Nutrition Column – Vitamin E and Chronic Disease Prevention

While "E" is just one letter, it’s the most frequently used letter in the English language. If you want to communicate, you’ve got to have "E."

Likewise, vitamin E is indispensable for good health. Every cell in the body needs some, but the vitamin is especially important in protecting red blood cells, the nervous system, skeletal muscle and the retinas of your eyes from free-radical damage.

Vitamin E works with other antioxidants, such as vitamin C and selenium, to help protect the body from damage caused by free radicals. In the case of heart disease, it’s thought to reduce the risk of heart attack by helping to protect low-density-lipoprotein cholesterol from becoming oxidized. As LDL cholesterol becomes oxidized (a process similar to that by which butter becomes rancid), it’s more likely to promote the buildup of fatty plaque in coronary artery walls, leading to atherosclerosis. Vitamin E may also help protect against heart disease by reducing the blood’s ability to clot and by helping to reduce inflammatory processes.

Unfortunately, most clinical trials have not found vitamin E supplementation, even in high doses and among high-risk patients, to actually protect against coronary heart disease, or CHD. According to a recent review article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, three of four large clinical trials examining the effect of vitamin E supplementation in patients with CHD or at high risk of heart disease failed to show a benefit. Those studies that have reported a protective effect have all been observational studies, not clinical trials, and with lower-risk populations.

Vitamin E also has been studied for its role in helping prevent or reduce the effects of a wide range of other diseases, including certain cancers, arthritis, cataracts, Parkinson’s, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. So far, however, the evidence regarding the effects of vitamin E supplementation on these diseases remains inconsistent or preliminary. The best evidence to date suggests that alpha tocopherol, one form of vitamin E, may have a role in helping to reduce the risk of prostate cancer in smokers.

Because of insufficient evidence regarding its value in supplemental form, no national scientific bodies have recommended vitamin E supplements, except for certain medical conditions such as malabsorption. If you do decide to take a vitamin E supplement, be sure to let your primary care provider know because of possible interactions with drugs. Because daily doses greater than 1,000 milligrams (the upper tolerable level set by the Institute of Medicine) may cause bleeding disorders in people taking anticoagulant drugs to thin their blood, those on blood-thinning medication or who are taking high doses of pain relievers are advised to take vitamin E supplements only under their doctor’s supervision. For others, while research on the effects of taking high doses of vitamin E is intriguing, it’s still not clear if high doses are effective or safe for the general population.

The best bet is to make sure you’re getting enough vitamin E in your diet. For adults, the current recommended dietary allowance, or RDA, for vitamin E is 15 milligrams (22.5 International Units). On average, American adults consume about 8 to 12 milligrams per day of vitamin E in their diets.

Vitamin E is found in small amounts in a variety of foods. The best sources are salad oils, such as sunflower, safflower, canola, corn, soybean and olive oil, and foods containing these oils. Nuts – especially almonds, filberts, Brazil nuts, walnuts, peanuts and pistachios – sunflower seeds and wheat germ are also good sources.

Other important sources of vitamin E include whole grains, enriched or fortified cereals, fish and seafood, liver, peanut butter, eggs, legumes such as soybeans and pinto beans, tomato paste and sauce and green, leafy vegetables.