THE BASICS: Vitamin E, an essential nutrient, is the body's principal fat-soluble antioxidant. That means it fights dangerous free radicals in the fatty membranes of cells, as well as in cholesterol. Although the use of vitamin E has become controversial over the past several years, the research justifying supplements remains strong.
ALIAS: Vitamin E generally refers to the alpha-tocopherol form; however, it actually consists of eight related molecules: four tocopherols and four tocotrienols. Although alpha-tocopherol is the most biologically active form of vitamin E, the other forms also have antioxidant benefits. In addition, the natural d-alpha-tocopherol form is absorbed and utilized twice as well as the synthetic dl-alpha-tocopherol form. The L-form is not utilized by the body.
HOW VITAMIN E WORKS: Vitamin E benefits health through several mechanisms. First, it is an antioxidant. Second, it has anti-inflammatory properties-important because coronary heart disease is now considered an inflammatory disease of the arteries. Third, it has mild anticoagulant (blood-thinning) properties, so it can reduce the risk of blood clots.
HEALTH BENEFITS: Vitamin E supplements are helpful in the following diseases.
Cardiovascular disease. Vitamin E has gone in and out of favor as a way of preventing cardiovascular diseases. In a 10-year study, researchers reported in the journal Circulation that vitamin E supplements reduced the overall risk of life-threatening blood clots by one-fifth. In women with a history of blood clots, supplements reduced the risk of new clots by almost half. Perhaps the most significant study found that vitamin E lowered the overall risk of fatal and nonfatal heart attacks by about half.
Vitamin E Protects Jane from Blood-Clotting Disease
Jane had twice developed serious blood clots in her
legs, causing pain and swelling. Doctors had diagnosed her with thrombophilia, a genetic tendency for developing leg blood clots. The diagnosis was serious because a clot in her liver, lungs, or brain could be life threatening. She was eventually diagnosed with factor V Leiden, a specific type of inherited clotting disorder.
Based on the findings of a Harvard Medical School study, Jane began taking 600 IU of natural-source vitamin E every other day. Since she started taking the vitamin E, she has not suffered another blood clot in her legs and her clotting
rate has remained normal.
Alzheimer's disease. Several studies have found that vitamin E can reduce the risk of age-related dementia and slow the progression of Alzheimer's disease. A study at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago, found that people consuming the most vitamin E, from either foods or supplements, were 36 percent more likely to maintain normal cognitive function. The researchers reported that people getting a lot of vitamin E maintained the mental function of someone eight to nine years younger.
Cancer. Although the research has produced conflicting findings, several studies have shown that supplemental vitamin E can significantly lower the risk of prostate cancer. In women undergoing chemotherapy, vitamin E can protect against nerve damage, according to a study in Neurology. Meanwhile, in cell and rodent studies, the natural water-soluble form of vitamin E (d-alpha-tocopheryl succinate) can inhibit the growth of different types of cancer cells, including those of the breast, prostate, colon, and skin. In other words, findings are promising but not yet definitive.
BACKGROUND CHECK: Canadian physician Evan Shute, MD, was the first to use vitamin E to treat cardiovascular diseases back in the 1940s. Time magazine reported the news by writing, "Out of Canada last week came news of a startling discovery: a treatment for heart disease (the nation's No. 1 killer), which so far has succeeded against all common forms of the ailment ... Large concentrated doses of vitamin E ... benefited four types of heart ailment (95% of the total): arteriosclerotic, hypertensive, rheumatic, old, and new coronary heart disease. The vitamin helps a failing heart. It eliminates anginal pain."
GLEANINGS: Two studies raised questions about the benefits of vitamin E, but these studies were peculiar, to say the least. In one, vitamin E slightly reduced the risk of stroke, but the researchers concluded that the vitamin had no benefits. In the other study, researchers concluded that vitamin E increased the risk of heart failure, but the difference between the supplement and placebo groups was small, and the study was not controlled for other variables.
HEADS UP: Vitamin E and at least some heart drugs interact in negative ways. Cholesterol-lowering statin drugs reduce blood levels of vitamin E by one-fifth, and the vitamin may interfere with the statins. It may be worthwhile taking one or the other, but not both. Being overweight and eating a lot of trans fats (found in fast foods and many processed foods) may reduce the effectiveness of vitamin E.
WHAT YOU SHOULD TAKE: As a general rule, the amount of vitamin E needed increases with a person's cholesterol level-so having high cholesterol means more vitamin E is needed. The vitamin does not lower cholesterol but prevents the free-radical oxidation of cholesterol, which is considered an early step in the development of heart disease. On average, supplement dosages range from 400 IU to 800 IU daily of the mixed tocopherol form.
Product Examples (from left to right)
The A.C. Grace Company sells only natural vitamin E-based products. Try their flagship product, Unique E Mixed Tocopherols softgels.
Get the entire vitamin E family in one product with Carlson Labs E-Gems Elite. This innovative blend features eight natural forms of
tocopherols and tocotrienol.
Jarrow Formulas Toco-Sorb boasts a patented system (called SupraBio) designed to enhance absorption of the vitamin E family.