Do you sometimes get confused about vitamins, unsure whether you are getting enough of A or B or XYZ? Well, join the crowd. The subject is complex and beset with contradictions. Take vitamin E, for example.
First discovered in 1922, vitamin E became known as the antisterility vitamin, because it was found that laboratory rats became infertile when foods containing the vitamin were withheld from their diet. And yet today, vitamin E is rarely mentioned in the context of human fertility.
What the vitamin has become noted for is its role as the most abundant fat-soluble antioxidant in our bodies. As such, it is essential for neutralizing unbalanced molecules called free radicals in our cells. The over-production of free radicals is implicated in a host of diseases, including cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, heart conditions, diabetes, and many more.
Other benefits of vitamin E are a strengthened immune system, DNA repair, protection of tissues in the skin, eyes (reducing risk of cataracts), liver, breast and testes and thinning the blood in people who are vulnerable to heart attack or stroke caused by blood clots. Believed to promote healing and reduce scarring, it is often used in skin creams and lotions.
Normally, given a diet rich in vegetables, vegetable oils, seed or nut oils and wheat germ, we shouldn’t need vitamin E supplements. (Note: because heat damages this vitamin, oils should be extracted by cold pressing, rather than heat or chemical agents.) Exceptions are premature infants, hemodialysis patients, those with hereditary red blood cell disorders and people with gastrointestinal illness (celiac disease, cystic fibrosis), gall bladder or pancreatic malfunction – anything that limits the metabolism of fats and therefore the uptake of vitamin E.
While vitamin E shortage can be a factor in many illnesses, it is not the exclusive cause of any disease, in the way that vitamin C deprivation leads to scurvy. Although it happens rarely, severe and prolonged lack of vitamin E may induce nerve damage, muscle weakness, poor coordination or involuntary movement of the eyes.
Women tend to be more prone to vitamin E deficiencies, due to the effect of birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy. As well, anyone on a low-fat diet may also be especially vulnerable and in need of a vitamin E supplement.
A note of caution here. Although the risk of over-dosing is slight – because our bodies tend to eliminate surplus vitamin E – patients taking prescription drugs to either thin their blood or to enhance clotting should seek professional advice on the effect of supplements before taking them. Overlapping and potentially conflicting therapies are too often ignored in medical practice.
If you do use a supplement, be sure to take the right one. Vitamin E is comprised of eight different components called isomers, only one of which (usually alpha tocopherol) is present in many of the supplements on the market. To be effective, a vitamin E supplement should contain all eight isomers, because they complement one another and work together.
Finally, do not take vitamin E supplements that come as a powder or tablet. This vitamin is stable only as a liquid in capsule form.
Still confused? Consult your health professional.
©Dr. Ashely Gordon, 2006.