Taking a vitamin E supplement has never been simple. There are eight types of vitamin E, and they all possess slightly different molecular structures that make significant differences in how the body responds to them. What’s more, not all experts agree on which forms you should take and when you should take them.
So, how should you proceed to maximize your health benefits from supplemental vitamin E? Here’s the story…
Vitamin E is an antioxidant, which means that it protects cells in the body from the damaging effects of unstable molecules called free radicals.
The generally accepted varieties of vitamin E are divided into two classifications – tocopherols and tocotrienols. It’s not necessary to understand the molecular differences among them to grasp their benefits. But a basic knowledge of how they differ can help you figure out how they might better boost your health individually and together.
Now, when the term “vitamin E” appears in published studies, most of these reports are about alpha-tocopherol. But when medical folks generally offer information about “vitamin E” they usually have been referring to all eight of these generally accepted forms of the nutrient. These include alpha-, beta-, gamma- and delta-tocopherols along with alpha-, beta-, gamma- and delta-tocotrienols.
But the fact that alpha-tocopherol has been used in so many studies is one of the factors that leads the medical experts at the Linus Pauling Institute in Oregon to note that “alpha-tocopherol appears to be the form of vitamin E with the greatest nutritional significance.”1
In addition to that, Angelo Azzi, MD, PhD, at Tufts University, in summing up his understanding of vitamin E, adds that only alpha-tocopherol should really be considered vitamin E. His reasoning for this is that the definition of a vitamin traditionally has only included substances that prevent a specific deficiency disease.
For instance, you must consume a certain amount of vitamin C to keep from getting the deficiency disease scurvy. And if you get little to no vitamin D, you can end up with the deficiency bone disease called rickets. While these are dramatic examples of severe nutrient deficiencies rarely found today in modern, first-world countries, smaller deficiencies can and do exist. These deficiencies can dampen your immune system, your bone strength, your cognitive function, your energy level, and endurance—and the list could go on.
As for vitamin E, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), deficiency can cause nerve and muscle damage that results in loss of feeling in the arms and legs, loss of body movement control, muscle weakness, and vision problems. Another common sign of vitamin E deficiency is a weakened immune system.
What’s more, consuming alpha-tocopherol alone prevents what’s called ataxia with vitamin E deficiency, or AVE. This is a disorder that impairs the body’s ability to use vitamin E obtained from the diet, while none of the other tocopherols or tocotrienols prevent this deficiency disease.2 However, as Dr. Azzi points out, the other tocopherols and tocotrienols do have benefits. But those benefits still don’t permit them to technically be classified as vitamins.
So, what does this mean to you?
Supplementing with Vitamin E
According to Barrie Tan, PhD, who has performed extensive research on these nutrients, the delta and gamma tocotrienols are the ones in this nutrient group that are most beneficial for our health. What’s more, he says that the research shows how alpha-tocopherol can inhibit or even completely eliminate the benefits you get from these tocotrienols.
In his view, if you consume a generally healthy diet that contains sources of alpha-tocopherol like nuts, seeds, vegetable oils, green leafy vegetables, and fortified cereal, you should be consuming enough alpha-tocopherol to stay healthy without interfering with the benefits you can get from a tocotrienol supplement.
He also notes that – “Studies have shown over the years that supplementing with alpha-tocopherol may increase the risk of cancer and heart disease and cause other problems.”3
Now, before we throw up our hands in desperation, understand that not all vitamin E experts agree. But there are, in fact, studies that generally back him up in his advocacy for supplementing with vitamin E tocotrienols over tocopherols. For example, tocotrienols are shown to:
- Provide anti-inflammatory benefits: Other research at Purdue concludes that tocotrienols possess anti-inflammatory effects that could possibly help fend off heart disease, protect the brain from Alzheimer’s disease, help fight cancer and, when applied topically, help wounds to heal.4
- Possess far superior cancer preventive properties: A study at Purdue concludes that “accumulating mechanistic and pre-clinical animal studies show that other forms of vitamin E, such as gamma-tocopherol, delta-tocopherol, gamma-tocotrienol, and delta-tocotrienol, have far superior cancer-preventive activities than does alpha-tocopherol.”5
- Have healing benefits tocopherols don’t: Scientists at Rutgers, in reviewing the research on tocopherols and tocotrienols, have also made similar observations, noting that: “Several large intervention studies with alpha-tocopherol conducted in North America have not demonstrated a cancer prevention effect.”6 The Rutgers researchers add that delta- and gamma-tocotrienols have demonstrated much more powerful health benefits than alpha tocopherol. These scientists believe we need more research into tocotrienols to determine how much good supplements might do. But they are skeptical that taking alpha-tocopherol supplements is worthwhile for most people.
My take on this – the ongoing research is getting stronger and stronger in support of taking tocotrienols to improve your health. The studies, on the other hand, that have investigated the benefits of alpha-tocopherol show that it simply doesn’t produce health benefits that are nearly as strong.
That being said, many experts still recommend taking a tocopherol supplement one day and then alternating with a tocotrienol supplement the next. Regardless of what you choose, the consensus seems to be against taking both a tocopherol and a tocotrienol supplement on the same day because of what I mentioned earlier about alpha-tocopherol canceling out the benefits of the tocotrienols.
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