What is Vitamin E
In 2007 a fast-food restaurant in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City became the center of unwanted media attention. In the early mornings before the restaurant opened, crowds of pedestrians and television news crews gazed through the restaurant’s windows in disgust and amazement as dozens of rats casually strolled across tables, over counters, and through the kitchen. And in 2015, a rat dragging a slice of pizza down a New York subway staircase became an internet sensation and likely the source of a few nightmares as well.
When we see how well our rodent neighbors are thriving in the Big Apple and other metropolises the world over, it might be hard to imagine that nearly a century ago some of our best and brightest scientific minds were hard at work discovering an organic compound that improved fertility in rats.
Scientists at the University of California at Berkeley named this compound tocopherol from tokos, the Greek word for childbirth and phero meaning “to bring forth.” If you are a bit rusty on your Greek, that’s okay, because we also know this compound as vitamin E.
But it isn’t only Pizza Rat and family that have benefited from vitamin E; it has proven to be an essential nutrient for humans as well, with many health benefits although, curiously, increased fertility is not one of them.
Vitamin E is anti-oxidant, meaning it inhibits the chemical reaction in molecules that produce free radicals. These are atoms or molecules that have unpaired electrons and, as a result, are highly chemically reactive with other substances, including other free radicals. As by-products of natural metabolic processes, free radicals are biologically inevitable, but they can still be harmful. High levels of free radicals can damage cells, cell membranes and even DNA. This damage to DNA has been linked cancer and other health problems.
There are four different forms of tocopherols characterized by different molecular structures. These forms are alpha-Tocopherol, beta-Tocopherol, gamma-Tocopherol and delta-Tocopherol. Vitamin E was later discovered in molecular compounds called tocotrienols which also occur in forms alpha, beta, gamma, and delta. Tocotrienols are commonly used in food additives, but of all these forms of vitamin E, alpha-Tocopherol is the one that is best absorbed and metabolized by humans. That said, beta, gamma and delta forms each have progressively greater antioxidant properties.
What are the Daily Recommended Intake Levels for Vitamin E
While ensuring adequate intake of vitamin E is important, it can also be potentially harmful in high doses, so understanding the recommend dietary intake guidelines is important. The Food and Nutrition Board of the U.S. Institute of Medicine has established Estimated Average Requirements for dietary intake of Vitamin E.
- Infants from birth to 6 months need 4 milligrams per day
- Infants between 7 and 12 months need 5 milligrams per day
- Children between 1 and 3 years of age need 6 milligrams per day
- Children between 4 and 8 years of age need 7 milligrams per day
- Children between 9 and 13 years of age need 11 milligrams per day
- Teens between 14 and 18 years of age need 15 milligrams per day
- Adults also need 15 milligrams per day
- Pregnant women do not require any additional intake beyond 15 milligrams per day
- Breastfeeding mothers, however, require 19 milligrams per day
What Are the Symptoms of a Vitamin E Deficiency?
While the U.S Department of Health and Human Services’ National Institutes of Health acknowledge that most Western diets provide less vitamin E than guidelines recommend, vitamin E deficiency is actually very rare. When it does occur it is usually linked to one of three causes: premature or dangerously low birth weight in infants, rare disorders that interrupt the metabolism of fat and fat malabsorption, generally due to the presence of another disorder.
Infants born weighing less than 3.5 pounds are at risk for nutritional deficiencies. In all cases, a doctor specializing in neonatology should be consulted.
Ataxia and Abetalipoproteinemia are two rare genetic disorders that can result in deficient levels of vitamin E due to poor fat metabolism. Also known as isolated vitamin E deficiency, ataxia is a mutation in the gene required for vitamin E protein transfer. Ataxia can cause neurological issues that require high doses of vitamin E to treat. Symptoms of abetalipoproteinemia include muscle weakness, damage to the nervous system, and retinal degeneration that can lead to blindness.
Several chronic conditions such a cystic fibrosis, the digestive disorder Crohn’s disease as well as diseases of the liver and pancreas can Impair the body’s ability to absorb fat, which is required to metabolize vitamin E. People who have had gastric bypass surgery or have had part of their stomach removed are also at risk for malabsorption of fat and vitamin E. Symptoms of malabsorption can include greasy stools, painful bloating, and diarrhea.
Other symptoms of a vitamin E deficiency include anemia, impaired immune response, acute damage to the retina, and neurological and neuromuscular impairments including poor reflexes, loss of spatial orientation and vibratory sensation as well as motor speech impairments.
Top 10 Health Benefits of Vitamin E
Elimination of Free Radicals
As we’ve discussed, free radicals are an inevitable but nonetheless undesirable by-product of normal metabolism. Besides being linked to cancer, there is a growing body of evidence that free radicals are involved in the aging process and diseases that worsen with age like diabetes and arthritis. As a powerful antioxidant, vitamin E interacts safely with free radicals and ends the chain reaction that can lead to cell damage.
One obvious symptom of the aging process is dry and wrinkled skin. The free-radical theory of aging suggests these unpaired molecules, atoms and ions destroy cells, especially skin cells and that vitamin E can protect and repair skin to slow, or potentially reverse, the outward signs of aging.
Another negative consequence of free radicals is that they can oxidize cholesterol. When cholesterol oxidizes, particularly LDL(bad) cholesterol, it increases the risk of calcification in the arteries and increases clotting of the blood. Vitamin E fights these radicals, keeping them from blocking blood circulation and damaging the heart.
By promoting circulation to the scalp and protecting against damaging environmental factors, vitamin E revitalizes hair and can make it look thicker and healthier. Vitamin E is often added to shampoos, and some health and beauty experts recommend putting a few drops of pure vitamin E oil in your hair regularly.
Research has found that vitamin E has an important role in the endocrine system, particularly in the production of hormones in the pituitary gland. By ensuring proper hormone levels, vitamin E promotes hormonal balance. Symptoms of hormonal imbalance affect women and men and can include migraines, mood swings, anxiety, weight gain and more.
Because of the hormonal balancing effects of vitamin E, it can also be helpful in relieving premenstrual symptoms such as cramping and headaches. For best results, it is suggested to take extra doses of vitamin E two or three days before and after a menstrual period. It is recommended that you check with your healthcare professional before using vitamin E in high doses for an extended time.
By reducing the level of oxidative stress muscles experience, especially following a workout or other strenuous activity, vitamin E can help strengthen muscles and relieve fatigue. It helps improve circulation which delivers more nourishment to cells throughout the body, especially in muscle tissue.
Recent studies suggest that vitamin E might slow down the effects of some forms of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. It is believed to protect memory function and prevent cognitive decline for many of the same reasons that it supports other systems. The powerful antioxidant effect protects cells from the harmful effects of free radicals.
Vitamin E has been indicated to decrease the risk of many vision-related problems. It is believed to slow the rate of macular degeneration and delay the formation of cataracts. To be effective, though, it is indicated to take vitamin E with vitamin C as well as zinc and beta carotene. Vitamin E in conjunction with vitamin A has been recommended to assist in healing and recovery from laser eye surgery such as Lasik.
Improved Immune System
Several studies have found that vitamin E’s potent antioxidant abilities can modulate immune system function. T cells play a crucial role in the body’s immune response by targeting specific antigens that enter the body. Vitamin E helps T cells target antigens effectively by differentiating mature T cells, which have a specific antigen target, and immature T cells which are not associated with a specific target.
Top 10 Sources of Vitamin E
Vitamin E is abundant in oils, seeds, nuts and many vegetables, so there are a variety of options for every dietary lifestyle to ensure you get enough every day. Some of the best options include:
Several oils provide high levels of vitamin E, but sunflower oil leads the pack with 5.8 milligrams in a tablespoon. Using raw sunflower oil in salad dressings is a great way to enjoy it. When cooking with sunflower oil, be sure to keep the heat below the smoke point which is around 440 degrees Fahrenheit. Heating oils beyond the smoke point reduces or destroys the vitamin E content and actually creates more free radicals.
A one-ounce serving of almonds contains 7.3 milligrams of vitamin E, which is 27% of the Estimated Average Requirement. A few handfuls of almonds are a quick and easy way to ensure you hit your vitamin E targets every day.
We’ll spare you the Popeye jokes, but spinach really is a great source of many vitamins and nutrients. One bunch of spinach is usually around ten ounces and contains 6.9 milligrams of vitamin E. Buy it fresh and enjoy it raw with a sunflower oil dressing.
Don’t stop with spinach, there are leafy greens from a variety of vegetables that have high levels of vitamin E. Beet, turnip and collard greens are great as are dandelion greens – which you probably have growing in your yard right now. So put down the weed-killer and pick up the salad fork!
Another great source, one ounce of hazelnuts provides 20% of your daily intake. But wait, I know what you’re thinking. Yes, chocolate hazelnut spreads have around 1.8 milligrams of vitamin E per two-tablespoon serving, but they also have about 20 milligrams of sugar, so don’t get too nutty.
Two tablespoons of peanut butter has 2.9 milligrams of vitamin E. A peanut butter sandwich or a spoonful of nut butter in a smoothie is an easy way to help meet your intake needs. Take note, the nutrient level is higher in creamy than chunky butters, though.
Whether in guacamole, sushi or just raw in a salad, one avocado provides 4 milligrams of vitamin E. With its smooth consistency and mild taste, avocado is also a great food for toddlers and children.
With 4.2 milligrams per tablespoon, sweet potatoes are another excellent source of vitamin E. A tablespoon of butter has just over a 1 milligram of vitamin E, so enjoying some on sweet potato is nothing to be ashamed of, especially if it is from grass-fed, organically raised cows.
A tablespoon of wheat germ sprinkled on your cereal will provide nearly 7 milligrams of vitamin E. A tablespoon of wheat germ oil has a staggering 50 milligrams of E, but if you heat the oil, even slightly, it all goes up in smoke. Try wheat germ oil raw in salads. The only caveat is that the oil can still contain levels of gluten, so if you are gluten-sensitive, stick with other oils.
We end where we began: with the humble sunflower that grows prodigiously all across America, Europe and Northern Asia. Two tablespoons of sunflower seeds contain 4.2 milligrams of vitamin E, and they are abundant and affordable.
Simple Tips to Increase Your Vitamin E Intake Naturally
Most of the dietary sources we’ve mentioned can help you get enough vitamin E in your diet, so the trick may be just to get enough of those vitamin E-rich foods every day. Fortunately, there are some easy and enjoyable culinary tricks you can employ. Try chopping up spinach and other leafy greens and adding them to everything from scrambled eggs to soup. Add that at the end so they don’t overcook. Greens are great in smoothies as is peanut butter. And avocados really know no bounds. They can be added on top of beans, meat or just a slice of bread and are always delicious. Make sure your food is organic, particularly anything you eat raw. Pesticides and other toxins in industrial, chemical-based agriculture are major causes of free radicals.
Side Effects or Health Risks from Excessive Vitamin E
Because vitamin E is such a powerful antioxidant it can actually lower the body’s absorption of iron. This can lead to anemia in some cases.
As a result, taking large amounts of vitamin E through supplements can have some many negative health effects. These include headaches, dizziness, stomach cramps and diarrhea. Nosebleeds, bleeding gums, and easy bruising can also occur. Hair loss and dry brittle hair have also been associated with excess levels of vitamin E.
Perhaps even more concerning, there are a number of studies that suggest an excessive intake of vitamin E can be a risk factor for certain cancers, particularly prostate cancer. Researchers at the University of Gothenburg’s Sahlgrenska Cancer Center in Sweden have recently found that excessive levels of vitamin E may exacerbate the impacts of other types of cancer as well. The research suggests that when the body receives high levels of antioxidants, existing tumor cells retain more of the antioxidants they formulate. These cells use these antioxidants to make themselves stronger, increasing the chances cancer will resist treatment or continue to grow.
And finally, there has been much discussion about the synergistic impacts of vitamin C with vitamin E, and ensuring you have both in your diet is important. But combining high levels of supplementation of both vitamins can lead to further health concerns. As with all supplements and dietary plans, you should check with your medical professional.
Some Words of Caution
This information is not intended to be a substitute for any professional medical diagnosis, treatment or advice. If you have questions about a vitamin E deficiency or supplementation it is recommended you seek a qualified medical professional in your area.