Vitamin E, you can slather it on your skin or swallow it in a capsule. Praised as an antioxidant, vitamin E also helps your body in a number of other ways, such as helping your immune system and helping keep vessels healthy.
There are claims that vitamin E, as an antioxidant, fights a host of conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, age-related vision loss, wrinkles, and even certain cancers. And cosmetic shelves are loaded with goods that contain vitamin E that claim to reverse age-related skin damage. The real benefits behind vitamin E are found in the seesaw balance of free radicals and antioxidants.
Free radicals and antioxidants
Free radicals in the body are oxygen molecules that lose an electron, which makes them unstable. These unstable molecules interact with cells in the body in a way that can cause damage. As the process snowballs, cells can be damaged and you are made vulnerable to disease.
Free radicals can be created by our bodies as we age, or by everyday factors like digestion or exercise. They’re also caused by exposure to external things like:
- tobacco smoke
- environmental pollutants
Antioxidants neutralize free radicals by donating the missing electrons that destabilize them. Antioxidants are found in many foods and are also made in our bodies using the vitamins and minerals found in foods.
How much vitamin E do you need?
Unless your diet is very low in fat, it’s likely that you’re getting enough vitamin E. But smoking, air pollution, and even exposure to harmful ultraviolet rays from the sun can deplete your body’s stores of the vitamin.
According to the National Institutes of Health, teenagers and adults should get about 15 mg of vitamin E a day. Pregnant women should get the same, and breastfeeding women should up that to 19 mg.
For children, they recommend 4-5 mg for infants, 6 mg for children between 1-3 years old, 7 mg for those between ages 4-8, and 11 mg from ages 9-13 years.
You don’t need capsules and oil to get vitamin E. Many processed foods, especially cereals and juices, are fortified with vitamin E. It’s also found naturally in many foods, including:
- vegetable oils, especially wheat germ, sunflower, and safflower oils
- nuts and seeds
- avocados and other fats
Exposing the myths
Since their identification, free radicals, vitamin E, and other antioxidants have been subject to research for their ability to prevent a number of diseases.
Macular degeneration is the primary cause of blindness in people age 55 and older. A study conducted by the National Eye Institute found that taking high levels of antioxidants and zinc can decrease your risk of getting advanced macular degeneration by as much as 25 percent.
1. Heart Protection
It’s believed that people with higher levels of vitamin E are at reduced risk of heart disease. But one study that followed over 14,000 U.S. males for eight years found no cardiovascular benefit from taking vitamin E supplements. In fact, the study determined that vitamin E was associated with a higher risk of stroke.
Another study that followed 35,000 men for five years found that taking vitamin E supplements had no effect when it came to lowering any type of cancer risk. A 2011 follow-up found that study participants who had taken vitamin E actually had a 17 percent higher risk of developing prostate cancer.
3. Skin Healing
Vitamin E is widely touted as a salve that helps speed healing and reduce scarring. While there have been a few studies that support this, the greatest body of research indicates that vitamin E does not help skin wounds heal faster.
One study found that slathering vitamin E oil can actually worsen the appearance of scars, or simply have no effect at all. About a third of participants developed contact dermatitis, which is a type of skin rash.
The vitamin E paradox
The rush to supplement our diets with antioxidants, including vitamin E, may not be the best course of action. Some experts argue that taking large doses of any antioxidant has no real preventative or therapeutic value unless deficiency is your problem.
In March 2005, researchers from Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions published an article in the Annals of Internal Medicine, which claimed high doses of vitamin E may significantly increase mortality by all causes. Their findings, based on a review of 19 clinical trials, unleashed a firestorm of rebuttals, but little in the way of scientific proof.
So, should you use vitamin E oil? It’s not likely it will have positive effects on your skin, and carries a high risk of skin rash. As for taking vitamin E internally, if you take the recommended dose, it’s considered relatively safe. Excessively high doses of vitamin E are not recommended.