecting against cancer
Antioxidants like vitamin E protect cells from the damaging effects of free radicals that could contribute to cancer development. Vitamin E might also block the formation of carcinogenic nitrosamines formed in the stomach from nitrites in foods and protect against cancer by enhancing the body's immune function. As you'd guess, more research is still needed.
- Preventing cataracts
Several studies have found a possible inverse relationship between vitamin E supplements and the risk of cataract formation. One study found that lens clarity—which is used to diagnose cataracts—was superior in participants who took vitamin E supplements and those with higher blood levels of the vitamin. Another study of middle-aged male smokers, however, did not show any bonus of vitamin E supplements, perhaps because the effects of smoking override any potential benefit from vitamin E.
Suggested intake: "Vitamin E works best as part of a team with other antioxidants such as vitamin C and selenium so choosing to 'cherry-pick' a single vitamin supplement may not confer the same health benefits as consuming a well-balanced diet that delivers the entire package of nutrients and antioxidants," says Greaves who always suggests foods over supplements. To increase your antioxidant intake, reach for foods such as beans (of the red, kidney and pinto variety), berries and other fruits, soy, nuts, tomatoes, carrots soy and whole grains. Greaves says the best sources are vegetable oils—such as soybean, corn, cottonseed and safflower oils. "To meet their daily vitamin E quota, I advise my clients to spread whole grain bread with vegetable oil-based margarine or use vegetable oils as a base for salad dressing and marinades."
The daily recommended amount of vitamin E is 15-20 mg (or 22-30 IU). How much vitamin E comes in those suggested foods? Here's a handy guide:
- sunflower seeds (1oz) 11mg
- almonds (24) 7mg
- wheat germ (1/4 cup) 5mg
- hazelnuts (1oz) 4mg
- soy milk (1 cup) 3mg
- peanut butter (2 tbsp) 3 mg
- corn oil (1 tbsp) 3mg
- cooked spinach (1/2cup) 2mg
- turnip greens (1/2 cup) 1mg
Note: heating vegetable oils to high temperatures (as in frying them) destroys vitamin E.
Most healthy men do obtain sufficient vitamin E from dietary sources. Men who eat very low-fat diets may not get enough and should increase their intake of nuts, fruits and vegetables. "If you reach for the supplement bottle, the natural form of vitamin E is more commonly used than the synthetic form," explains Greaves. The synthetic form will be listed as dl-alpha-tocopherol while the natural form is listed as d-alpha-tocopherol. The synthetic form contains less altpha-tocopherol and so a bigger dose is recommended (33 IU of dl-alpha-tocopherol compared to 22 IU of d-alpha-tocopherol).
Associated risks/scrutiny: "More is not better when it comes to supplementation, especially with regard to fat-soluble vitamins," Greaves emphasizes. Taking large doses of vitamin E hasn't been shown conclusively to have benefits. On the contrary, too much may impair vitamin K action, increase risk of bleeding and increase the effect of anticoagulant medication.
Recent concerns have been raised about the safety of vitamin E supplementation, particularly in high doses. New evidence suggests that regular use of high-dose vitamin E supplements may increase the risk of death (from "all causes") by a small amount. As always, consult your doctor before beginning a new supplement routine.