The Trials and Virtues of Vitamin E
Some of your favorite snacks, including almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts and carrots, contain significant quantities of a vitamin (E) that may help prevent and treat a bevy of conditions from cataracts to low sperm production.
For years, nutritionists and health professionals have been extolling the virtues of vitamin E.
According to Phyllis A. Balch’s [easyazon_link asin=”1583334009″ locale=”US” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”realfoodsmake-20″ add_to_cart=”default” cloaking=”default” localization=”default” popups=”yes”]Prescription for Nutritional Healing[/easyazon_link], “As an antioxidant, vitamin E prevents cell damage by inhibiting the oxidation of lipids (fats) and the formation of free radicals. It protects other fat-soluble vitamins from destruction by oxygen and aids in the utilization of vitamin A.” (Balch, NY: Avery, 2000, p22).
Reader’s Digest’s [easyazon_link asin=”0762101326″ locale=”US” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”realfoodsmake-20″ add_to_cart=”default” cloaking=”default” localization=”default” popups=”yes”]The Healing Power of Vitamins, Minerals, and Herbs[/easyazon_link] says, “Vitamin E is a generic term for a group of related compounds called tocopherols, which occur in four major forms: alpha-, beta-, delta-, and gammatocopherols.”
To these, many nutritionists now also would add tocotrienols, again in all four permutations. This makes the complete vitamin E an eight-part substance. The Reader’s Digest article describes alpha-tocopherol as the most common and most potent form of the vitamin.
The Linus Pauling Institute cites studies associating vitamin E with “decreased risk of myocardial infarction (heart attack) and death from heart disease in both men and women.” There also are five observational studies associating the vitamin with protection from cataracts (as well as five which reported no association), and research that shows it reversing the effects of aging on certain aspects of the immune system.
The Pauling Institute further describes a “large placebo-controlled intervention trial” in which individuals experienced a significant decrease in the progression of Alzheimer’s disease following a daily supplementation of 2,000 ill (international units) of alpha-tocopherol.
Elderly Japanese-American men experienced a “significantly decreased risk of vascular and other types of dementia,” although not Alzheimer’s, in a case-control study involving supplemental vitamin E and C intake.
Phyllis A. Balch’s [easyazon_link asin=”1583334009″ locale=”US” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”realfoodsmake-20″ add_to_cart=”default” cloaking=”default” localization=”default” popups=”default”]Prescription for Nutritional Healing[/easyazon_link] claims that vitamin E “improves circulation, is necessary for tissue repair, and is useful in treating premenstrual syndrome and fibrocystic disease of the breast.”
To this she adds several paragraphs of additional health benefits (including a suggestion that this nutrient “can enhance sperm production in some men”).
Even Rod Stewart extols the vitamin’s energy-enhancing properties in “[easyazon_link asin=”B001KWGTK2″ locale=”US” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”realfoodsmake-20″ add_to_cart=”default” cloaking=”default” localization=”default” popups=”yes”]Hot Legs[/easyazon_link]” (“Gonna need a shot of vitamin E, by the time you’re finished with me!”)
Despite all this praise from the worlds of science and pop culture, in late 2004, vitamin E came under fire to the extent that (according to a January 2005 article in WholeFoods magazine) “a quick national poll revealed that as many as 18% of Americans are less likely to take vitamin E.”
Headlines ranged from “Large Doses of Vitamin E May Be Harmful” (The New York Times) to “High Doses of Vitamin E Found to Raise Risk of Dying” (The Washington Post).
The controversy started with a meta-analysis from John Hopkins University. According to a patient summary of an article originally published in the January 4, 2005 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine, the meta-analysis was compiled from 19 studies of 135,967 adults, many of them senior citizens, more than half of whom “had heart disease or a risk factor for heart disease, such as tobacco use and high blood pressure.”
Researchers found that, “compared with placebo or no treatment, intake of vitamin E in amounts of 400 iu or more daily for longer than one year increased the risk for death.” The Annals patient summary concluded that, “Adults should avoid taking vitamin E preparations in amounts of 400 iu or more.”
While the mainstream press latched onto the study’s more lurid assertions, many nutritional experts have been highly critical of its conclusions.
In a February 2005 article, WholeFoods cited a number of sources who pointed out the following flaws: among other problems, the population was aged, some of the studies involved drugs which might have interacted with vitamin E, and distinctions between synthetic and natural vitatnin E were ignored (including the fact that they have a “different safety profile;’ according to Timothy Johanek of J.R. Carlson Laboratories).
Dr. Thomas Lee, internist, cardiologist and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, states, “I don’t think the risk from taking vitamin E is substantial, if it exists at all.”
However, there are certain precautions that vitamin E users may wish to follow. According to Balch, those taking anticoagulants should restrict their intake to 200 iu a day. Anyone with diabetes, rheumatic heart disease or an overactive thyroid should not take more than the recommended dose (see box below); and those with high blood pressure should start off at no more than 200 iu and build slowly from there to the desired amount.
Balch, Phyllis. Prescription for Nutritional Healing. NY: Avery, p. 22
Reader’s Digest, The Healing Power of Vitamins, Minerals and Herbs, NY: Reader’s Digest, 2001 (4th ed.) p. 382.
Lee, Thomas H. “When Should You Start to Worry? A Harvard Heart Doctor Addresses Your Concerns,” from Newsweek, Oct. 3, 2005, p. 93
“Industry Responds Strongly to Negative Vitamin E Study,” from WholeFoods, Jan.2005,p.8
Richman, Alan. “E: Questions of the Heart’ from WholeFoods, Feb. 2005, p. 19
“Summaries for Patients: Vitamin E Supplements May Be Harmful” is from the full report titled “Meta-Analysis: High Dosage Vitamin E Supplementation May Increase All-Cause Mortality,” by E.R. Miller ill, R. Pastor-Barriuso, D. Dalal, RA Riemersma, LJ. Appel, and E. Guallar, which appeared in Annals of Internal Medicine, 4 January 2005, V.142,pgs. 37-46.
Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Information Center Website