Vitamin E Tocopherol; • What’s important about vitamin E? • Can it prevent heart disease? • How much should I be getting? • How can I tell if I have a vitamin E deficiency? • Can I get enough vitamin E from eating grains and vegetables? • Should I take a supplement?
While most of us rarely see the sweet potato except around Thanksgiving, experts say we may want to pull the under-appreciated root out of the ground more often. Not only is it the vegetable with the highest concentration of vitamin A (for strong eyes and immune system), it’s also one of the best sources of the lesser-known but just as vital vitamin E.
Vitamin E helps protect your body from the damage that can cause heart disease and cancer as cells decay. It works together with other antioxidants, such as vitamin C and selenium, to help prevent chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease.
Vitamin E captured the attention of cardiologists in 1993, when a Harvard University study showed that men who took vitamin E had a 35 percent lower risk of heart disease than those who didn’t take the supplement. These results bolstered the theory that vitamin E helps keep heart problems at bay by preventing so-called bad cholesterol (LDL) from mucking up your arteries.
These findings may be one reason that 37 million people in the United States take vitamin E supplements every day. But despite a parade of other studies supporting the role that E plays in preventing heart disease, more recent findings are mixed. In 2000, Canadian researchers released the results of a study involving 1,400 people, half of whom took 400 IU of Vitamin E and half who took fake pills, or placebos. The study, known as the Heart Outcomes Prevention Evaluation (HOPE), found little difference between the two groups in the incidence of heart problems or death from heart disease.
But in the same year two smaller studies supported the claim that vitamin E prevents heart disease and hypertension. Because researchers can’t reach a consensus, scientists and the American Heart Association are reluctant to endorse vitamin E supplements, except for use by people who can’t absorb the vitamin from their diet.
The government recommends between 22 and 33 international units (IUs) a day, depending on whether you take vitamin E in its natural or synthetic form. Some studies have found the antioxidant has protective effects on the arteries of people taking 100 IU a day, but other researchers say the real benefits come from taking 200 to 400 IU daily.
Don’t take more than 400 IU without consulting your doctor, however. High daily doses can cause bleeding among people who are taking anti-clotting drugs. You should also consult your doctor before taking an E supplement if you’re on blood-thinning medications, take aspirin or ginkgo regularly, or plan to undergo surgery soon.
The symptoms can vary from person to person. Many people lose sensation, are unable to feel pain, or experience muscle weakness when they don’t get enough vitamin E. People with severe deficiency or young people born with an inability to absorb the vitamin may also suffer from blindness and anemia.
You can get the recommended daily allowance of vitamin E by eating a healthy combination of different foods. Vitamin E is most commonly found in small amounts in vegetable oils, nuts, fatty fish such as tuna and salmon, whole grans, and dark, leafy vegetables. To get your RDA, you could snack on three tablespoons of sunflower seeds or an ounce of almonds. If you prefer to mix up your foods in a healthful meal, you could eat a small spinach salad topped with two tablespoons of sunflower seeds, a bowl of tomato soup made with milk, and a peanut butter sandwich.
To get the benefits of taking a supplement of, say, 400 IU, you’d have to eat much, much more — either one pound of sunflower seeds or about eight pounds of spinach or pinto beans. Obviously, that’s too much to work into your diet each day.
Vitamin E often doesn’t survive long periods of storage, so don’t count on getting much from that jar of wheat germ that’s been sitting in the back of your fridge for a year. Since it’s a fat soluble vitamin, substantial losses wouldn’t occur if you’re cooking in water. However, frying or cooking with a lot of oil could cause a loss of vitamin E.
If you tend to skimp on vegetables, nuts, and whole grains, you may benefit from taking a supplement. Be aware, however, that many studies have found that the form of vitamin E found in supplements does not deliver the same benefits as pure form of the vitamin found in the foods eat.
If you do opt for supplements, look for one with the prefix “d-” (rather than “dl-“) on the label. This indicates vitamin E from natural sources, which is more potent and easier for your body to use than the synthetic version. Taking the supplement with food will also help you absorb the E.
— Psyche Pascual is the articles editor at Consumer Health Interactive.
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Reviewed by Lisa Tartamella, M.S., R.D., an ambulatory nutrition specialist at the Yale-New Haven hospital in Connecticut and a contributor author to The Yale Guide to Children’s Nutrition.