In the 1980s, scientists began to understand the damaging effects of free radicals. Such understandings ultimately promoted the recognition of vitamin E.
In addition to its fat-soluble vitamin partners A, D, and K, vitamin E is most well known as an antioxidant. But there is so much more…
Learn everything you need to know here!
What Is Vitamin E?
Similar to other vitamins like A, vitamin E really refers to a group of eight different fat-soluble compounds known for their potent antioxidant activity.
Naturally occurring vitamin E exists in the chemical forms of alpha, beta, gamma, and delta-tocopherol. However, alpha or a-tocopherol is the only form that contributes to human needs.
When vitamin E is consumed from food, the small intestine absorbs all forms, but the liver preferentially resecretes a-tocopherol and excretes the other vitamin E forms.
Vitamin E RDA
Because of this, vitamin E daily requirements are only based on the need for alpha-tocopherol. The table below breaks down recommended intake by life stage and is measured in milligrams (mg).
Foods High In Vitamin E
In general, the highest sources of vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol form) are nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils. However, the inflammatory properties of vegetable oils outweigh the benefits of their vitamin E content.
Therefore, it is recommended to consume vitamin E from other sources. Green vegetables and fortified cereals contain decent amounts of alpha-tocopherol. Other sources include:
• Wheat germ oil
• Sunflower seeds
• Peanuts and peanut butter
Vitamin E Supplements & Toxicity Risk
Vitamin E supplementation is not usually warranted unless there is an overt deficiency. However, some people still choose to take one for its potential health benefits.
Note that while excessive vitamin E intake from food is not toxic, over-supplementation is a risk factor for toxicity symptoms. The most serious reactions linked to alpha-tocopherol toxicity are interrupted blood coagulation and hemorrhage, or in other words, strokes.
Thus, there is an established upper limit intake level for vitamin E based on the risk of hemorrhagic effects.
Of note, while it is not well understood yet, supplementation above 150 IU or about 100 mg begins to increase the risk for potential adverse reactions. Moreover, negative effects were more common in supplements that included a different form than alpha-tocopherol.
All in all, it is wise to obtain most vitamin E from whole, real foods unless there is an overt deficiency.
Vitamin E Deficiency
Thanks to the high consumption of pro-inflammatory vegetable oils, vitamin E deficiency is pretty rare in developed countries. Blatant deficiency symptoms have not been detected in otherwise healthy people who obtain very little vitamin E from their diet.
Nonetheless, premature babies are at risk for vitamin E deficiency as well as populations with compromised guts or fat malabsorption. These include those without a gallbladder or with Crohn's disease, cystic fibrosis, celiac disease, stomach cancers, and genetic abnormalities.
Overt vitamin E deficiency symptoms include:
• Peripheral neuropathy
• Trouble walking
• Impaired immune function
• Retinal degeneration
Health Benefits of Vitamin E
So what is vitamin E really good for? As mentioned, vitamin E is a potent antioxidant and this is how it exerts its health benefits.
As reviewed, antioxidants protect cells from free radical damage. These free radicals who have unshared electrons are highly energetic and rapidly react with oxygen to form reactive oxygen species (ROS), which ultimately damage cells.
For this reason and in addition to the following, vitamin E may have positive effects on skin health.
Some studies show vitamin E is potentially protective against cardiovascular disease and complications because it inhibits the oxidation of bad LDL cholesterol and helps prevent the formation of blood clots. Other studies show lower rates of heart disease in those with higher vitamin E consumption.
Interestingly, these positive results only occurred in the presence of whole food forms of vitamin E. Meaning, vitamin E supplementation is not associated with a risk reduction of heart disease and in some cases even worsened outcomes. However, this paradox is not yet well understood.
Antioxidants are a fairly established factor for reducing the risk of various cancers. Researchers hypothesize that vitamin E can block the formation of carcinogenic nitrosamines (compounds) formed in the stomach from nitrates in food.
Nonetheless, research connecting vitamin E intake and cancer risk is not completely promising. When vitamin E intake and specific cancers were studied, there was little to no reduction in cancer risk. In some cases, high vitamin E intake, especially when combined with high selenium intake, increased the risk for some cancers.
However, at least one study showed that sufficient vitamin E intake reduced the risk for prostate cancer in smokers.
Age-Related Vision Decline
A long-term trial revealed that intake of vitamin E plus vitamin C, beta-carotene, and zinc offered some protection against age-related macular degeneration but not cataracts.
However, on its own, vitamin E is not associated with this prevention. This really highlights the synergistic effects of vitamins and minerals.
Similar to the above claims, some research shows those who get sufficient intake of vitamin E have a reduced risk of developing cognitive decline. However, when specific neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and ALS were observed, vitamin E supplementation did not have any effect on the development of neuro conditions.
Based on these health claims, it is evident that vitamin E supplementation is hardly associated with any positive outcomes. Nonetheless, sufficient intake of vitamin E from whole food sources likely exerts some benefit because of its potent antioxidant power.
The Bottom Line
Vitamin E is a group of eight fat-soluble compounds, with the most potent and bioactive one being alpha-tocopherol. Functioning as an antioxidant, it plays a role in reducing coronary heart disease, reducing cancer risk, and improving eye and cognitive health.
Although the majority of the population consumes their vitamin E from refined vegetable oils, more healthful sources include nuts, seeds, leafy greens, kiwi, and mango.
Finally, because vitamin E supplementation possesses toxicity risks, it is wise to obtain it through whole food sources first, unless there are absorption concerns or blatant deficiencies.
Kubala J. The Benefits of Vitamin E. Healthline. Updated January 19. 2022. https://www.healthline.com/health/all-about-vitamin-e.
Vitamin E. NIH Office of Dietary Supplements. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Updated March 26, 2021. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminE-HealthProfessional/.
Vitamin E. The Nutrition Source. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/vitamin-e/.