Understanding Vitamin E


In the vitamin world, E stands for excellent. Vitamin E is excellent for heart health, cancer prevention, and immunity improvement. All that, and it plays well with others, too. Vitamin E teams up with Vitamin A and Vitamin C to give us maximum antioxidant protection.  Vitamin E is not only just excellent for heart health research proves that it can really help prevent heart disease – safely, easily, and cheaply.

The Role It Plays

Vitamin E is needed for one big reason: free radicals. Vitamin E is especially good at protecting our cell membranes against free radicals – and damage to your cell membranes is often the first step down a slippery slope that can lead to cancer, heart disease, and other health problems. Vitamin E works so well as an antioxidant because it’s a fat soluble vitamin – and cell membranes are made up mostly of fat. Vitamin E gets into the membrane and lassos any free radicals that try to get through.

Types of Vitamin E

Vitamin E is a family of different compounds, all working together to protect against roaming free radicals. The family is divided into two branches: the tocopherols and their cousins the tocotrienols.

The tocopherol clan has four members. They’re names alpha, beta, gamma, and delta tocopherol. Alpha tocopherol is the most common and the most active form, the one that works hardest to fend off free radicals. The other ones also fend off free radicals pretty well. Gama tocopherol seem to protect best against free radicals from nitrogen oxides (stuff that makes acid rain- we don’t want that in our cell membranes).

The four tocotrienol cousins (also called alpha, beta, gamma and delta) are members of the E family found in some plant foods such as rice and barley. They’re not as active as the tocopherols but on their own they have antioxidant powers. In fact, they may be even better than tocopherols at protecting against some types of free radicals, especially peroxyl radical. Tocotrienols also help in cancer prevention and keeping cholesterol down.

Natural Vitamin E is made from vegetable oil, usually from soybeans or safflower seeds; synthetic Vitamin E is made chemically. Natural Vitamin E is twice as expensive, but it’s also more active. It’s absorbed better and stays in our system longer. Natural Vitamin E is the best choice.

Looking at a label, you can easily tell the difference. Natural Vitamin E is called d-alpha-tocopherol, while the synthetic version is called dl-alpha-tocopherol. Look for the supplement that has the d- prefix.  Remember that Vitamin E is a whole family so be sure the supplement is in a mixed supplement form that has all the tocopherols. You can also get supplements that have tocotrienols.

Vitamin E supplements are available in ‘dry’ and ‘wet’ forms. In the dry form, the alpha-tocopherol is chemically bound to succinate; in the wet form, it’s bound to acetate. Acetate and succinate are weak acids found naturally in the body. They’re added to keep the vitamin E from reacting with oxygen in the air and don’t affect you in any way. Dry Vitamin E is made into tablets or capsules. Wet Vitamin E is more like an oil, so it’s usually sold as soft gel capsules or as a liquid. If you have trouble digesting fats or oils, pick the dry succinate form. Otherwise, chose the wet form – you’ll absorb the E’s better.


The RDA for the mythical average person is hard to figure out because how much you need depends in part on body size. The heavier you are, the more you need. It also depends in part on how much fat you get in your diet from plant foods and fish.  Here too, the more fat you eat, the more Vitamin E you need.

The RDA is based on alpha tocopherol, because that’s the most active form of vitamin E.

The RDA of vitamin E is measured in both milligrams (nutritionists) and International Units (scientific types).

Age                                        Milligrams                           International Units

0-1 year                                3-4 mg                                  4.5-6.0 IU

1-10 years                           6-7 mg                  `               9.0 – 10.5 IU

Men 11+                              10 mg                                    15 IU

Women 11+                       8 mg                                      12 IU

Pregnant Women            10 mg                                    15 IU

Nursing Women               12 mg                                    18 IU

Safe Dosage

There is solid evidence that the RDA is far from the real amount you need to reach optimal health. It is better to have 100 IU or even more. Fortunately, doses this size and even much larger are safe.

Make It Work Better

The benefits of vitamin E really only kick in at daily amounts over 100 IU. There’s no way you can eat that much (it’s hard enough trying to eat 25 IU).

Vitamin E works better with small amounts of dietary fats so it should e taken with food.

The trace mineral Selenium helps Vitamin E work better and longer in the body.

Vitamin E also works better with Vitamin A, Beta carotene, and Vitamin C.

Good Sources

The foods that have Vitamin E are vegetable oils, seeds, wheat germ, and nuts. There’s also a little Vitamin E in plant foods such as avocados, asparagus, mangos, and sweet potatoes.


If you don’t the RDA for Vitamin E for a long period of time – several months or even years- you eventually get nerve damage, especially to the nerves in the spinal cord, and sometimes damage to the retina of the eye. The damage is hard to spot though and it takes a long time to show up. It’s pretty rare because just about everyone gets somewhere between 7 and 11 mg just from the foods we eat.

There are a few medical conditions that can make you deficient in Vitamin E.

Cystic fibrosis patients can’t digest fats well, so won’t absorb enough Vitamin E.

People with Crohn’s disease can’t absorb Vitamin E well through the intestines.

People with liver disease can’t use Vitamin E properly.

People on a low-fat, low-calorie diet might not be getting enough Vitamin E from their food (fat is also needed to absorb vitamin E).

People who take drugs such as cholestyramine (Cholybar or Questran) or colestipol (Colestid) to lower cholesterol. These drugs block absorption of Vitamin E and other fat-soluble vitamins.


One Response to “Understanding Vitamin E”
  1. WH Leong says:

    Dear Alexandra,

    Good Morning.

    I came across your article “Understanding Vitamin E”. It is a well-written article summarizing the science of the regular Vitamin E – tocopherols.

    However, you did not touch on another more potent member of the Vitamin E family – “Tocotrienols” and their role in the prevention of cardiovascular health diseases (CHD) as well as other free-radical mediated degenerative diseases.

    I am sure that you are aware of the recent 8 clinical trials and studies (Lancet, JAMA, 2001), which negated the health benefit of natural d-alpha-tocopherol and synthetic dl-alpha-tocopherol in the prevention of CHD.
    I would like to share with you the latest science on the tocotrienols, which have been proven to be a more potent antioxidant than tocopherol (40-60 times) as well as having additional benefits in reducing cardiovascular risk as proven in human clinical trials such as reversal of arterial blockage and reduction of total serum cholesterol.

    Perhaps, we have been looking at the wrong form of Vitamin E – just the tocopherol vitamin E alone. What about the remaining 4 tocotrienol vitamin E – alpha, beta, gamma and delta-tocotrienol? One of the striking facts in those 8 large negative studies with alpha-tocopherol was that they were conducted with a single form of vitamin E – the tocopherol, namely alpha-tocopherol. What is missing in most commercial vitamin E supplements is tocotrienol.

    Tocotrienols (T3s) are fat-soluble vitamins related to the family of tocopherols. The term vitamin E is considered to be the generic name describing both the tocopherols and T3s. Tocopherols and T3s are distinguished by their side chain. While tocopherol has a saturated phytyl tail, T3 possesses an unsaturated isoprenoid side chain.

    Tocopherols and T3s are further separated into individual compounds assigned by the Greek letter prefixes (alpha, beta, gamma and delta) depending on the number and position of methyl substitution on the chromanol ring. While tocopherols are generally present in common vegetable oils (i.e. soy, canola, wheat germ, sunflower), T3s on the other hand, are concentrated in palm oil and rice bran oil. Contrary to the recent news, vitamin E in the form of T3 has been shown in most instances to be beneficial in the prevention of CVD.

    I’s like to share the following with you – a concept which is fast gaining popularity in the market :-

    Re : E COMPLETE – d-mixed tocopherols + d-mixed tocotrienols – The FULL SPECTRUM VITAMIN E : The Most Complete and Balanced Vitamin E Supplement

    Background on “E COMPLETE”
    Vitamin E is one of the top-selling supplements in the US. According to the Council of Responsible Nutrition (CRN), about 75% of cardiologists recommend Vitamin E to their patients and 50% of them take Vitamin E themselves. Vitamin E is no doubt the “star-nutrient” of the industry.
    There are currently 8 human studies (published in JAMA, NEJM – main stream medical journals) which showed that the regular vitamin E – alpha-tocopherol (natural or synthetic) does not help in lowering the risk of cardiovascular diseases. Instead of just a single form of vitamin E (ie : alpha-tocopherol), consumers are beginning to look for a complete form of vitamin E – mixed tocopherols and mixed tocotrienols as the gamma-tocopherol and tocotrienols have unique health properties which are not shown by the alpha-tocopherol. All these different forms of vitamin E as produced in nature, works synergistically as a team to confer the maximum benefits associated with vitamin E.

    This new vitamin E product concept is getting popular and gaining a lot of attention since the recent negative meta-analysis study on alpha-tocopherol (the regular vitamin E) in the Annals of Internal Medicine (Nov 2004) and JAMA (March 2005) and the Women’s Health Stuyd (WHS), July 2005.

    Opinion makers in the industry such as Dr. Andrew Weil, Dr. Stephen Sinatra, Dr. James Balch, Dr. Say Sahelian, Dr. Joseph Mercola in the US have all embraced the need to take a full spectrum vitamin E – with d-mixed tocopherols + d-mixed tocotrienols as a balanced form of vitamin E as nature intends.

    And it is reflected and proven by recent scientific publications which showed that gamma-tocopherol and obviously tocotrienols have unique health properties within the body and not associated with the regular alpha-tocopherol.

    Science of “E COMPLETE”
    1) Eight large human clinical trials (Lancet & JAMA, 2001, 2002, 2004 including the latest July 2005 (JAMA) – Women’s Health Study) recently have reported that natural and synthetic alpha-tocopherol alone does not help in reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases. These studies published in main-stream medical journals reminded us of the 1996 beta-carotene debacle and how consumers are now demanding mixed carotenoid complex now instead of just beta-carotene alone.

    2) Research on Vitamin E has progressed to a stage where researchers have identified other forms of vitamin E such as gamma-tocopherol and tocotrienols have unique health properties, which are not associated with the regular alpha-tocopherol. Research scientists and consumers alike are beginning to realize that there is more to Vitamin E than just alpha-tocopherol alone. Please refer to the above for the unique and additional health benefits associated with tocotrienol s but not tocopherol. There are also research publications coming out on the health benefits of gamma-tocopherol.

    3) The “E COMPLETE” product concept represents the most complete and most balanced form of Vitamin E supplement in the market. It consists of all the 8 isomers of vitamin E (d-mixed tocopherols and d-mixed tocotrienols) as what produce in nature.

    4) There is nothing wrong with taking alpha-tocopherol vitamin E, but one is not getting the maximum benefits Vitamin E can offer. The best vitamin E supplement to take is one that has all the full spectrum vitamin E (d-alpha, beta, gamma and delta-tocopherol and d-alpha, beta, gamma and delta-tocotrienol) as it reflects the latest science on Vitamin E.

    5) Only Carotech’s Tocomin® / Tocomax / Tocobeads full spectrum tocotrienol complex provides the all the 4 isomers of tocotrienol – alpha, beta-, gamma and delta-tocotrienol.

    For more information on tocotrienol, please visit the educational website : http://www.tocotrienol.org

    I believe that it is time for us to spread the message and educate the consumers of the benefits of both the mixed tocopherols and mixed tocotrienol – as the most complete and most balanced form of Vitamin E supplement. This is what produce by nature. I guess nature knows best. Vitamin E is an orchestra and not a soloist.

    Thank you for your time.

    WH Leong
    Vice President
    Carotech Inc
    Tel : 732 906 1901

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