Vitamin E: The Real Danger
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
“I believe that past studies, which have alleged adverse consequences from vitamin E, have misinterpreted the data,” says Maret Traber, PhD, one of the world’s leading experts on the vitamin and professor at the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University. “Taking too much vitamin E is not the real concern,” she says. “A much more important issue is that more than 90 percent of people in the U.S. have inadequate levels of vitamin E in their diet.”
Traber began studying the nutrient in the early 1980s, after seeing seemingly healthy teenagers become wheelchair-bound with neurological conditions that defied medical diagnosis. A severe vitamin E deficiency, due to a genetic defect that blocked absorption of the nutrient, turned out to be the cause. Once the deficiency was corrected, the teens miraculously regained their health.
Integrative physicians often point to two other confounding facts about negative studies: Many use synthetic rather than natural vitamin E, yet the two forms are not identical. And, most studies have focused only on the alpha-tocopherol form of the nutrient, but in nature, vitamin E comes in multiple forms.
Although there’s no doubt that the vitamin is essential, says Traber, we have yet to fully understand all its mechanisms and interplay with other nutrients. From what we do know, she suspects that apparent problems with vitamin E may stem from inadequate vitamin K. So she recommends getting the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of 22.4 IU of natural vitamin E in a multivitamin that also contains vitamin K.
How E Works
Imagine each cell in a human body being encased in a pouch, or membrane, which maintains its structure and integrity. A healthy membrane keeps invaders out but allows nutrients to enter and waste to exit.
“Every membrane in the body has to be protected, and if you don’t have enough vitamin E, your cells don’t repair properly, so they die,” says Traber, “And what is aging, but cells dying?” There are no immediate symptoms of a vitamin E deficiency, but years of a shortfall can damage nerves, set the stage for neurological diseases, increase risk for diabetic complications, and increase risk of death from heart disease.
Vitamin E supplements have traditionally contained only the alpha tocopherol form of the nutrient, which naturally exists in eight forms: alpha, beta, gamma, and delta tocopherols and tocotrienols (four forms of each). Newer supplement formulations contain combinations of these.
Recent studies have found that there is a correlation between the vitamin E family and neurological health. For example, a Finnish study of seniors, published in Experimental Gerontology, found that memory deteriorated the least among those with the highest levels of gamma-tocopherol, beta-tocotrienol, and total tocotrienols.
Another study, published in the American Heart Association journal Stroke, found that 200 mg, twice daily, of a patented formula of tocotrienols (Tocomin SupraBio) stopped growth of white matter lesions. Such lesions indicate some brain degeneration and may increase risk for stroke or other neurological conditions.
Can High Doses Be Toxic?
The government has set 1,500 IU as a safe upper limit for vitamin E, which is a fat-soluble nutrient. Excess amounts are believed to get stored in human tissues and potentially become toxic. However, one of Traber’s studies, published in the Journal of Lipid Research, disproved this widely held idea. “Unlike some other fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamins A and D, it’s not possible for toxic levels of vitamin E to accumulate in the liver or other tissues,” she says. Instead, excess amounts are excreted.
Vera Tweed has been writing about nutrition, fitness, and healthy living since 1997. She specializes in covering research and expert knowledge that empowers people to lead better lives. She is the author of numerous books, including Hormone Harmony and the User’s Guide to Carnitine and Acetyl-L-Carnitine.
How to Get Enough Vitamin E
For general health: Look for at least 22 IU of natural vitamin E in a multivitamin that also contains vitamin K.
Greater needs: People who don’t absorb nutrients well (those with celiac disease, for example), are under stress, are recovering from burns, are obese, or have diabetes or other health conditions may benefit from additional vitamin E. Integrative physicians often recommend 100-400 IU of a natural form, or a supplement with a combination of the vitamin E family of nutrients.
Caution: Vitamin E has a mild but beneficial blood-thinning effect and should be taken along with vitamin K, which regulates clotting.
Try E-rich snacks: 1 ounce of almonds or sunflower seeds delivers approximately 10 IU of vitamin E.
A.C. Grace Unique E features a proprietary blend of natural vitamin E; the company has specialized in natural vitamin E since 1962.
Carlson Tocomin SupraBio, a proprietary form of tocotrienols derived from palm oil, is bio-enhanced for superior absorption.
Nutivia Organic Red Palm Oil is rich in vitamins A and E. Use for medium-heat sauteing, on popcorn, in fish dishes, and more.