Health Benefits of Vitamin E

Supplements may prevent or treat certain age-related diseases

vitamin E supplements
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Vitamin E is essential to the normal functioning of the human body. It plays a central role in your immune system and functions as an antioxidant, neutralizing free radicals that damage cells at the genetic level.

Unlike vitamin C, vitamin E is fat-soluble, meaning that it is dissolved in fat and able to be stored in the liver and fatty tissues of the body. Vitamin E can be found in vegetable oils, eggs, meat, poultry, cereals, fruits, and vegetables.

Although you can usually get all the vitamin E you need from a balanced diet, there are situations in which a vitamin E supplement may help prevent or treat certain illnesses. Vitamin E deficiency is considered rare in the developed world, except in premature babies with low birth weight or in people with rare genetic disorders such as abetalipoproteinemia or ataxia with vitamin E deficiency.

You might also develop a deficiency if you have a malabsorption disorder such as Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis in which vitamin E is less readily absorbed in the intestines.

Because vitamin E cannot be synthesized by the body and must be obtained through food or supplements, it is one of several elements referred to as an essential nutrient.

Health Benefits

As an antioxidant, vitamin E is often touted for its ability to fight oxidative stress that damages cells over the course of years and decades. Some alternative practitioners believe that this can slow or prevent certain aging-related disorders like heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer. The same effects are believed to slow the aging process when applied to the skin in a topical ointment or cream.

Some of these health claims are better supported by research than others.

Pregnancy Complications

Vitamin E is commonly prescribed in late pregnancy to reduce the risk of preeclampsia, a potentially devastating complication caused by a sudden rise in blood pressure. However, a review published in 2015 did not find enough evidence to support this use.

Nervous System Disorders

Vitamin E aids in the transmission of electrical signals between nerve cells (neurons) of the brain and body. Because of this, vitamin E is believed by some to aid in the treatment of nervous system disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and epilepsy. The evidence supporting these claims remains mixed at best.

While some research has suggested that vitamin E can slow memory loss in people with moderately severe Alzheimer’s, there is little to no proof that it can prevent the progression of the disease or reverse its symptoms, according to a 2016 review of studies.

The one area where vitamin E supplements may be beneficial is in the treatment of ataxia, an inherited movement disorder associated with severe vitamin E deficiency. Vitamin E supplements is a standard part of treatment and have been shown to improve mobility in some.

Vitamin E may also prove useful in preventing drug-induced peripheral neuropathy. There is some evidence that vitamin E supplements can slow the destruction of the insulated coating of nerve cells, known as myelin, caused by prolonged exposure to certain drugs, including HIV antiretrovirals or chemotherapy agents like cisplatin. However, a meta-analysis published in 2016 indicated that vitamin E was not helpful for preventing peripheral neuropathy due to chemotherapy.

Eye Diseases

Vitamin E is integral to eye health, aiding in the self-repair of the retina, cornea, and uvea (the pigmented portion of the eye). By way of example, a 2015 review of studies published in Public Health Nutrition concluded that a vitamin E supplementation was associated with a reduced risk of aging-related cataracts.

Vitamin E supplements have been used to treat an eye disorder in newborns known as retinopathy of prematurity. However, a review of studies published in 2003 found giving vitamin E to newborns may help but also increased the risk of life-threatening infections.

On the flip side, excessively high doses of vitamin E may accelerate the rate of vision loss in people with retinitis pigmentosa.

Liver or Kidney Disease

Vitamin E can neither treat nor prevent liver disease but may help slow its progression.

According to a 2015 study in Hepatology, a daily 800-IU vitamin E supplement slowed the rate of fibrosis (scarring) in people with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH).

In addition, vitamin E has little to no effect on alcoholic liver disease.

Vitamin E may be helpful in the treatment in certain types of chronic hepatitis B.

Heart Disease and Cancer

The long-held belief that vitamin E can reduce the risk of heart disease or cancer remains largely unproven.

A 2005 review of studies in the Annals of Internal Medicine, which evaluated over 135,000 patient files, concluded there was no association between vitamin E supplementation and the risk of heart disease or cancer.

If anything, high doses of vitamin E (400 IUs or higher) was associated with a slightly reduced lifespan compared to a placebo. This may be due to the increased risk of hemorrhagic stroke which some scientists believe is linked to vitamin E supplementation.

Similarly, there is some evidence that high-dose vitamin E supplements can increase the risk of prostate cancer.

Skin Disorders

Vitamin E is aggressively marketed by cosmetic manufacturers as an "anti-aging" compound. Most current evidence has shown that claims like this are overkill.

Others, meanwhile, have suggested that vitamin E can aid in scar healing by hydrating the skin, inhibiting collagen production, and reducing inflammation that can lead to tissue damage.

A 1999 study published in Dermatologic Surgery has largely debunked these claims, asserting that vitamin E did nothing to reduce the appearance of scars. What's more, 33% of people who used it developed an allergic skin reaction known as contact dermatitis. 

Possible Side Effects

Vitamin E supplements rarely cause any harm if taken at the recommended daily dose. The same cannot be said if vitamin E is taken in doses greater than 300 international units (IUs) per day.

Taking 300 to 800 IUs of vitamin E on a daily basis can increase your risk of hemorrhagic stroke by as much as 22%, according to a 2010 study published in BMJ.

Even doses lower than this can trigger side effects like nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, and diarrhea.

Vitamin E can slow blood clotting and may need to be avoided in people taking blood thinners like Coumadin (warfarin) or Plavix (clopidogrel). For this same reason, you should stop taking vitamin E two weeks before surgery to prevent excessive bleeding.

Vitamin E supplements should also be avoided in people with a history of heart attacks, stroke, bleeding disorders, or head and neck cancers.

In addition to blood thinners, vitamin E supplements may interact with certain medication, including the immune suppressive drug Sandimmune (cyclosporine), certain chemotherapy drugs, statin drugs like Lipitor (atorvastatin), and tamoxifen.

Vitamin E supplements are presumed to be safe during pregnancy and breastfeeding. To avoid interactions and unforeseen side effects, always advise your doctor if you are taking a daily vitamin E supplement.

Dosage and Preparation

When used as a daily supplement, a 15-mg dose is considered safe and effective. When used to treat a diagnosed deficiency, the dose may be increased to between 60 and 75 mg per day. Anything above this threshold should be approached with caution, ideally under the supervision of a doctor and for short-term treatment only.

Vitamin E supplements are most commonly sold as soft gel caps. There are two types typically found on market shelves: D-alpha-tocopherol (the natural form) and Dl-alpha-tocopherol (the synthetic form). Both work similarly, but nearly twice as much Dl-alpha-tocopherol is needed to achieve the same blood concentration. Mixed tocopherols are also available.

The dosing of vitamin E can be confusing since products are labeled in different ways, including IUs, milligrams, recommended dietary allowance (RDA), or upper tolerable limit (UTL). In the United States, most are still labeled in IUs.

There are simple formulas you can use to ensure you remain well within the recommended daily dose of vitamin E:

  • To calculate the milligram dose of D-alpha-tocopherol, multiply the IUs by 0.67. Based on this formula, 25 IUs equal 16.75 mg.
  • To calculate the milligram dose of Dl-alpha-tocopherol, multiply the IUs by 0.43. Based on this formula, 50 IUs equal 21.5 mg.

What to Look For

Vitamin supplements in the United States are not subject to the rigorous testing and research that pharmaceutical drugs are. Because of this, the quality can vary from one brand to the next.

When shopping for vitamin E supplements, opt for brands that have been voluntarily tested by an independent certifying body like the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), ConsumerLab, or NSF International.

Vitamin E can quickly degrade if exposed to extreme heat or direct sunlight. To avoid this, store them in their original light-resistant container in a cool, dry room. Always keep an eye on the use-by date and dispose of any gel caps that have expired, are discolored, or have evidence of leakage.

Vitamin E oil, available in drugstores and health food shops, is intended for external use only.

Other Questions

Which foods are highest in vitamin E?

Generally speaking, it is always best to get your vitamins from food rather than supplements. Even if you have a diagnosed deficiency, you can benefit from increasing your dietary intake with vitamin-E-rich foods like:

  • Wheat germ oil: 21.8 mg per tablespoon (or 135% of your daily value)
  • Sunflower seeds: 7.4 mg per one-ounce serving (or 49% of your daily value)
  • Almonds: 7.4 mg per one-ounce serving (or 49% of your daily value)
  • Avocados: 4.2 mg per avocado (or 28% of your daily value)
  • Trout: 4 mg per average trout (or 26% of your daily value)
  • Spinach: 3.7 mg per one-cup serving (or 25% of your daily value)
  • Butternut squash: 2.6 mg per one-cup serving (or 18% of your daily value)
  • Kiwi fruit: 2.6 mg per one-cup serving (or 18% of your daily value)
  • Broccoli: 2.3 mg per one-cup serving (or 15% of your daily value)
  • Olive oil: 1.9 mg per tablespoon (or 13% of your daily value)
  • Shrimp: 1.9 mg per 3-ounce serving (or 13% of your daily value)
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18 Sources
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