Vitamin E

Vitamin E is a powerful anti-oxidant, which means that it neutralizes unstable substances known as free radicals that can cause damage, especially to the cell membranes. It is, therefore, able to provide protection against a wide variety of degenerative conditions, such as heart disease, strokes, senility, arthritis, diabetes and possibly cancer. It also helps to reduce the likelihood of blood clots forming in the blood vessels, causing blockage.

An important function of vitamin E in the context of eye diseases is that it relieves excessive accumulation of fluid (edema), which can be a cause of glaucoma.

Vitamin E promotes fertility, reduces or prevents the hot flushes of menopause, and protects the body from pollution. Stamina and endurance can be increased by adequate vitamin E intake.

Vitamin E is particularly beneficial to the skin, both when taken in the diet and when vitamin E oil is applied externally to the skin. It helps to keep the skin looking younger, promotes healing and minimizes the risk of excessive scar formation. It has been reported to be beneficial for eczema, skin ulcers and viral infections, such as cold sores and shingles.

Good food sources

Vitamin E is composed of a family of closely related substances that are present in vegetable oils, especially wheat germ oil, nuts, seeds, soy beans, whole grains, lettuce and other green vegetables. Vitamin E is easily lost in food processing, such as milling, cooking and freezing, and when food is stored or exposed to the air. Its qualities are preserved best if it is extracted from seeds and grains by cold pressing rather than by the use of heat or chemicals. It is less easily stored in the body than the other fat-soluble vitamins.

What if your intake is too low?

Vitamin E deficiency is uncommon in healthy adults, and the symptoms are vague. They include fatigue, inflamed varicose veins, slow healing of wounds and burns, sub-fertility and premature ageing. Other symptoms, however, may be poorly identified and not specifically associated with vitamin E deficiency. Low levels of vitamin E in the blood have been found in association with a wide range of conditions such as acne, certain types of anaemia, gum disease, some types of gallstones and muscle disease, some kinds of dementia such as Alzheimer's disease, and some cancers.

When extra may be needed

  • If you eat a lot of refined carbohydrates or fried food
  • If your diet is high in polyunsaturated fats
  • If you are prone to pre-menstrual symptoms, especially painful breasts, or have painful periods
  • To reduce menopausal flushes and itching, especially of the vulva
  • If you have poor circulation or suffer leg cramps at night
  • If you have heart disease, or after a stroke
  • If you suffer from Dupuytren's contracture (thickening of the ligaments of the hand)
  • To relieve the painful or swollen joints caused by osteoarthritis
  • When taking the birth-control pill or receiving hormone replacement therapy
  • During pregnancy or when breast feeding
  • If you are exposed to pollution, or drink chlorinated water

(Pregnant and breast feeding women should consult a doctor, midwife, or qualified nutritional therapist before taking any vitamin or mineral supplements.)

Can too much be toxic?

Toxicity is unlikely, as the body can eliminate any excess in the urine and faeces. A high intake of vitamin E can cause nausea, abdominal wind and diarrhoea. You should consult your doctor before taking supplements of vitamin E if you have high blood pressure, or take anti-coagulant ('blood thinning') medication or insulin.

Using a supplement

Vitamin E is destroyed by inorganic iron (ferrous sulphate), which should be taken at least eight hours apart from a vitamin E supplement. The other forms of iron are less likely to have this effect. Vitamin E supplements are less effective if taken at the same time as the birth-control pill. Vitamin E can also be absorbed through the skin, and this provides an alternative route for small amounts of vitamin E.