It would be a great pity if recent media scare stories highlighting the supposed risks of vitamin E supplementation prevented people, particularly the elderly, from ensuring that their diets include adequate supplies of this vital nutrient.
These stories all centred on a single study, which was not new research but a meta-analysis of 19 previous reports focussed on subjects already identified as suffering from chronic diseases. The applicability of its findings to the usefulness or otherwise of vitamin E in helping to prevent disease and maintain optimum health in the well population must therefore be open to serious doubt. And this one study must also be considered alongside the many which have reported the different health benefits of vitamin E since its discovery in 1922.
Numerous of these studies have demonstrated the benefits of vitamin E to cardiovascular health in terms of protecting against the onset of heart disease, in restricting the advance of the disease, and in reducing the risk of second and further heart attacks in those already affected. In common with other anti-oxidants, vitamin E also appears to protects against atherosclerosis, the hardening of the arteries which is the common precursor of serious heart problems. In fact vitamin E appears to have a general blood thinning and anti-coagulant effect similar to but much gentler and more natural than drugs such as warfarin. Vitamin E thereby helps to protect against highly dangerous clots forming in the arteries serving the brain and heart; clots which can lead to stroke still one of the main causes of premature death and disability in the western world.
But the benefits of vitamin E reach far beyond the heart and circulatory system. Being fat-soluble, vitamin E is also needed in large quantities by the brain, the trillions of cells of which are particularly rich in fat. Brain function is highly dependent on the efficient functioning of cell membranes, largely formed of fatty tissue, to allow transmission of messages between cells. Free radical damage to cell membranes, worsening rapidly with age, is therefore regarded as one of the principal causes of impaired cognitive function and may even be implicated as a contributory factor in Alzheimer’s disease. As an anti-oxidant, vitamin E is an important protector against free radical damage and it’s not surprising, therefore, that numerous studies have reported superior cognitive function and memory as consequences of vitamin E supplementation.
As cancer is well known as predominantly a disease of degeneration, it is not surprising that powerful anti-oxidants such as vitamin E should offer a degree of protection against it. And indeed, numerous studies have clearly linked enhanced levels of vitamin E in the body with a reduced incidence of common cancers, particularly that of the prostate. As a powerful anti-oxidant vitamin E may also protect against the damage to healthy cells that is an inevitable accompaniment of necessarily aggressive chemo and radio cancer therapies.
And as if all of this wasn’t enough, vitamin E has also demonstrated possible benefits in the treatment of diabetes, in combatting the pain of rheumatoid and osteoarthritis and in maintaining good vision, particularly in old age. Vitamin E is also regarded as a general immune system booster.
But for all these identified benefits, concerns persist in some quarters about the potential dangers of vitamin E, and are generally focussed on the possible toxicity of very high intakes. And it’s true that being fat-soluble, vitamin E can be stored in the body, giving rise to a potential for toxicity if ingested in excessive quantities over time. But there are good grounds for thinking that these concerns are probably misplaced.
Rich dietary sources of vitamin E are foods such as leafy green vegetables, certain types of nuts, vegetable oils and whole grains. The typical modern, highly processed, Western diet, high in fat and refined carbohydrate, and produced from intensively farmed, poor quality soils, is unlikely to provide even an adequate, let alone an excessive supply of the vitamin.
Moreover, both the Institute of Medicine and US Dietary Guidelines have identified a regular daily intake of 1,500 IU as the maximum at which no risk should arise to the health of healthy individuals. To put this in context: most commercially available supplements will provide only between 200 and 400 IU.
So with the ever increasing danger of free radical damage as the body ages, and the difficulty of obtaining adequate supplies from diet alone, it appears that any problems arising from vitamin E are far more likely to be those of deficiency rather than excess.