People, including researchers, hold markedly different beliefs about vitamin E supplements, ranging from “protective” to “useless” to “harmful.” Some doctors take vitamin E, but don’t recommend it for their patients. Some do the reverse. Some experts think there have been too many vitamin E studies and say it’s time to quit expecting health benefits. Others say nearly all the research has been flawed and recommend starting afresh using even higher doses of vitamin E or different forms of it.
Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, discovered vitamin E in 1922, and since then countless studies have been done on this still mysterious substance.
Because its chief function seems to be as an antioxidant, neutralizing potentially harmful free radicals in the body, E became a superstar as the antioxidant theory of disease gained wider and wider attention. Would high doses of vitamin E prove to be the key to good health—preventing cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s, as well as producing glowing skin, good eyesight, and other benefits? Studies have yielded contradictory findings, but so far the answer seems to be no.
The supplements industry has, of course, continued to urge people to take vitamin E supplements. Early studies (mostly observational and not always well-designed) found a benefit, especially for preventing heart disease, while later studies (many of them well-designed clinical trials) have not. Indeed, a few recent studies suggested that vitamin E supplements might actually be harmful. But the now-discredited claims for vitamin E persist widely on the Internet and elsewhere, and even many scientists continue to believe them.
Here’s a summary of some of the more recent research:
Cardiovascular disease: It’s logical that vitamin E might help prevent heart disease because of its antioxidant properties (free radicals are believed to be a factor in atherosclerosis), but supplements have not proved helpful. And many experts now have questions about the theory that antioxidants can prevent heart disease.
In 2008 the Physicians’ Health Study II produced more negative results: Among more than 14,000 male doctors taking high doses of vitamin C or E for eight years, neither supplement reduced heart attacks, strokes, or cardiovascular deaths. In fact, vitamin E slightly increased the risk of hemorrhagic (bleeding) strokes.
Longevity and/or potential harm: According to a recent review of studies that included almost half a million people, antioxidant supplements (including vitamin E, beta carotene, vitamin C, and selenium) did not prolong life or protect against disease. This review was done by the Cochrane Collaboration, an independent group that evaluates evidence. Some studies suggested benefit, others harm—but the best were largely neutral.
Other large reviews have also suggested that vitamin E supplements and other antioxidant pills don’t help and may hurt. One such study, in the Journal of the American Medical Association, pointed to a slight increase in mortality for those taking antioxidant supplements, including vitamin E.
Lung cancer: Vitamin E supplements may increase the risk of lung cancer slightly in smokers, according to a study of more than 77,000 people taking vitamin C or E, folate, and/or multivitamin supplements in Washington State. When factors such as smoking history, family history, and age were taken into consideration, each 100 IU daily dose of E, over the course of 10 years, was associated with a 7% increased risk of lung cancer. The other vitamins had no effect. Though this is not the final word, the researchers warned smokers that the supplements “may be detrimental.”
Prostate cancer: While some early studies suggested a protective effect, more recent research has not. In 2008 researchers halted a major clinical trial (funded by the National Cancer Institute) on vitamin E and prostate cancer after five years because they said there was no benefit. Apparently, there were slightly more cancers among the E takers, though this may have been due to chance; the men will continue to be monitored to see if this risk is real.
Alzheimer’s Disease: There is little good evidence that E supplements can prevent or treat either cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s, according to another recent Cochrane review. Indeed, only two studies were found worthy of review. One was a clinical trial of people with moderate to severe Alzheimer’s: vitamin E supplements may have slightly decreased disease progression, but, surprisingly, the patients experienced more falls. The other looked at mildly impaired people, in whom large doses of E (2,000 IU daily) produced no benefit.
Macular degeneration, the major cause of blindness in older people: Research about vitamin E has been inconclusive. Nevertheless, vitamin E is one ingredient in the special formulations (PreserVision and similar supplements) that have been shown to slow the progression of the disease.
Exercise benefits: In 2009 a German study on vitamins E and C suggested that instead of protecting athletes, the supplements may block some of the benefits of exercise. In the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers had young men (trained and untrained) exercise vigorously for 85 minutes five days a week. Half took 400 IU of vitamin E and 1,000 milligrams of vitamin C a day. After four weeks, only the men not taking the supplements had an improvement in insulin sensitivity and a boost in the body’s natural antioxidant system. (Improved insulin sensitivity, a known benefit of exercise, means the body is better able to control blood sugar, which could help reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.) These benefits, however, were suppressed in the men taking the vitamins.
E Essentials that Work
Vitamin E exists naturally in eight forms (four tocopherols and four tocotrienols), of which alpha-tocopherol is probably the most important and the most often studied.
It acts as an antioxidant—that is, it helps neutralize free radicals (oxygen molecules that can harm cells and may contribute to chronic diseases).
It is fat-soluble and can thus be stored in the body.
It is measured in milligrams or International Units (IU); the latter are used on supplement labels. The daily Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for adults is 15 milligrams (about 23 IU).
Deficiency in E is unknown, except in people with rare genetic disorders or malnutrition, or in preterm infants.
The Best Way to Get Vitamin E into your System
Nuts, seeds, vegetable oils, whole grains, and leafy greens supply the most vitamin E. Broccoli, tomato sauce, red peppers, carrots, and some fish are also good sources.
Bottom line: Get your vitamin E from food, not supplements. The supplements have not proved beneficial, and may even be risky. We stick by our advice that most people can benefit from a basic multivitamin/mineral supplement, which usually supplies the RDA for vitamin E.
Personally, I only use vitamin E oil capsules for healing (topically) for healing cuts and abrasions. I puncture the capsule and squeeze the oil out.