Vitamin E: Background and Basics

Every cell needs vitamin E, but this fat-soluble substance is most necessary for nerve cells, blood cells and skeletal muscle cells. Without adequate vitamin E, peripheral neuropathy results. Other deficiency symptoms include spinocerebellar ataxia, skeletal myopathy, and pigmented retinopathy; premature infants are prone to anemia due to vitamin E deficiency.

Vitamin E fights free radicals — unstable forms of oxygen — thereby heading off oxidative damage, or oxidative stress, to cells. As a cellular “bodyguard,” vitamin E protects cellular membranes and other fatty cellular components by donating electrons to free radicals. Free radicals are produced in the body as a result of everyday metabolism, and in response to exposure to sunlight (ultraviolet rays), cigarette smoke and air pollution.

After “taking a hit,” vitamin E is regenerated to continue protecting cells. It appears that vitamin E works synergistically with other antioxidants, including glutathione and vitamin C; these substances regenerate vitamin E to its active state after vitamin E has reacted with, and neutralized free radicals.

Increasingly, scientific evidence suggests high intakes of vitamin E may reduce the risk of certain chronic diseases. For example, vitamin E inhibits low-density lipoprotein (LDL) oxidation, preventing conversion of LDLs to a stickier form that promotes heart disease. According to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), a large body of animal studies supports the antioxidant hypothesis of atherosclerosis.

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) determined that there is not enough research to support higher levels of vitamin E intake. Therefore, in spite of the promise vitamin E holds in heading off heart disease, the NAS does not recommend supplemental vitamin E as a heart disease preventative for the general population, nor does the organization recommend the same for the prevention of any other diseases or the control of chronic conditions, including the following:

Diabetes. Oxidative stress may be linked to the development of complications of diabetes. Vitamin E might play a role in warding off the stress caused by elevated blood glucose levels.

Cancer. In theory, vitamin E may head off cancer by squelching free radical damage to DNA.

Compromised Immunity: Vitamin E may boost seniors’ immune systems.

Cataract. In animal studies, vitamin E, and other antioxidant vitamins protect against lens damage that leads to cataract formation. Alzheimer’s Disease: Large doses of supplemental vitamin E show promise in slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, which may have an oxidative stress component.

Aging: By limiting oxidative stress, vitamin E may slow the aging process.

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