Vitamin E is a group of compounds found in a wide variety of foods that is essential for good health. It helps to strengthen the immune system and also plays a vital role in maintaining healthy skin and eyes.
Dr Roger Henderson looks at vitamin E food sources, health benefits, deficiency symptoms and the facts about vitamin E supplements:
What is Vitamin E?
Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin (also known as alpha-tocopherol) found in many foods and which acts to help protect the body cells from damage by acting as an antioxidant. This means Vitamin E helps to protect the body from potentially damaging ‘free radicals’ that weaken and destroy normal healthy body cells, so shortening their natural cell life. These free radicals are formed as a natural consequence of our body functions and have been implicated in conditions such as heart disease and cancer.
Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant which can help protect cells from free radical damage and may even help to slow or prevent their production in some cases. Because it is a fat-soluble vitamin this means that the body can store it and use it when necessary.
Vitamin E food sources
You should be able to get all the vitamin E you need from your diet, so provided you eat a varied and balanced diet you won’t not need to worry about your vitamin E levels. Foods that are a good source of vitamin E include:
- Nuts such as almonds
- Sunflower seeds
- Wheat germ oil
- Vegetables such as asparagus, peppers, spinach, broccoli and pumpkins
- Avocado and mango
- Peanuts and peanut butter
How much vitamin E do you need?
It is difficult to consume too much vitamin E from food. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for males and females aged 14 years and older and pregnant women is 15mg (or 22 international units, IU) daily. Women who are breastfeeding may need slightly more at 19mg (28IU) daily.
Most people who have high levels of vitamin E are taking multivitamins or vitamin E supplements and these vary in strength from 400 to 1000 IU daily. Although these are safe, if an excessive dose is taken there can be a risk of bleeding – especially if a blood-thinning drug is also being taken – and so an upper limit has been advised for adults of 1000mg (1465IU) daily. Two types are available – a natural form, known as d-alpha-tocopherol and a synthetic form called dl-alpha-tocopherol with the natural form being slightly more biologically active.
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Vitamin E deficiency
Are there any signs or symptoms of vitamin E deficiency? For most people, even if they are slightly deficient in vitamin E, it is unlikely that they will experience any symptoms.
However, people who have significant problems with their digestion or who do not absorb fat correctly (such as with pancreas problems and cystic fibrosis) may experience the following side effects:
- Damage to the nerves in the hands or feet, known as peripheral neuropathy. This typically causes tingling, weakness or pain.
- Problems with controlling body movement (ataxia)
- Damage to the back of the eye (retinopathy) which causes problems with vision
- Problems with an impaired immune system.
Vitamin E health benefits
What are the health benefits of taking vitamin E as a supplement? Although large observational studies have suggested there are proven benefits from taking vitamin E, it is now much less clear as to whether this is indeed the case, and more recent controlled clinical trials have shown mixed results. For each particular health area purported to potentially benefit from vitamin E the current findings are the following:
• Heart health and vitamin E
The American Heart Association has looked at the available studies and concluded that the current scientific data does not justify the use of antioxidant vitamin supplements such as vitamin E for reducing cardiovascular risk.
• Eye problems and Vitamin E
When taken by itself, there appears to be very little evidence that vitamin E offers any significant protection against eye diseases such as cataracts or age-related macular degeneration (AMD). One study found that if taken in combination with vitamin C, zinc and beta carotene, vitamin E might offer some protection against AMD in some people.
• Cancer and Vitamin E
There appears to be little evidence that vitamin E protects against cancer in general. Some studies however have suggested that taking a supplement regularly may slightly reduce the risk of advanced prostate cancers in men who smoke.
A large trial of 18,000 men known as the SELECT trial that aimed to give a definitive answer as to whether the vitamin could reduce the risk of prostate cancer developing was halted half way through when investigators concluded that vitamin E offered no cancer or prostate cancer prevention benefit. However, because prostate cancer usually develops very gradually over many years it is impossible to say whether some men in the trial would have been protected if they had continued taking vitamin E for longer.
• Cognitive function and Vitamin E
In recent years there has been a lot of interest in whether taking vitamin E regularly may help protect the brain against neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. However, at present there is very little clear evidence that vitamin E can either prevent or give benefit to people with these conditions.
In summary, although vitamin E is vital for good health, there is a lack of any clear proven evidence for its medical use. You should be able to get the right amount of vitamin E by eating a varied and balanced diet.
Last updated: 24-03-2021