Vitamins are organic compounds your body uses to promote growth, metabolism, and nerve function in your body. Organic compounds are considered a vitamin when scientists can document scarcity triggers signs of deficiency. There are 13 vitamins scientists have broken down into two groups – fat-soluble and water-soluble vitamins. Fat-soluble vitamins can be stored in the fat cells of your body and are more readily absorbed when you eat a meal rich in healthy fats.
Getting too many fat-soluble vitamins can be harmful since they are stored, which can lead to an overdose. Your body cannot store water-soluble vitamins but excretes any excess in your urine. B-complex vitamins and vitamin C are water-soluble. Vitamin A, E, K, and D are examples of fat-soluble vitamins. Each of these vitamins plays a unique but vital role in your health.
Some vitamins have several chemical forms, each of which functions slightly differently in your body. Vitamin E is one of those vitamins.
The Different Forms of Vitamin E
Vitamin E is a term that was given to a group of fat-soluble organic compounds that were first discovered by Evans and Bishop in 1922. Because vitamin E compounds are found in fatty foods and stored in the fatty tissue, you don’t have to eat foods with vitamin E every day to maintain adequate levels. Naturally occurring vitamin E can be found in eight chemical forms with different levels of biological activity. However, it is the alpha-tocopherol form that is most studied and recognized.
Your levels of alpha-tocopherol will depend on your liver. Your small intestines absorb several forms of vitamin E from your food, which pass into your bloodstream where they are taken up by your liver. The liver then metabolizes and preferentially excretes alpha-tocopherol. As a result, measurements of your blood and cell concentrations reveal higher levels of alpha-tocopherol.
It’s a Strong Antioxidant
As your body converts food into energy during metabolism, it naturally forms reactive oxygen species (ROS). These are types of free radicals known to damage cells and are implicated in the development of several diseases, including heart disease and cancer. Free radicals are highly charged molecules with an unpaired electron that cause damage as they steal an electron from another molecule.
By stealing electrons from any nearby substance, it drastically changes the structure and function of the substance that lost the electron. The damaged molecule then becomes a free radical, seeking another electron and the cycle continues, damaging cells in the process. Your body naturally creates free radicals during metabolism and is exposed to free radicals in the environment, such as toxins, air pollution, and cigarette smoke.
Antioxidants easily give up an electron to free radicals, which does not alter their structure and function. Although there are probably thousands of different substances, the most familiar antioxidants are vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, and the minerals selenium and manganese. When fat undergoes oxidation, it produces ROS, which vitamin E helps stop. Currently, researchers are evaluating whether the action of limiting free radical production may help prevent or delay the development of chronic diseases associated with free radicals.
Although alpha-tocopherols are the most studied, there are other forms of vitamin E known to be potent antioxidants. Two that are thought to play a role are y-tocopherol and tocotrienols. In one lab study, researchers showed y-tocopherol could protect cells from free radical damage. In two randomized placebo-controlled studies, researchers supplemented y-tocopherol in smokers, which improved the short-term benefits of quitting on vascular endothelial (lining of the arteries) function.
Deficiency or Insufficiency?
It is rare to see severe vitamin E deficiency, but it has been found in people who have significant malnutrition. Individuals who have problems with fat malabsorption will have difficulty absorbing dietary fats and fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin E. Severe deficiency can result in neurological symptoms, including a lack of coordination, damage to the peripheral sensory nerves, and muscle weakness.
Vitamin E is also important to eye health, so severe deficiency may damage the retina. People who develop peripheral neuropathy, retinitis pigmentosa, and ataxia of unknown origin may have vitamin E deficiency. Although a severe deficiency is rare, it is more common to find people who have insufficient amounts of vitamin E. In one study of 16,295 adults, the researchers found about 33% had insufficient blood concentrations of alpha-tocopherol at values associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.
A second study looked at the average dietary intake from food and estimated more than 93% of U.S. adults do not meet the requirement for vitamin E. One risk factor for vitamin E insufficiency is cigarette smoking. A 19-year follow-up study found men who smoked but had the highest quintile of serum alpha-tocopherol, had the lowest risk of total and cause specific mortality.
Your Skin and Wound Healing
Nutrition plays a vital role in the health of your skin whether you are seeking anti-aging properties or have difficulty healing a wound. Vitamins and nutritionally essential minerals work together with protein and healthy fats to create a barrier that protects the skin in the face of everyday challenges.
Vitamin E is an essential antioxidant to maintain healthy skin and heal open wounds. In addition to acting as an antioxidant against ROS, it also absorbs ultraviolet light and plays a crucial role in protecting your skin from free radical damage, which means it has an anti-inflammatory effect on your skin. Historically, vitamin E has been used topically in natural remedies and is added to modern cosmetic formulations.
When used topically, there is evidence it is destroyed after exposure to UV light, which suggests it is not stable when used independently. Researchers have found topical applications with a combination of vitamins E and C are more effective in protecting your skin from the ultraviolet rays of the sun and have greater stability than when either vitamin is used alone. When taken orally, a combination of vitamins C and E help people who smoke to recycle alpha-tocopherol and reduce the loss of vitamin E commonly found in people who smoke.
What Are Some Other Effects on Your Health?
Since your body can store vitamin E, you can get too much. Before talking about what those side effects might be, let’s look at the areas where vitamin E is used in the body. As discussed above, vitamin E is necessary to maintain your nerve and eye health. There is also evidence that vitamin E may prevent or delay the development of coronary heart disease by slowing the development of atherosclerosis. Vitamin E has demonstrated the ability to reduce the formation of clots, which are implicated in heart attacks and blood clots in the veins called venous thromboembolism. These are most often found in the lower legs.
Several observational studies have been done with vitamin E. However, while the results are interesting, these types of studies find associations but cannot declare a causal link. In one study of nearly 90,000 nurses, the data demonstrated a reduction in heart disease by up to 40% in those who had the highest levels of vitamin E. In another study, researchers followed 5,133 men and women from Finland for an average of 14 years and found those who had the highest intake of vitamin E from their food had the lowest percent of mortality from coronary heart disease.
By reducing oxidative damage, vitamin E also improves your immune response. This helps your body fight off bacterial and viral infections. It is natural to experience a decline in your immune system with age, which vitamin E helps to offset. Specifically, alpha-tocopherol helps a T cell-mediated immune response. In one small study with older adults, supplementation improved the function of natural killer cells and other aspects of the immune system.
When free radicals are left unchecked, they may contribute to the development of cancer. Antioxidants like vitamin E help protect your cells from the damaging effects of free radicals and may block the formation of carcinogenic nitrosamine that are formed from nitrites found in food. Interventional studies that may show a causal link between vitamin E and cancer have not been successful for the most part. For example, one prospective study of more than 29,000 men found no association between vitamin E and prostate cancer risk. Yet, in the same group, the data showed men who had smoked or had quit and taken vitamin E had a 71% reduction in the risk of advanced prostate cancer.
There is scientific evidence that people who have high dietary intakes of vitamin E also have a 20% lower risk of developing age-related macular degeneration. This is one of the more common causes of vision loss. Observational studies have also found a potential association with the risk of cataracts, another source of vision loss in older adults.
Finally, a high amount of vitamin E from foods has also been found to lower cognitive decline in individuals from age 65 to 102. Further trials with vitamin E supplementation did not support an association with cognitive benefits, causing the National Institutes of Health to call for more research in this area.
There are some health risks linked with an excessive intake of vitamin E. There is no data to show you can get too much vitamin E from your food, but high doses of supplementation can cause an interruption in blood clotting and increase the risk of hemorrhage, including a brain hemorrhage known as a hemorrhagic stroke. Vitamin E also interferes with some medications, like blood thinners and some anti-cancer treatments.
Get Your Vitamin E From Food
The amount of vitamin E you need will depend on your age. Children need approximately 6 mg a day, while adults require 15 mg per day. Although you can purchase supplements, it’s safest and easiest to get your vitamin E from food. Vitamin E is added to some fortified foods and found naturally in many others. Although it is found in vegetable oils, these are not the best way since they have pro-inflammatory effects on your body. Food companies add vitamin E to some breakfast cereals and fruit juices. When you’re making your choices, read the labels to see which ones might have been fortified.
Some sources of vitamin E include nuts, seed, and green leafy vegetables, but you can also find the vitamin in other foods, such as:
- Coconut oil
- Sunflower seeds
- Swiss Chard
- Tomato sauce
Vitamin E is a necessary part of your skin’s defense against UV radiation and free radicals. You can reap the anti-inflammatory effects and other health benefits by including foods rich in vitamin E in your daily diet. These are whole foods that are also rich in other vitamins and minerals to support your overall health and make you stronger!