Vitamin E: Types, Benefits, And Frequently Asked Questions

Vitamin E is essential to our body, but there is more to it than just its antioxidant benefits. Find out how this vitamin works in the body and how it is beneficial to your overall health.

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In this article:

  1. What Is Vitamin E?
  2. The Eight Forms of Vitamin E
  3. Alpha Tocopherol as the Most Powerful Antioxidant
  4. Man-Made Vitamin E Versus Natural Vitamin E
  5. What Is Vitamin E Deficiency?
  6. Vitamin E Goes Beyond Being an Antioxidant
  7. The Good Sources of Vitamin E
  8. What Is the Recommended Vitamin E Dosage?
  9. Are There Any Side Effects in Taking or Consuming Vitamin E?
  10. Does Vitamin E Provide Benefits to Your Hair?
  11. What Does Vitamin E Do to Your Skin?
  12. Vitamin E and the Mitochondria

Everything You Need to Know About Vitamin E

What Is Vitamin E?

Without vitamin E, we essentially turn rancid. Vitamin E is fat-soluble that is able to penetrate the fatty areas of our tissues.

As it does so, it neutralizes toxic oxidants and protects oxidant-sensitive membranes. Thus, vitamin E is justifiably known as an antioxidant and for helping to prevent age-associated increases in oxidative damage or insults to our bodies.

The Eight Forms of Vitamin E

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In reality, vitamin E comes in eight different forms, all of which are derived from plants. The eight E’s are divided into two classes:

  • The tocopherols consist of four types of vitamin E, alpha, beta, gamma, and delta. The features distinguishing each are slight chemical differences (location and number of methyl groups) in its core structure.
  • The tocotrienols are virtually identical to the tocopherols in structure, except for the presence of three unsaturated bonds (hence, trienol). Alpha, beta, gamma, and delta tocotrienols are more permeable to cell membranes because of their unsaturated bonds. This chemical difference imparts certain advantages over the less permeable tocopherols.

Alpha Tocopherol as the Most Powerful Antioxidant

The most potent antioxidant of the group is alpha tocopherol. For reasons still unknown, this form of E represents the bulk of vitamin E levels present in our serum.

This is puzzling since the plants we normally consume contain much more gamma tocopherol. Scientists originally speculated that our bodies require high serum levels of alpha tocopherol and have developed mechanisms to retain it.

Thus, multi-vitamins almost always contain alpha tocopherol.

It is becoming more evident, however, that all forms of E are important and that they serve very different functions. Laboratory experiments have indicated that gamma and alpha tocopherols may complement one another with respect to antioxidant protection.

Alpha tocopherol is most effective at neutralizing oxygen-based free radicals, whereas gamma tocopherol does best with nitrogen-based free radicals. Both types of radicals are destructive to our bodies.

Man-Made Vitamin E Versus Natural Vitamin E

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The vitamin E offered on the market is either man-made or isolated from plants. Man-made (or synthetic) vitamin E is designated on the bottle’s label as DL alpha tocopherol.

The D and L are isomers or mirror images of each other. Only the D form is representative of the natural vitamin E alpha tocopherol.

There is considerable controversy as to whether the L form interferes with the natural D form in the body. Some researchers believe it may be toxic.

Natural vitamin E is usually labeled D alpha tocopherol but almost always contains all four tocopherols. Typically, the bottle’s label mentions only D alpha tocopherol because of the expense the manufacturer would incur to assay for the presence and quantity of the other three.

The four tocopherols are derived from soybean oil or, less commonly, wheat germ. The four tocotrienols are usually prepared from extracts of palm oil or rice bran.

What Is Vitamin E Deficiency?

Vitamin E deficiency is not common, but it can occur with poor nutrition and/or a problem with the absorption of fats. The RDA for vitamin E is 30 International Units (IU) per day for DL and 22 IU/day for D alpha tocopherol.

A diet totally devoid of fats can result in a deficiency of E, since some fat is required for absorption from the intestines.

Fragile red blood cells are a common characteristic of E deficiency. Blood cell membranes, normally protected by E, tend to oxidize and rupture easily.

Recent studies indicate that vitamin E may help in slowing cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s patients, and it may even lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Significant evidence also supports the antioxidant vitamin as important for protecting tissues from the destructive action of oxidants and consequent disease, including heart disease, cataracts, cancer, neurological disorders, and disorders of the muscular system.

The incidence of these diseases increases with age. Thus, it is important to obtain enough E to attenuate the age-associated destructive process.

Vitamin E Goes Beyond Being an Antioxidant

Vitamin E is more than an antioxidant. Growing evidence supports specific roles for the different forms of vitamin E.

For example, recent research and studies demonstrate gamma tocopherol to be capable of blocking the activity of an enzyme involved in producing cellular mediators of inflammation (prostaglandins), which can lead to disease. Other tocopherols, including the more popular alpha, are largely ineffective in this context.

Alpha tocotrienol has now been shown in cell culture experiments to protect cells of the nervous system from the degenerative action created by the overproduction of the neurotransmitter, glutamate. This chemical, better known as monosodium glutamate, is used as a food enhancer and is infamous for its reputation as the agent responsible for the Chinese restaurant syndrome (bad headaches, etc.) in those who consume too much of it.

Normally, an excess of this neurotransmitter activates a neurotoxic enzyme (12-LOX). Tocotrienol, in very small amounts, stops this toxic enzyme in its tracks, thus potentially protecting the nervous tissue.

RELATED: Are You Deficient In This Hardworking Vitamin?

The Good Sources of Vitamin E

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The unique behavior of the different forms of vitamin E helps explain the advice of nutritionists to consume a variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains. All are good sources of the various forms of vitamin E.

Grains should preferably be non-refined. The tocotrienols, as well as other micronutrients, are present in the rice bran, which is lost in processing.

People on low-fat diets, such as vegans, are often deficient in vitamin E and should consider taking vitamin E supplements.

What Is the Recommended Vitamin E Dosage?

How much E should one take, if any? The upper safe limit for D alpha tocopherol is 1,500 IU/day, according to The Institute of Medicine.

The major danger in taking high levels of E is its capacity to inhibit the adherence of platelets to the walls of blood vessels. This is positive for cardiovascular health in those with overactive blood clotting, but too much E can cause bleeding, especially for people taking other anticoagulants, such as aspirin or coumadin.

If you are inclined to take vitamin E, 400 IU/day of natural vitamin E is a reasonable target. But, it is advisable to consult with your physician before taking this vitamin E supplement.

Finally, the different forms of vitamin E function as antioxidants only in their reduced, non-oxidized state. In a subsequent newsletter, we will describe how the cells of the body maintain these antioxidants in their reduced or active state. We will also describe how the versatile antioxidant, alpha lipoic acid, functions to recycle these and other antioxidants to maintain cellular health as we age.

Are There Any Side Effects in Taking or Consuming Vitamin E?

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Vitamin E intake, in general, is safe for most healthy individuals when applied on the skin or taken orally. In most cases, people may not experience the side effects of vitamin E if taken with the recommended daily dose (15 mg).

If you have diabetes or heart disease, it might be best to not take it in 400 IU a day or more. Consult your doctor first if that is the case.

There can only be possible side effects if you take the vitamin in high doses. Taking high amounts of E can lead to the following conditions:

  • Bleeding
  • Bruising
  • Rash
  • Blurred vision
  • Headache
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Stomach cramps
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea

Does Vitamin E Provide Benefits to Your Hair?

The benefits of vitamin E for hair typically relate to its antioxidant abilities. It primarily improves hair growth and reduces cell damage.

The vitamin can aid in maintaining good hair growth as it supports a healthy scalp and hair. The antioxidant properties lower oxidative stress levels and free radicals which can cause damage to the hair follicle cells.

The vitamin can also help restore your hair’s shine when damaged by hair products, heat, and chemicals. Natural hair oils with vitamin E are great for the hair to replenish its health, making it look lustrous.

What Does Vitamin E Do to Your Skin?

Although the vitamin is famous for its skin benefits, it’s still worth to discuss what it can do to help improve your skin health. Vitamin E can aid in keeping your skin calm and hydrated.

The vitamin shields the cell membranes, which serve as the barrier surrounding the cells for hydration, and this indirectly aids the skin to keep it supple and moisturized. It also provides a protective effect when paired with vitamin C as it takes longer for the skin to get burned under the heat of the sun.

Because the vitamin is an antioxidant, it fights skin damage caused by free radicals by neutralizing them. But, it’s important to note that upon the process of protecting the skin, the vitamin levels decrease, and this is why it’s essential to replace them.

Vitamin E and the Mitochondria

Substantial progress has been made in understanding the bio- chemistry of the mitochondria – the organelles that power our cells. Similarly, mitochondrial decay is broadly recognized as playing a central role in the aging process.

But, much less is known about the effective nutritional approaches to maintain and promote mitochondrial health.

A recent literature review in Canada has evaluated the effects of a wide variety of substances that are reported to produce positive effects on the mitochondria. These include coenzyme Q10; other antioxidants, such as ascorbic acid, vitamin E, and lipoic acid; niacin; creatine; and carnitine.

Vitamin E is more than just an antioxidant because it has various forms that provide different functions in the body. To get the health benefits of the vitamin, make sure to eat foods rich in E and take supplementation, with your doctor’s prescription.

Which health benefits did you experience in taking or consuming vitamin E? Share them in the comments section below!

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Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on September 3, 2003, and has been updated for quality and relevancy.