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Vitamin E: It’s (a) complex

By February 5, 2018May 18th, 2020Health, Nutrition
Vitamin E

High doses of alpha tocopherol can be harmful, but the full vitamin E complex is important to good health.

In recent years “vitamin E” has been linked to a variety of health conditions, and purported to have negative or positive effects causing much confusion among health-conscious people.

Recently, studies have found that people who have metabolic syndrome — including those who are overfat — have an increased need for vitamin E. However, researchers in the early 2000s concluded that high doses of vitamin E in the form of isolated d-alpha tocopherol increased the risk of death by all causes.

So what’s the real story on vitamin E? Well, it’s sort of . . . complex.

The isolated nutrient the government and the Food and Drug administration calls “vitamin E” was first discovered by scientists feeding rats in an experiment in 1922.

Originally called “Factor X” the compound was later isolated as alpha-tocopherol. This remains the chemical nutrient found in virtually all vitamin E supplements today.

Over the decades scientists began to study and learn more about vitamin E. Alpha-tocopherol, as it turns out, does not normally exist alone in nature but is actually a complex of eight separate nutrients found in food, including four types of tocopherols and four tocotrienols. Technically speaking, there’s an alpha, beta, gamma and delta version of each. Because these associated compounds were not originally identified as vitamins, they are classified as phytonutrients.

We now know that all eight nutrients have a complementary and symbiotic relationship.

These other seven parts of the E complex — especially the tocotrienols — are powerful substances that have potent anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer actions, reduce cholesterol, and perform other vital tasks, such as helping with the metabolism of carbohydrates as mentioned previously.

Even though alpha-tocopherol gets all the attention as “vitamin E,” some of these other nutrients may play more important roles in health. For example, gamma-tocopherol is commonly found in natural foods and is more effective than alpha-tocopherol as an antioxidant.

Unbalanced, isolated high doses of alpha-tocopherol can interfere with body chemistry in other ways too. They can have a negative effect on anti-inflammatory chemical production, cause generalized muscle weakness, lower thyroid hormone levels, and slightly increase fasting triglyceride levels. Even moderate amounts, such as 100 IU of alpha-tocopherol, can block the ability of tocotrienols to control cholesterol.

Like high-dose vitamin C, isolated alpha-tocopherol may also become a pro-oxidant — which would be counterproductive to its antioxidant function, and can also lower the levels of gamma-tocopherol in the body, reducing the overall health benefits of the vitamin E complex.

Some possible indications you may have increased need for full-complex vitamin E and should avoid taking high-dose alpha-tocopherol include:

  • Low consumption of nuts and seeds (less than one serving/day).
  • Taking high-dose alpha-tocopherol (more than 200 IU/day).
  • Chronic inflammation.
  • History of heart disease or cancer.
  • Smoking cigarettes (recent past or present)
  • Over age 50.
  • Low-fat diet (less than 20 percent).
  • High cholesterol.
  • Skin problems.
  • Cataracts.

In summary of this complex topic, consuming isolated doses of alpha-tocopherol can be dangerous, as in the study relating it to mortality and others pointing to its dangers. However, the full vitamin E complex is associated with many healthy processes within the body. The best source of this complex is real, organic foods.