Vitamin E was first discovered in an experiment with rats. When the rats were deprived totally of Vitamin E, they were unable to reproduce. When Vitamin E was returned to the diet, their fertility returned. The word tocopherol, then, is a Greek term coming from the words tokos, which means "offspring" and phero which means "to bear." So tocopherol literally means, "to bear offspring" (1).
Vitamin E has two main functions: to make sure the tissues are nourished with oxygen, and to make sure that oxidation, or destruction of the tissues, does not take place. So it takes both an offensive as well as a defensive posture in order to accomplish these tasks. In the defensive posture, it protects against oxidation, or free radical damage. A free radical is a compound which "attacks another compound, removing an electron from it" (2). The damaged atoms and molecules become dysfunctional and diseased, or actually die. Free radical damage is involved in many disease processes, including cancer, heart disease, asthma and allergies, and immune system dysfunction (3).
The RDA for Vitamin E is extremely low, only 10 I.U. However, the amount of Vitamin E needed by the body is directly proportional to the amount of polyunsaturated fats in the diet. Polyunsaturated oils are very unstable, and sustain free radical damage when exposed to light, heat, and air. Frying food at high temperatures causes the production of free radicals also. It is very fortunate that most polyunsaturated oils also contain Vitamin E to help preserve them. However, when foods are cooked, the vitamin content is diminished greatly, so supplementation is often needed.
Vitamin E protects the cell membrane of every cell in the body. It protects from lead, mercury, and other heavy metals, as well as toxic chemicals such as benzene, carbon tetrachloride, cleaning solvents, drugs, and radiation. It plays a major role in cellular respiration of all muscles, especially cardiac and skeletal muscles. Vitamin E makes it possible for these muscles and their nerves to function with less oxygen, thereby increasing their endurance and stamina (4). For this reason, it is important for the diet to be supplemented with Vitamin E during childbirth. This will help the fetus to withstand cord compression and fetal distress much more easily. In my work with women who give birth unassisted at home, I am constantly impressed by what a good diet can accomplish. These women, who believe that the best prenatal care they can give their children is a healthy diet, give birth to healthy, hearty babies, even during complicated situations in which there was perhaps not the optimum amount of oxygen going to the baby. There are possibly two reason for this. First, many of these women are dedicated to eating a diet of whole foods, including whole grains, seeds, and nuts. Wheat germ oil is extremely high in Vitamin E. Second, because these women are giving birth at home in a low stress environment, the stress vitamins (A, B, C, and E) are not being depleted, so there is more available during the birth process. Vitamin E supplementation has also been advocated to help prevent premature rupture of membranes during pregnancy (5). Statistics gathered on unassisted childbirth show that these births, when prepared for nutritionally and emotionally, invariably turn out positively. To see these statistics, Click Here .
The principal use of Vitamin E is as an antioxidant in the protection against heart disease, cancer, and strokes. As a result, low Vitamin E levels predict heart attacks more accurately than serum cholesterol levels. Vitamin E prevents the oxidation of cholesterol and its carrier proteins and prevents the initial damage to the artery, which can lead to atheroschlerosis. It also keeps fats and cholesterol from forming lipid peroxides and oxidized cholesterol, and reduces excessive platelet aggregation (6).
Vitamin E is also helpful in preventing cancers, particularly of the intestinal tract and lungs. Over a dozen studies have shown that low levels of Vitamin E, especially when combined with low selenium levels, increase the risk of certain types of cancer (7) (8). Non-insulin dependent diabetics have also found improved glucose metabolism and insulin action when taking Vitamin E.
Sixty percent of the mice that received supplemental Vitamin E and were then deliberately infected with pneumonia resisted the pneumonia. The control group fed the normal mouse diet (which is probably better than what a standard American eats) all developed pneumonia and died (9). Many studies exist which show Vitamin E to be a powerful immune system booster.
Although Vitamin E is a fat soluble vitamin, it is extremely safe. Doses as high as 3,200 milligrams daily over a period of two years have showed no unfavorable side effects. Although the RDA is only 10 I.U., a dosage of 400 I.U. is the minimum necessary to see therapeutic results (6). Remember to only use supplements that say "d-alpha tocopherol" rather than "dl-tocopherol" or "l-tocopherol" and not "mixed tocopherols." Alpha is the most potent, and only the right-handed molecular rotational d-alpha can be absorbed and used by the body. To learn why this is so, Click Here.
Ailments which might benefit from Vitamin E supplementation:
Alcohol-induced liver disease
Peripheral vascular disease
Wound healing (6).
Nutritional sources of Vitamin E:
Wheat germ, all whole raw seeds and nuts, soybeans, brussel sprouts, leafy greens, vegetable oils, and eggs.
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(1) Murray, Michael T. (1996). The Encyclopedia of Nutritional Supplements. Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing, p. 44.
(2) Dunne, Lavon J. (1990). Nutrition Almanac, 3rd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, p. 52.
(3) Personal Health Lifestyles, Inc. (2000). "Vitamin E." Healing With Nutrition. Available Online: [http://www.healingwithnutrition.com/vitamin.html#VitaminE].
(4) Dunne, as in (2) above, p. 53.
(5) Murray, as in (1) above, p. 47.
(6) Murray, as in (1) above, p. 49.
(7) Gaby, S.K. and Machlin, L.J.. (1991). Vitamin E in: Vitamin Intake and Health: A Scientific Review, Gaby, S.K. et al. (eds). New York: Marcel Dekker, pp. 72-89.
(8) Knecht, P. et al. (1991). Vitamin E in Cancer Prevention. Am J Clin Nutr 53 (Suppl I), 283S-286S.
(9) Tengerdy, et al. (1981). Diet and Resistance to Disease. Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology.