by Kristen Rezabek, MS, RD, CD; MG Class of 2013
What has happened to vitamin E? Once it had a reputation for reducing chronic disease. Doctors regularly encouraged clients to take this antioxidant to prevent heart disease, cancer, and other disorders. An estimated 13% of Americans used vitamin E for its purported health benefits. But now E’s stock as a wonder vitamin has plummeted with new research showing it has little or no effect on these disease states. And for some, the media attention focused on one report showing a slight increased risk of death in those taking a high dose vitamin E supplement, more than 400 IU (International Units) a day, scared them into tossing out their vitamin E bottles altogether.
So what is the real story behind vitamin E?
Vitamin E is not just one substance, but is found in eight different forms. Four of these are called tocopherols; of these, alpha-tocopherol is the one most commonly used by the body and found in supplements. The other four forms of E are tocotrienols. Tocopherols and tocotrienols are very similar, but they do have different functions in the body. Tocotrienols occur naturally in the outer husk of cereals known as the bran layer (for example barley, rice, and oats). Research has found that these foods can lower blood cholesterol. Tocopherols may help protect against heart disease by preventing the oxidation of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol (oxidation makes LDL more likely to build up fatty plaque on artery walls) and preventing blood clots from forming.
The History of E
Vitamin E is a fat soluble vitamin and is considered a powerful antioxidant. Antioxidants help protect the body from free radicals. Free radicals are unstable molecules that are found in the body when we use oxygen or are exposed to environmental pollutants such as tobacco smoke or radiation. These free radicals cause damage to cells in our body and can lead to diseases such as cancer and heart disease, as well as cause premature aging.
With these disease fighting functions in mind, and studies showing people with diets high in vitamin E had lower risk for cancer and heart disease, many medical professionals encouraged their clients to take a vitamin E supplement of up to 800 IU a day. Unfortunately current research using human subjects in well designed studies have not found vitamin E supplements as promising as they were once touted to be. Most studies involved heart disease and vitamin E to see if there was a decreased risk of heart attacks and death in those taking supplements. Their results found little to no benefit to taking vitamin E supplements for those at high risk for heart disease. Many institutions that once recommended taking a vitamin E supplement, such as the Harvard Medical School and the Journal of the American Medical Association, now say there is no evidence to support taking it to prevent heart disease and cancer.
There is concern that taking antioxidants in high doses from supplements may upset the balance of other antioxidants in the body. And there has been some speculation that taking a mega dose may actually cause the antioxidant to have an opposite effect, acting more like a free radical and causing damage to the body.
How much E do you need?
Current recommendations for vitamin E are 15 milligrams a day (22.5 IU). The upper safety limit for vitamin is 1,000 milligrams per day (1500 IU). Don’t exceed the upper limit as there may be increased risk for side effects, particularly if you are taking a blood thinning medication.
The best way to get your vitamin E is from the foods that you eat. Vegetable oils and products from these oils, such as margarine and salad dressings, contain vitamin E. Other food sources include green leafy vegetables, egg yolks, nuts, and seeds. Make sure to include plenty of whole grains in your diet as these are also good sources of vitamin E. If you take a vitamin E supplement make sure the dose is less than 400 IU and it comes from a natural source (with mixed tocopherols), not a synthetic form. There are chemical differences between the natural and synthetic forms of vitamin E. Natural sources of vitamin E are better absorbed by the body.
And for those who have heard vitamin E is good for the skin, don’t apply vitamin E creams or ointments. They don’t promote wound healing and may even worsen the appearance of a scar.
The bottom line is if you want to prevent heart disease or cancer, eat a healthy diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grain foods, and exercise regularly. Obtaining your nutrition from food is best. Don’t rely solely on supplements to get the nutrients you need. And if you do take supplements make sure to check with your doctor, pharmacist, or dietitian that they are safe to use and won’t interfere with other medications.
Try these delicious recipes rich in vitamin E!
Banana-Wheat Germ Muffins
Wheat germ contains 18.1 mg of vitamin E per cup.
Recipe at Epicurious.
Raspberry Cougar Gold Bars – a tasty hazelnut and raspberry treat from the WSU Cougars!
Roasted hazelnuts contain 15.3 mg of vitamin E per cup.
Hearty Stellar Sundae, with Yogurt, Fruit & Sunflower Seeds
Sunflower seeds contain 33.4 mg of vitamin E per cup.
Almond Poppy Seed Bars
Almonds contain 35.9 mg of vitamin E per cup.
Nutrition information at Eat This!