What Are the Benefits of Vitamin E?
Vitamin E is a lesser known vitamin that's fat-soluble, meaning that it is both naturally produced and stored in the body. Vitamin E is not a singular vitamin; instead it's a categorisation of smaller chemicals called tocopherols and tocotrienols, with four different versions of each classified under the umbrella of ‘vitamin E'. Vitamin E is an antioxidant, meaning that it works to help protect your body against oxidative stress caused by harmful free radical molecules. Free radicals are unstable molecules that possess an uneven pair of electrons. In order to stabilise themselves, free radicals target the electrons found within important parts of your body's cells. By stealing electrons from your cells, free radicals not only cause potential structural damage, they also turn the once stabilised molecule within your own cells into a potentially harmful and unstable free radical. This, in turn, could cause a cascading effect of electron theft that might savage your body if left to progress uninterrupted.
What Does Vitamin E Do?
Antioxidants like vitamins A, C and E, as well as selenium and beta carotene, act as free radical scavengers, possessing an extra electron that they can donate to free radical molecules to stabilise them without harming themselves or risking their own stability.
What Foods Contain Vitamin E?
- Nuts and seeds like; hazel nuts, peanuts, almonds and sunflower seeds
- Oils like; sunflower, corn, soya and wheat germ
- Sweet potato
- Butternut squash
- Oily fish like; trout, sardines, salmon and mackerel
Health Benefits of Vitamin E
Due to its antioxidant properties, vitamin E has a lot of purported uses to help protect different health areas from the threat of oxidation. These properties, by countering free radical damage, can in turn help to support the optimal functioning of organs, tissues, bodily systems and cells, which goes a long way to looking after your overall health and wellbeing. However, there are also a lot of false claims regarding vitamin E, often embellishing its health benefits without scientific support or consensus. Let's take a look at some of the more popular health benefits vitamin E may be able to provide, as well as some of the common misconceptions surrounding it.
One of vitamin E's largest claims-to-fame, despite its relative state of obscurity, is its ability to help support the health of the heart by combatting oxidised cholesterol, which is known to be able to build up in large deposits along the inside walls of your arteries.
There are two different kinds of cholesterol, HDL (good) cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol. Cholesterol is produced and stored in your liver, and your body delicately regulates the levels of both types to ensure your health remains in the best possible condition. Unfortunately, fatty, sugary foods in your diet have the potential to off-balance the ratio between good and bad cholesterol, often causing larger amounts of LDL cholesterol to be released into the blood stream.
If this is allowed to progress, deposits of cholesterol may begin to become stuck along the walls of the arteries, where, if they become large enough, may break off and enter either the heart or brain, leading to a heart attack or stroke.
Smaller molecules of LDL cholesterol have the potential to be targeted and affected by free radical molecules. It would be reasonable, with this in mind, for you to assume that the enemy of my enemy is my friend - if free radicals attack ‘bad' cholesterol, then that prevents them from attacking your cells. This however, isn't the case. When free radicals target cholesterol, the oxidative damage and stress causes the formation of oxidised LDL, which can cause inflammation within the arteries and other tissues. This may then increase the risk of atherosclerosis occurring.
Vitamin E is able to use its antioxidant properties to stabilise free radicals before they are able to create oxidised LDL cholesterol. By working in this way, it is believed that vitamin E may be able to help reduce the risk of serious heart health diseases like atherosclerosis from manifesting.
Scientific study has been conducted to verify the heart health benefits vitamin E can provide. In 1996, the Cambridge Heart Antioxidant Study (CHAOS) performed a randomised control trial that looked to analyse the effects of α –tocopherol, a type of vitamin E, against coronary heart disease. 2002 patients with atherosclerosis served as the sample and were divided into three different trial groups; one group of 546 participants was given 800iu a day of α -tocopherol, a second group of 489 participants were given 400iu of α -tocopherol, and a third group of 967 was given equal-sized placebos. The trial ultimately ran for an average of 510 days.
The results of the study found that “α-tocopherol treatment significantly reduced the risk of the primary endpoint of cardiovascular death and non-fatal MI” (myocardial infarction- damage to the heart muscles caused by a lack of blood).
Another study published in 1996 looked to examine the relationship between vitamin C and E supplement use and all-cause and coronary heart disease mortality in older aged participants. 11,178 people aged between 67 and 105 who participated in the Established Populations for Epidemiologic Studies of the Elderly from 1984 to 1993 made up the study sample, and were asked to report any use of non-prescribed drugs, including vitamin supplements. The results found that “use of vitamin E reduced the risk of all-cause mortality and risk of coronary disease mortality.”
Your skin is the largest organ of your body, and serves as the first major line of defence against potentially harmful foreign contaminants like bacteria and viruses. Unfortunately, this also puts your skin in the firing line of free radical molecules, putting them at risk of oxidative stress.
Vitamin E and its antioxidant properties are utilised by the skin to help protect your body against environmental sources of oxidative damage, including UV rays from the sun and air pollutants. “Vitamin E has been identified as the predominant antioxidant both in… human skin.”
Because of its reported use within the skin to help protect your health from free radicals, vitamin E is commonly added to pharmaceutical, topical and cosmetic skin creams. This direct application to the skin is believed to be able to help revitalise skin cells, supporting bodily defences against the continuous assault they face from oxidative stress.
To help authenticate this health benefit, a study published in 1998 in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology looked to examine the protective effects of vitamin C and vitamin E supplementation against sun burn; a common cause of oxidative stress. 10 subjects took a daily supplementation made up of 2gm of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and 1000 IU of vitamin E.
The sunburn reaction was assessed before the study began and eight days later following treatment. Once statistical analysis of the results was completed, the authors concluded that “combined vitamins C and E reduce the sunburn reaction, which might indicate a consequent reduced risk for later sequelae of UV-induced skin damage.”
Although the small sample size of the study may limit or impede its reliability as a piece of scientific literature, it is without a doubt a promising sign of the skin care health benefits of vitamin E.
Immune System Support
Aside from its antioxidant properties, vitamin E is also a powerful anti-inflammatory and is believed to be able to help support your immune system by contributing to the production of T-cells. These cells, which are a sub-type of white blood cells, are released as part of your body's immune response to combat and kill cells that have been infected by germs and foreign contaminants.
In 1997, scientists looked to analyse the effects of vitamin E supplementation on this kind of immune response in healthy elderly participants. In a randomised controlled trial, 88 individuals that were at least 65 years old were assigned different doses of vitamin E (60, 200 or 800mg/d) for a period of 235 days.
The results gathered found that “supplementation with vitamin E for 4 months improved certain clinically relevant indexes of cell-mediated immunity in healthy elderly.” The authors of the study ultimately concluded that “our results indicate that a level of vitamin E greater than currently recommended enhances certain clinically relevant in vivo indexes of T-cell-mediated function in healthy elderly persons.”
However, the level of effectiveness of vitamin E to help provide immunity-boosting benefits is often disputed amongst the scientific community, and is not consistent across different afflictions. For example, a study published in 1986 looked to examine the effect of vitamin E on the immune response to the influenza virus. 103 patients aged 24 to 104 were divided into three groups and given either 0mg, 200mg or 400mg of vitamin E per day. One month after supplementation began each participant was given an injection that contained a polyvalent influenza virus vaccine.
The results of the study found that “there was no effect of vitamin E on the serum titers or the incidence of infectious disease when the patients were considered as whole or when divided into those younger or older than 69.”
Vitamin E is frequently described as an essential vitamin which is required by your body. However, its ability to help protect the body has not been definitively settled, and a lot of the scientific studies you will likely encounter when trying to find information about vitamin E and the immune system have been centred on animal testing, making them unreliable when applied to human health. By all means ensure that you get the recommended daily intake of vitamin E every day (4mg for men, 3mg for women), but don't rely on it to work wonders and keep you healthy at all times.
Eye Health and Vision
The final area we need to mention when discussing the health benefits of vitamin E is the reportedly ability it possesses to support the overall health of your eyes by reducing the risk of age-related macular degeneration (AMD). This condition typically affects people over the age of 50 and may cause the vision in the centre of your eye to become blurred or damaged. Although AMD is not known to cause total blindness, preventing its onset is incredibly important for your quality of life. It has been claimed that vitamin E consumption may be able to help fend off the condition, though the scientific literature is often inconsistent.
For example, in 1994 a study was conducted in the United States to evaluate the relationships between the dietary intake of carotenoids and vitamins A, C and E and the risk of AMD. 356 subjects aged between 55 and 80 who were diagnosed with AMD one year prior to participation in the study were used as the sample, whereas 520 others of similar age and sex were matched to serve as the control. The relative risk of AMD was estimated using dietary indicators and was applied to each individual. Trends and correlations were then developed once all information and data from every participant was collected.
Interestingly, when discussing powerful antioxidants like vitamins C and E, the researchers found that “neither… was associated with a statistically significant reduced risk for AMD.”
However, in contrast, some of the strongest studies that support the claim that vitamin E can help provide eye health benefits are the multiple iterations of the Age-Related Eye Disease Studies (AREDS and AREDS2), which looked to evaluate the effectiveness of different vitamins, minerals and nutrients against AMD. Over 3500 participants were used as the sample for the studies, which had an average follow-up period of 5 years. The first version of the study, AREDS, was published in 2001 and found that a daily supplement formulated to contain 500mg of vitamin C, 400 IU of vitamin E, 15mg of beta-carotene, 80mg of zinc and 2mg of copper “reduced the risk of serious AMD progression by 25%.”
We've taken an in-depth look at some of the more popular health benefits of vitamin E, exploring both supporting and opposing evidence that has hopefully given you a better understanding of the vitamin in question. Its antioxidant properties are incredibly beneficial to your health, helping to look after the health of your heart and skin, as well as provide nutritional support to your immune system. Available in a variety of different foods, as well as being found in dietary supplements and pharmaceutical creams and gels, there are plenty of opportunities for you to add vitamin E to your daily routine. If however, you're ever unsure about how best to proceed, always be sure to speak to your local GP for professional medical advice that's specifically tailored towards you and your individual health needs.