This article is the fourth of an ongoing series on fat-soluble vitamins, covering those that are integral to health and healing from chronic illness but often lacking in the modern diet. Check out Mickey’s previous articles on the importance of vitamin K and vitamin D, and my article on vitamin A.
Vitamin E is a well-known antioxidant. But what does that mean? Antioxidants are substances that protect against the damage of oxidation in our cells. To really simplify, that means that certain substances, especially vitamin E, keep us from “rusting.” Although vitamin E isn’t quite as “glitzy” as the other fat-solubles, there’s lots to learn about it.
What is vitamin E?
Vitamin E is a group of fat-soluble nutrients, four of which are classified as tocopherols and four others classified as tocotrienols. The most well-understood is the antioxidant powerhouse alpha-tocopherol, but all of the vitamin E types have antioxidant effects. It was discovered in 1922 during a fertility experiment involving rats (although there’s no clear research on whether it is important to human fertility). Vitamin E is absorbed in our intestines and then carried to the liver where it is either used or stored. It can also be partially absorbed by our skin, which is why we see so many topical vitamin E oils. Like other fat-soluble vitamins, digestive system dysfunction that impairs fat absorption (like some autoimmune diseases), eating a low-fat diet, or certain medications can cause issues with absorbing enough vitamin E.
What does vitamin E do in the body?
Vitamin E has a wide range of roles in the body, many of which aren’t yet well studied or understood. We’ll focus on three big areas: antioxidant effect, immune function contribution, and cardiovascular support.
Vitamin E is especially important in protecting the lipid membranes of our cells (the fat covering around them) and in preserving fats before they enter our bodies. Vitamin E stabilizes cell membranes and prevents them from being damaged by free radicals (unstable molecules). The most sensitive tissues in our bodies to oxidation (that “rusting”) are the tissues of the skin, eyes, liver, breasts, and testes, so vitamin E is particularly important to their health and function.
Vitamin E also has immune health functions. It can boost the immune response when treating viral infections, for instance reducing the pain of shingles on the nerves and skin. It can also be used in treating lupus-related rashes (when combined with vitamin A). It’s most hopeful positive effect on immune health, is the prevention it may provide against cancer, again through its powerful antioxidant effect.
The other main area where vitamin E plays an important, well-understood role in our bodies is in cardiovascular health. Basically, vitamin E can help prevent components of blood from sticking to the surfaces of vessels which can contribute to atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is when our arteries become too narrow and put as at risk of having heart attacks or strokes.
Like all the other vitamins and minerals, vitamin E works best in the body when other nutrients are also at play. The other fat-solubles contribute to the balance, as does vitamin C, which helps recycle vitamin E allowing it fight free radicals repeatedly.
What does deficiency look like?
Vitamin E deficiency can be a little hard to pin down. First, it is rare. Those most at-risk are premature babies and those with digestive system diseases that impair absorption (as mentioned above), like Crohn’s. There is also an extremely rare genetic disorder that can interfere with vitamin E sufficiency. Second, due to the wide variety of roles vitamin E plays and that other nutrients might cover it up, deficiency is hard to diagnose. Deficiency symptoms can include peripheral neuropathy, impaired immune response, greasy stools, or chronic diarrhea.
How do you get vitamin E?
As usual, getting vitamin E from our diets is not a problem for those on the Autoimmune Protocol. Although wheat germ oil is often thought to be the best source of vitamin E, it is actually available at excellent or very good levels in many leafy greens. There’s those greens again! It can be found in spinach, swiss chard, turnip greens, beet greens, mustard greens, asparagus, and broccoli. There are also good levels in avocados, olives, and collard greens. Vitamin E is especially potent in these foods when they are consumed fresh and uncooked. And again, fat-soluble vitamins are best absorbed in a meal that includes fat.
If I need to take a vitamin E supplement, which kind should I choose?
Although rare to have a true deficiency, there might be times that you’d like to use a vitamin E supplement. For instance, it can be of huge benefit used topically in healing various wounds or surgical scars (having recently had surgery, I’ll be using it myself!). Some people may also want to take it internally for other reasons. If that is the case, what should you consider in choosing a supplement?
- It is always wise to be cautious, but the concerns over toxicity that accompany the other fat-solubles are not quite so serious with vitamin E. This is because vitamin E isn’t as easily stored long-term in the body. Excess amounts are flushed in urine or feces. If toxicity developed, it might be signaled with diarrhea or nausea.
- While lower doses can actually be positive for the prevention of blood clots before or following surgery, very high doses can interfere with normal blood clotting. It is best to consult with your doctors if you are considering vitamin E prior to or following surgery. It can also be important for those with vitamin K deficiencies or those taking blood thinners, chemotherapy drugs, or mineral oils to talk to their doctors before supplementing with vitamin E.
- It is best to find a natural form of vitamin E. A non-synthetic will be labeled with “d-alpha-tocopherol.”
- Avoiding a soy-based vitamin E is also smart.
- Look for a formula including all eight of the tocopherol and tocotrienol nutrients.
- Finally, balance is key. If you take high doses of vitamin E, you will require more vitamin K.
To reiterate: It is best to supplement based on proper testing and follow-up with your doctor.
Staying Healthy with Nutrition by Elson M. Haas, M.D.https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminE-HealthProfessional/#h5 http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/ART02813/facts-about-vitamin-e http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=nutrient&dbid=111 http://products.mercola.com/vitamine/