Vitamin E is an antioxidant responsible for proper functioning of the immune system and for maintaining healthy eyes and skin. It is actually a group of fat soluble compounds known as tocopherols (i.e., alpha tocopherol and gamma tocopherol). Gamma tocopherol accounts for approximately 75% of dietary vitamin E. Vitamin E rich foods include nuts, cereals, beans, eggs, cold-pressed oils, and assorted fruits and vegetables. Because vitamin E is a fat soluble vitamin, it requires the presence of fat for proper absorption. Daily dietary intake of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of vitamin E is recommended for optimum health.
Vitamin E is absorbed by the gastrointestinal system and stored in tissues and organs throughout the body. Certain health conditions may cause vitamin E depletion, including liver disease, celiac disease, and cystic fibrosis. Patients with end-stage renal disease (kidney failure) who are undergoing chronic dialysis treatment may be at risk for vitamin E deficiency. These patients frequently receive intravenous infusions of iron supplements, which can act against vitamin E.
Vitamin E deficiency can cause fatigue, concentration problems, weakened immune system, anemia, and low thyroid levels. It may also cause vision problems and irritability. Low serum (or blood) levels of vitamin E have also been linked to major depression.
Vitamin E is necessary for optimal immune system functioning, healthy eyes, and cell protection throughout the body. It has also been linked to the prevention of a number of diseases. The therapeutic benefits of vitamin E include:
- Cancer prevention and treatment. Vitamin E is a known antioxidant, and has been associated with a reduced risk of gastrointestinal, cervical, prostate, lung, and possibly breast cancer. In addition to its role as a cancer preventive, vitamin E is being studied as a cancer treatment. It has been shown to inhibit the growth of prostate tumors and to induce apoptosis (cell self-destruction) in cancer cells. Vitamin E is also being investigated as an adjunctive treatment for cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy; it is thought that high doses of dietary antioxidants may increase the efficacy of the radiation treatment while protecting healthy cells against damage.
- Immune system protection. Various studies have shown that vitamin E supplementation, particularly in elderly patients, boosts immune system function. Older patients have demonstrated improved immune response, increased resistance to infections, and higher antibody production. Vitamin E has also been used with some success to slow disease progression in HIV-positive patients.
- Eye disease prevention. Clinical studies on vitamin E have shown that supplementation significantly reduces the risk for cataracts and for macular degeneration, particularly among women.
- Memory loss prevention. Vitamin E deficiency has been linked to poor performance on memory tests in some elderly individuals.
- Alzheimer's disease (AD) treatment. In a study performed at Columbia University, researchers found that Alzheimer's patients who took daily supplements of vitamin E maintained normal functioning longer than patients who took a placebo. In 2002, a group of Dutch epidemiologists reported on a much larger populationbased study conducted in the Netherlands between 1990 and 1993, with follow-up examinations in 1994 and 1999. The study confirmed the findings of the Columbia researchers, that high dietary intake of vitamin E lowers the risk of developing AD.
- Liver disease treatment. Vitamin E may protect the liver against disease.
- Diabetes treatment. Vitamin E may help diabetic patients process insulin more effectively. It has also been found to be effective in the treatment of diabetic neuropathy, a family of nerve disorders caused by diabetes. Vitamin E appears to reduce the symptoms of diabetic neuropathy and to improve the speed of transmission of nerve impulses.
- Pain relief. Vitamin E acts as both an anti-inflammatory and analgesic (or pain reliever). Studies have indicated it may be useful for treatment of arthritis pain in some individuals.
- Parkinson's disease prevention. High doses of vitamin E intake was associated with a lowered risk of developing Parkinson's disease in one 1997 Dutch study.
- Tardive dyskinesia treatment. Individuals who take neuroleptic drugs for schizophrenia or other disorders may suffer from a side effect known as tardive dyskinesia, in which they experience involuntary muscle contractions or twitches. Vitamin E supplementation may lessen or eliminate this side effect in some individuals.
- Porphyria treatment. Vitamin E has been found to be beneficial in treating patients with porphyria, a group of disorders characterized by abnormalities in the metabolism of blood pigments, by lowering the level of excretion of these blood pigments in the urine.
Other benefits of vitamin E are less clear cut, and have been called into question with conflicting study results or because of a lack of controlled studies to support them. These include:
- Heart disease prevention. A number of epidemiological studies have indicated that vitamin E may prevent heart disease by lowering total blood cholesterol levels and preventing oxidation of LDL cholesterol. However, a large, controlled study known as the Heart Outcomes Prevention Evaluation (HOPE) published in early 2000 indicates that vitamin E does not have any preventative effects against heart disease. The study followed 9,500 individuals who were considered to be at a high risk for heart disease. Half the individuals were randomly chosen to receive vitamin E supplementation, and the other half of the study population received a placebo. After five years, there was no measurable difference in heart attacks and heart disease between the two patient populations. Still, vitamin E may still hold some hope for heart disease prevention. It is possible that a longer-term study beyond the five years of the HOPE study may demonstrate some heart protective benefits of vitamin E consumption. It is also possible that while the high-risk patient population that was used for the HOPE study did not benefit from vitamin E, an average-risk patient population might still benefit from supplementation. It is also possible that vitamin E needs the presence of another vitamin or nutrient substance to protect against heart disease. Further large, controlled, and long-term clinical studies are necessary to answer these questions.
- Skin care. Vitamin E is thought to increase an individual's tolerance to UV rays when taken as a supplement in conjunction with vitamin C. Vitamin E has also been touted as a treatment to promote faster healing of flesh wounds. While its anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties may have some benefits in reducing swelling and relieving discomfort in a wound, some dermatologists dispute the claims of faster healing, and there are no large controlled studies to support this claim.
- Hot flashes. In a small study conducted at the Mayo Clinic, researchers found that breast cancer survivors who suffered from hot flashes experienced a decrease in hot flashes after taking vitamin E supplementation.
- Muscle maintenance and repair. Recent research has demonstrated that the antioxidative properties of vitamin E may prevent damage to tissues caused by heavy endurance exercises. In addition, vitamin E supplementation given prior to surgical procedures on muscle and joint tissues has been shown to limit reperfusion injury (muscle damage that occurs when blood flow is stopped, and then started again to tissues or organs).
- Fertility. Vitamin E has been shown to improve sperm function in animal studies, and may have a similar effect in human males. Further studies are needed to establish the efficacy of vitamin E as a treatment for male infertility; as of 2002, its role in such treatment is still controversial.
The U.S. recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of the alpha-tocopherol formulation of vitamin E is as follows:
- men: 10 mg or 15 IU
- women: 8 mg or 12 IU
- pregnant women: 10 mg or 15 IU
- lactating women: 12 mg or 18 IU
In April 2000, the National Academy of Sciences recommended changing the RDA for vitamin E to 22 international units (IUs), with an upper limit (UL), or maximum daily dose, of 1500 IUs. Daily values for the vitamin as recommended by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the values listed on food and beverage labeling, remain at 30 IUs for both men and women age four and older.
Many nuts, vegetable-based oils, fruits, and vegetables contain vitamin E. Foods rich in vitamin E include wheat germ oil (26.2 mg/tbsp), wheat germ cereal (19.5 mg/cup), peanuts (6.32 mg/half cup), soybeans (3.19 mg/cup), corn oil (2.87/tbsp), avocado (2.69 mg), and olive oil (1.68 mg/tbsp.). Grapes, peaches, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, eggs, tomatoes, and blackberries are also good sources of vitamin E. Fresh, raw foods contain the highest levels of the vitamin. Both heat and light can reduce vitamin and mineral potency in fresh foods, so overcooking and improper storage should be avoided. Sliced and chopped foods have more of their surface exposed to light, therefore keeping vegetables and fruits whole may also help to maintain full vitamin potency.
For individuals considered at risk for vitamin E deficiency, or those with an inadequate dietary intake, vitamin E supplements are available in a variety of different forms, including pills, capsules, powders, and liquids for oral ingestion. For topical use, vitamin E is available in ointments, creams, lotions, and oils. Vitamin E is also available commercially as one ingredient of a multivitamin formula.
The recommended daily dosage of vitamin E varies by individual need and by the amount of polyunsaturated fats an individual consumes. The more polyunsaturated fats in the diet, the higher the recommended dose of vitamin E, because vitamin E helps to prevent the oxidizing effects of these fats. Because vitamin E is fat soluble, supplements should always be taken with food.
Supplements are also available in either natural or synthetic formulations. Natural forms are extracted from wheat germ oil and other vitamin E food sources, and synthetic forms are extracted from petroleum oils. Natural formulas can be identified by a d prefix on the name of the vitamin (i.e., d-alpha-tocopherol).
Patients with rheumatic heart disease, iron deficiency anemia, hypertension, or thyroid dysfunction should consult their healthcare provider before starting vitamin E supplementation, as vitamin E may have a negative impact on these conditions.
Vitamin E is well-tolerated, and side effects are rare. However, in some individuals who are vitamin K deficient, vitamin E may increase the risk for hemorrhage or bleeding. In some cases, side effects may be decreased or eliminated by adjusting the dosage of vitamin E and vitamin K.
Although the reasons are not yet clear, high intake of vitamin E has been associated with a statistically significant increased risk of breast cancer in men.
Vitamin E ointments, oils, or creams may trigger an allergic reaction known as contact dermatitis. Individuals who are considering using topical vitamin E preparations for the first time, or who are switching the type of vitamin E product they use, should perform a skin patch
Individuals who take anticoagulant (blood thinning) or anticonvulsant medications should consult their healthcare provider before starting vitamin E supplementation. Vitamin E can alter the efficacy of these drugs.
It is important for persons taking supplemental vitamin E to tell their surgeon if they are scheduled for an operation. Vitamin E may interact with some of the medications given prior to or during surgery; it has also been shown to increase bleeding time if the patient is taking such other herbal preparations as feverfew or gingko biloba.
Non-heme, inorganic iron supplements destroy vitamin E, so individuals taking iron supplements should space out their doses (e.g., iron in the morning and vitamin E in the evening).
Large doses of vitamin A can decrease the absorption of vitamin E, so dosage adjustments may be necessary in individuals supplementing with both vitamins.
Alcohol and mineral oil can also reduce vitamin E absorption, and these substances should be avoided if possible in vitamin E deficient individuals.
Reavley, Nocola. The New Encyclopedia of Vitamins, Minerals, Supplements, and Herbs. New York: M. Evans & Company, 1998.
Bolle, P., M. G. Evandri, and L. Saso. "The Controversial Efficacy of Vitamin E for Human Male Infertility." Contraception 65 (April 2002): 313-315.
Bonner, L. T., and E. R. Peskind. "Pharmacologic Treatments of Dementia." Medical Clinics of North America 86 (May 2002): 657-674.
Collins, S. C., and R. G. Dufresne Jr. "Dietary Supplements in the Setting of Mohs Surgery." Dermatologic Surgery 28 (June 2002): 447-452.
Engelhart, M. J., M. I. Geerlings, A. Ruitenberg, et al. "Dietary Intake of Antioxidants and Risk of Alzheimer's Disease." Journal of the American Medical Association 287 (June 26, 2002): 3261-3263.
Johnson, K. C., S. Pan, and Y. Mao. "Risk Factors for Male Breast Cancer in Canada, 1994-1998." European Journal of Cancer Prevention 11 (June 2002): 253-263.
Pinelli, A., S. Trivulzio, L. Tomasoni, et al. "High-Dose Vitamin E Lowers Urine Porphyrin Levels in Patients Affected by Porphyria Cutanea Tarda." Pharmacological Research 45 (April 2002): 355-359.
Prasad, K. N., W. C. Cole, B. Kumar, and K. Che Prasad. "Pros and Cons of Antioxidant Use During Radiation Therapy." Cancer Treatment Review 28 (April 2002): 79-91.
Sytze Van Dam, P. "Oxidative Stress and Diabetic Neuropathy: Pathophysiological Mechanisms and Treatment Perspectives." Diabetes/Metabolism Research and Reviews 18 (May-June 2002): 176-184.
"Vitamin E: E for Exaggerated?" Harvard Health Letter 25, no. 5 (March 2000):6(3p).
Yu, A., P. Somasundar, A. Balsubramaniam, et al. "Vitamin E and the Y4 Agonist BA-129 Decrease Prostate Cancer Growth and Production of Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor." Journal of Surgical Research 105 (June 1, 2002): 65-68.
American Dietetic Association. 216 West Jackson Blvd., Chicago, IL 60606. (312) 899-0040. <www.eatright.org>.
United States Department of Agriculture. Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. 1120 20th Street NW, Suite 200, North Lobby, Washington, D.C. 20036. (202) 418-2312. <www.usda.gov/cnpp>.
United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 5600 Fishers Lane, Rockville, MD 20857. (888) 463-6332. <www.fda.gov>.
Rebecca J. Frey, PhD