Your complete vitamin E guide
You are probably aware of some of the benefits of vitamin E or at least know it’s an important nutrient. But what you may not realise is that vitamin E is, in fact, a group of nutrients, not just one.
The term vitamin E covers about eight different structures that include four substances known as tocopherols and four known as tocotrienols. Each is named alpha, beta, gamma or delta. The structure of each is clearly linked to its functions in the body. The most notable of these actions is probably the ability to donate hydrogen atoms and so reduce free radicals. Free radicals are produced by your body through normal day-to-day functions but can be increased by higher levels of stress, pollution and alcohol and a poor diet. These free radicals are basically responsible for ageing your body via oxidation. So substances that reduce their levels are known as antioxidants and will slow the external and internal effects of ageing.
Another function of these tocopherols that relates to their structure is their water-phobic and fat-soluble nature. All types of vitamin E fall into the fat-soluble nutrient group, which means not only are they stored better by the body than non-fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamin C, but also they have the ability to permeate the membranes of the body. Vitamin E is largely stored within those membranes and its affinity with this area results in its positive effects on immune function as well as cell structure and strength. So what does all this mean for you and your health?
From fertility to heart disease
Vitamin E was first discovered in the 1920s when scientists noticed animals became infertile when this substance was absent from their diets, thus the origins of its name. So, obviously, this nutrient plays a role in fertility. This is true for both mother and father with low sperm count being linked to low levels of circulating vitamin E and the synthesis of sex hormones being directly attributed to it. This is largely thought to be due to vitamin E’s antioxidant properties. In fact, many of its health benefits are due to this function.
A healthy immune system is one such benefit. This is not only on a general level to protect against sniffles and sneezes but also on a more serious level as a cancer-protective agent. Studies have shown this protective effect for colon, prostate, breast and lung cancer, so ensuring you get sufficient levels of vitamin E through your diet is well worth it.
The reduction in Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease rates through sufficient intake of vitamin E is also thought to be related to its antioxidant effects as well as its affinity with the nervous system and brain. Lowered heart disease rates are also linked to this versatile nutrient. This cardiac effect is due to vitamin E’s positive effect on blood flow through its reduction of blood viscosity. It improves heart health by reducing the oxidation of fats, thus leading to healthier cholesterol levels and so clearer arteries.
Skin health is another area in which vitamin E excels. Not only can it help with wound healing through its effect on the immune system but its affinity with cell membranes leads to stronger and suppler skin. In fact, vitamin E is commonly used topically to reduce scars as well as to improve the overall texture and elasticity of skin.
- Is necessary for the manufacture of sex hormones
- Supports fertility
- Is essential for immune function
- Reduces risk for heart disease
- Reduces risk for Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease
- Assists wound healing
- Improves skin elasticity
Not all vitamin E was created equal
It’s interesting to note that, despite many studies showing all the benefits mentioned, there is some debate over its efficacy in all these areas. This is largely because different studies have used differing types of vitamin E.
In most studies, tocopherols are used rather than tocotrienols and the vast majority employ alpha tocopherol rather than beta, delta or gamma or a combination, as occurs in natural food sources. In fact, it’s thought that higher levels of alpha tocopherol alone reduce your levels of delta and gamma. This means if you are taking vitamin E in a supplement form it is crucial to take a combination of all tocopherols or you may create negative health outcomes!
This can be trickier than it sounds with most supplements on the shelves being straight alpha tocopherol. The best advice is to ask your naturopath or nutritionist and read your labels well. About 500iu a day of a mixed tocopherol form is a good level for most people.
Vitamin E can only be found in plants or in animals that eat sufficient levels of the following plant sources. The best food choices to maximise your intake are wheatgerm oil, sunflower seeds, almonds and egg yolk.