Vitamin E is made up of two classes of substances called tocopherols and tocotrienols. When found naturally in foods and in natural supplements, tocopherols and tocotrienols benefit our health. They act as antioxidants to protect the brain, may improve diabetes symptoms, protect the heart, and more. When it comes to vitamin E, you should get all 8 kinds for best health. Natural forms of vitamin E are always better than synthetic. Find out what vitamin E does, how to find healthy kinds, and how to optimize your health with good amounts of vitamin E.
Vitamin E Research
The research world often likes to treat nutrients like pharmaceuticals: give a LOT of a single kind. This is inherently wrong. Nutrients work in a symbiotic, complex relationship.
We often see confusion and mixed messages about foods, nutrients, and supplements in the media.
While the design of pharmaceutical drug trials has its own inherent problems for humans, largely because we are unique individuals, applying this same design to nutrients can be disastrous.
There are no better examples of this than the nutrient called vitamin E.
Research manipulated this class of nutrients into something far removed from nature and gave massive doses, often of synthetic vitamin E, or dl-alpha-tocopherol, to patients. This doesn’t work for nourishing our bodies.
Nutrients Need Their Own Set of Rules
Nutrients deserve a better standard for research. We need to move away from a reductionist approach and move towards treating people as individuals.
Every day, I still see people on the wrong forms of vitamin E and for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. If my blog helps just one person make a more beneficial choice of vitamin E, it is all worth it.
Let’s get into the fascinating roles of vitamin E and why it is such an important nutrient that deserves tremendous scientific thoughtfulness.
In this blog, I will describe:
- The numerous types of vitamin E in foods
- The amazing roles of vitamin E in the body
- Rates of deficiency of vitamin E
- Symptoms of deficiency
- Drugs that deplete vitamin E
- How to determine whether you are getting enough in your diet
- Food sources of the various types of vitamin E
- What type of vitamin E you should supplement if you are deficient
- Why avoid synthetic vitamin E
- Precautions of using vitamin E supplements
A brief disclosure: I have worked for over 18 years and know without a doubt that finding good supplements is challenging. I try to make it easy for you. If you like my content, you can click on a link at the bottom. I make a small percentage at no extra cost to you.
The Eight Types of Vitamin E
Vitamin E is a critical nutrient for health with countless functions in the body. It is not one, but 8 vitamins that all have slightly different, but important roles in our health.
Vitamin E has two categories: 4 types of tocopherols and 4 types of tocotrienols. We have more research about the tocopherols, and yet the tocotrienols hold a lot of powerful function in our body.
Here are all 8 types:
- beta- tocopherol
- gamma- tocopherol
- delta- tocopherol
- beta- tocotrienol
- gamma- tocotrienol
- delta- tocotrienol
All 8 types of vitamin E have a function that is the same. This function is to protect the body from oxidation. They also all have slightly varying functions which make them unique and important.
This should be the first clue for you about choosing natural over synthetic vitamin E. The production, research, and use of synthetic vitamin E, only as alpha-tocopherol, is a good example of how good intentions went bad when researchers didn’t fully understand these noble vitamins.
Vitamin E Deficiency: Major Health Issue
At least ninety percent of men and women fail to get enough vitamin E in their diet, even at the paultry RDI levels of 20 mg per day [R]. This data comes from huge numbers of people living in the United States, so it is likely an accurate representation of the problem.
A recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that as many as 1 in 3 adults with diabetes or metabolic syndrome have vitamin E deficiency.
Thirty-three percent of obese and overweight adults have an undiagnosed deficiency of vitamin E. In the United States, over one-third of the population have diagnosed metabolic syndrome and at least 30 percent are obese[R].
Millions of people living in the United States have vitamin E deficiency; this puts them at risk for further disease and illness. The symptoms of deficiency make it more likely for them to become MORE obese due to muscle aches and pains.
Vitamin E studies of vitamin E status prior to this had one major flaw: they measured blood levels, which are very inaccurate. This particular study used labeled vitamin E and measured elimination rates of this labeled vitamin E.
Overweight people likely need more vitamin E. Why? They have more fat tissue and fat is easily oxidized or damaged. Vitamin E helps reduce this damage, but the requirements go up with more volume and weight of fat.
Vitamin E Deficiency Symptoms
Symptoms of vitamin E deficiency can include:
- Muscle weakness
- Muscle pain
- Vision impairment
- Illness or malaise
Vitamin E Deficiency Causes
Diseases that increase the risk of vitamin E deficiency include:
- Digestive disorders
- Cystic Fibrosis
- Gallbladder disease
- Genetic conditions
- Metabolic syndrome
Drugs that rob the body of vitamin E include:
- Cholesterol medications
Functions of Vitamin E
All 8 types of vitamin E have a common role: reducing oxidation damage in the body. This is like preventing oxygen damage to metal or preventing rust. All 8 types of vitamin E have subtle, but different roles too.
Antioxidants like vitamin E help protect the body from damaging free radicals that we encounter every day.
Vitamin E may reduce eye damage from the oxidative ravages of diabetes, cataracts, and more[R].
Vitamin E in its natural forms also help regulate genes, and by doing so, is able to help control abnormal cell growth.
Collectively, when people have a high intake of vitamin E-rich foods, research shows a reduction in cardiovascular diseases consistently over time. Vitamin E-rich foods also reduce risks of most chronic diseases.
As mentioned above, we can’t function optimally without all 8 types of vitamin E. They are all slightly different structures that take on subtle but important different roles.
As mentioned above, it never makes sense to isolate and extract a bunch of one and hope for the best. The body is meant to have all kinds of vitamin E.
Function of Tocotrienols
Most supplements contain vitamin E tocopherols. However, we need tocotrienols as well for ideal health.
As with many nutrients, tocotrienols have vast functions in the body. They have a unique molecular structure; it makes tocotrienols more flexible than tocopherols and allows easier entry through the cell membranes.
Tocotrienols may promote new artery formation after a stroke, reduce inflammatory compounds, improve insulin sensitivity, protect brain function, and even prevent bone loss [R]. They likely improve the microstructure of the bone and quality of bone tissue [R].
Tocotrienols May Reduce Cancer
Tocotrienols are likely more potent than alpha-tocopherol in reducing cancer risk.
Tocotrienols in early research show potential to [R]:
- Increase cancer cell death
- Starve tumors of nutrients
- Reduce the spread of tumors
- Reduce growth of tumor cells
- Reduce initiation of cancer
Gamma-tocotrienol may even improve response to chemotherapy drugs [R].
Researchers found that delta-tocotrienol significantly improved their survival in animals with pancreatic cancer. Only 10% of animals in the control group survived versus 70% of those taking tocotrienols survived. This study presents a promising new anti-cancer option [R].
Prostate cancer risk may be reduced by vitamin E, but only when both alpha and gamma tocopherol levels are high.
Tocotrienols may also improve cholesterol profiles, reduce atherosclerotic lesions, lower blood glucose, normalize blood pressure, and inhibit new fat deposits in animals [R].
You will notice that food sources of tocotrienols vary, based on the type. See below for more information about food sources of tocotrienols.
As you can see, both alpha and gamma tocotrienol rich foods come primarily from spices and tropical oils like palm oil and coconut oil. Spice up your foods!
Beta- and delta-tocotrienol rich foods are from similar foods: Tropical oils, spices and small amounts in grains. Palm oil is linked to deforestation. Look for zero-deforestation palm oils.
Commonly known food sources of tocopherols contain little to no tocotrienols.
Annatto seed is by far the richest source of gamma-tocotrienol. It is difficult to find (but oh so delicious!). It is used in southern Mexico and Latin American cuisine and has a citrus-type flavor. I have found it online for purchase.
People have to go out of their way to find foods rich in tocotrienols. For this reason, I recommend supplementing the diet with natural and mixed-tocotrienols.
Alpha Tocopherol Functions
Alpha-tocopherol is the most researched vitamin E form because it can be identified in the blood. The other forms are more likely to be stored and used in tissues.
Oxidation of LDL cholesterol is bad. It increases the likelihood that LDL cholesterol becomes deposited in the arterial wall. Natural alpha-tocopherol prevents oxidation of LDL in humans [R].
Alpha tocopherol-rich foods are primarily from plant seeds. Notice wheat germ. It would take a lot of wheat germ by volume to get to 100 g.
Alpha-Tocopherol Content of Selected Foods per 100 g of Food [R]:
I don’t list the Daily Value here. Why? No optimal dosage has yet been established for vitamin E.
YOUR optimal dose is going to vary from MY optimal dose, depending on exposures to pollutants, toxins and more. This applies to all the types of vitamin E.
Beta-Tocopherol Content of Selected Foods per 100 g [R]:
The food sources of delta-tocopherol are very similar to alpha tocopherol so refer to above chart.
Gamma-Tocopherol Content of Selected Foods per 100 g [R]:
Synthetic Vitamin E Dangers
Natural vitamin E in all forms is very beneficial for the body.
If you go to the store and pick up the most common and inexpensive kind of vitamin E, however, it is none-of-the-above healthy types of vitamin E. It is an artificial variety of alpha-tocopherol called dl alpha-tocopherol.
It is similar to natural vitamin E, but not similar enough in the body to work properly as it turns out.
Synthetic vitamin E displaces critically important gamma tocopherol in the body. By displacing gamma-tocopherol, it may increase cancer risk.
Synthetic vitamin E is found in packaged foods. It is in your breakfast cereals, your standard multivitamins. It is in Ensure. Why? It’s cheap. But it is not benign.
Synthetic vitamin E may raise all kinds of havoc in the body, especially at high doses over 400 IU. It is linked to increased risk of [R]:
- Hemorrhagic strokes
- Pancreatic cancer death
- Pneumonia in smokers
- Skin cancer
- Liver damage
- Increased oxidation
- Depletes beta-carotene
Synthetic vitamin E is a petrochemical derived substance. Making you hungry?
Supplementation with Natural Vitamin E
Focus on getting daily food sources that are rich in the various kinds of vitamin E. However, as outlined above, most people certainly are low in vitamin E and may benefit from supplementation.
When choosing a vitamin E supplement, make sure you are getting NATURAL.
Also make sure you are getting a blend of natural tocopherols and tocotrienols. A supplement that I like is the Lifelong Vitality Pack.
Vitamin E Supplement Considerations
- Synthetic vitamins should be avoided. This includes dl alpha tocopherol or dl alpha tocopherol acetate.
- Always choose vitamin E with a blend of natural tocopherols and tocotrienols, preferably all 8 types.
- If you are on blood thinning medication, avoid high doses of vitamin E.
- Take supplements with mixed nutrients that are derived from whole foods.
- Nutrients always work better when you have a balance of all nutrients in your body.
- Vitamin E always works better when you have adequate vitamin C, D, K and an antioxidant-rich diet.
- Always check with your healthcare provider before adding new supplements to your regimen.
- Certain metabolic conditions or digestive surgeries may make it so you require high doses vitamin E
The information on this website has not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration or any other medical body and is shared for educational purposes only. Consult your doctor or healthcare provider before making changes to your supplement regimen or lifestyle.
Heidi Moretti, MS, RD is The Healthy RD. A registered dietitian for 20 years, has a passion for functional nutrition and natural medicine. Has researched supplements and plants as medicine throughout her career. Loves helping people gain function and vitality by tackling root causes of illness.