Vitamin E was the first vitamin to be discovered, at the University of California-Berkeley in 1922. Since that time there's been thousands of research studies conducted on this fat-soluble vitamin. It got to the point where at least as many cardiologists were themselves taking vitamin E as they were taking aspirin.
Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin, and in the body it is found predominantly in cell membranes. Vitamin E is generally seen as alpha-tocopherol, though actually vitamin E represents a group of four tocopherols and four tocotrienols – alpha, beta, gamma and delta of each.
As alpha-tocopherol, you’ll either see on supplement labels d-alpha-tocopherol or dl-alpha-tocopherol. The “L” stuck in there makes a significant difference because it means the vitamin E was synthetically produced, not natural. Studies show natural vitamin E is absorbed twice as well as synthetic.1
Vitamin E and heart disease
Vitamin E got a bum rap in 2007 when a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association looked 8,171 women who were at risk of heart disease and instructed to take 600 IU vitamin E, 500 milligrams of vitamin C and 50 milligrams of beta-carotene every other day. Ten years later, the researchers concluded that the use of vitamin E and beta-carotene could increase the risk of death.
The media was only too ready to spread the word.
Problem was, only 68 percent of the people in the study actually took their vitamin regimen during the course of the study, yet the researchers pooled the results of all 100 percent of the people enrolled. The researchers even noted that, among those who took the antioxidants, there was a remarkable 22 percent reduction in heart attacks, 27 percent reduction in stroke, nine percent reduction in cardiovascular-disease deaths, and 23 percent reduction in the combination of heart attacks, stroke or cardio deaths.
Can you imagine the headlines if a pharmaceutical drug was found to have such impressive results? (For the record, there isn’t a drug found to have such positive results yet.)
In another human study with 2,002 patients, 800 international units (IU) per day of alpha-tocopherol, cut in half the rate of non-fatal heart attacks after one year of treatment.3
Women, vitamin E and COPD
Researchers at Cornell University and Brigham and Women's Hospital reported in May 2010 that Vitamin E may protect the lungs of women over the age of 45 against Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), the fourth leading cause of death in the United States.
They gleaned the information by reviewing date from the Women’s Health Study, a 10-year initiative that ended in 2004 that followed some 38,000 women over 45. The women took 100mg of aspirin and 600IU of vitamin E every other day on alternate days.
Though the researchers said that further research is needed to bear out their conclusions, they suggested that clinicians may soon recommend that women take vitamin E supplements as a preventative for COPD.
We spoke with Lester Packer, PhD, perhaps the pre-eminent researcher of antioxidants and vitamin E. He works at the University of California-Berkeley. That’s right – the same place that discovered vitamin E almost a century ago. He summarized the state of vitamin E research here:
“One of the best case scenarios is the cross-cultural studies in Europev with 20 different study populations ranging from northern Europe to central Europe to southern Europe. Results show a beautiful gradient between the number of people dying from heart disease in the north compared to the south. In fact, if you average six populations from northern regions, the average death per 100,000 individuals is 366. In four populations from southern Europe including Israel, it's 99. That's a 3-1/2 times greater risk of dying from heart disease.
“So the next question is, what is the risk mainly associated with? When they looked at eight populations with the same cholesterol intake, they found an inverse relationship between the vitamin E in the plasma and the death rate-the higher the vitamin E levels, the lower the death rate. In the 12 populations with different cholesterol intakes, the death rate was linked to cholesterol intake. So then they took the 12 populations that differed in cholesterol and normalized them for cholesterol, again looked at their vitamin E, and sure enough again found this nice correlation between higher vitamin E levels and lower death rate. That was a very important study.
“Another important study was with 88,000 nurses in the Boston area. These are health professionals where you would presume their answers on dietary questionnaires should be accurate because these are the type of people who will comply. In that case the people who had taken a supplement of 200 IU or more of vitamin E for at least two years showed a 41 percent decreased relative risk of getting cardiovascular disease
“So another study was made, with male physicians in the Boston area who supplemented with vitamin E. And again, similar results were obtained. This time the relative risk was decreased 37 percent with high intake of vitamin E.
“Another very important study is the Cambridge Heart Antioxidant Study, called CHAOS. It was made with 2,002 people who had at least one heart attack. They separated this group into two groups, which contained both men and women. One group took a placebo and the other half was split to receive their 400 or 800 IU of vitamin E. That's 40 or 80 times greater than the Recommended Daily Allowance of vitamin E. And there was a 77 percent decrease in the rate of occurrence of the second heart attack. That's remarkable. What it suggests is you may actually treat disease with antioxidants, or slow the further progression of a chronic degenerative disease.
“These are among some of the important studies. I think the best evidence exists for vitamin E because there just haven't been that many types of antioxidants studied with people.”
Vitamin E and immunity
Another study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that healthy female volunteers who were administered a tetanus toxins vaccine after taking either a placebo or 400mg of tocotrienol-rich fraction (vitamin E) showed significantly lower markers of immune-system depression. They concluded that vitamin E stimulates the immune system and has potential clinical benefits for this.4
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