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Vitamin E

A superstar nutrient with antioxidant capability, vitamin E offers a multitude of preventive benefits, including protection against heart disease, cancer and a broad range of other disorders.  Working at the body's cellular level, vitamin E may even slow the ageing process.

What it is?

Vitamin E is a generic term for a group of related compounds called tocopherols, which occur in four major forms:  alpha-, beta-, delta-, and gamma-tocopherols.  Alpha-tocopherol is the most common and most potent form of the vitamin.  Because it's fat-soluble, vitamin E is stored in the body, mainly in fat tissue and the liver.  Vitamin E is found in only a few foods, and many of these are high in fat, which makes it difficult to get the amount of vitamin E you require while on a healthy, low-fat diet.  Therefore, supplements can be very useful in obtaining optimal amounts of this nutrient.

What it does?

One of vitamin E's basic functions is to protect cell membranes.  It also helps the body to use selenium and vitamin K.  but vitamin E's current reputation comes from its disease-fighting potential as an antioxidant – meaning that it assists in destroying or neutralizing free radicals, the unstable oxygen molecules that cause damage to cells.

Major Benefits

By safeguarding cell membranes and acting as an antioxidant, vitamin E may play a role in preventing cancer.  Some of the most compelling research to date suggests that vitamin E can help to protect against cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke, by reducing the harmful effects of LDL ('bad') cholesterol and by preventing blood clots.  In addition, vitamin E may offer protection because it works to reduce inflammatory processes that have been linked to heart disease.  Findings from two large studies suggest that vitamin E may reduce the risk of heart disease by 25-50%, and it may prevent chest pain (angina) as well.  And recent findings suggest that taking vitamin E with vitamin C may help block some of the harmful effects of a fatty meal.

Additional Benefits

Because it protects cells from free-radical damage, some experts think that vitamin E may retard the ageing process.  There is also evidence to suggest that it improves immune function in the elderly, combats toxins from cigarette smoke and other pollutants, treats Parkinson's disease, postpones the development of cataracts and slows the progression of Alzheimer's disease.

Other research found that vitamin E can relieve the severe leg pain caused by a circulatory problem called intermittent claudication.  It may alleviate premenstrual breast pain and tenderness as well.  In addition, many people report that applying creams or oils containing vitamin E to skin wounds promotes healing.

Common Uses

  • Helps to protect against heart disease, certain cancers and various other chronic ailments.
  • May delay or prevent cataracts.
  • Enhances the immune system.
  • Protects against secondhand smoke and other pollutants.
  • Helps skin to heal.


  • Capsule.
  • Tablet.
  • Soft gel.
  • Cream.
  • Oil.
  • Liquid.


  • People on prescription blood-thinning drugs (anticoagulants) or aspirin should consult their doctor before using vitamin E.
  • Do not take vitamin E days before or after surgery.
  • Reminder:  If you have a medical condition, talk to your doctor before taking supplements.

How much you need?

The RDI for vitamin E is 7 mg (equivalent to 10 IU) for women and 10 mg (equivalent to 15 IU) for men daily.  Although this amount may be enough to prevent a deficiency, higher doses are needed to provide the full antioxidant effect.

If you get too little:

Intakes of vitamin E below the RDI can lead to neurological damage and shorten the life of red blood cells.  If you're eating a balanced diet, however, you're probably not at risk.

If you get too much:

No toxic effects from large doses of vitamin E have been discovered, even at levels as high as 3200 IU a day.  Minor effects, such as headaches and diarrhoea, have rarely been reported.  But large doses of vitamin E can interfere with the absorption of vitamin A.

How to take it?


To obtain the disease-fighting potential of vitamin E, many experts recommend 400-800 IU daily in capsule or tablet form.  (This total includes amounts you get in a multivitamin.)  Doses of up to 1200 IU have been recommended for people at high risk of heart disease and certain cancers.  It may be particularly effective when taken with vitamin C.

Guidelines for use:

Try to take vitamin E supplements at the same time each day.  Combining it with a meal decreases stomach irritation and increases the absorption of this fat-soluble vitamin.  For topical use (to help prevent scarring), break open a capsule and apply the oil directly to your skin, or use a commercial cream containing vitamin E as needed.

Other Sources

Wheatgerm is an outstanding dietary source of vitamin E:  30 g (about 2 tablespoons) contains the equivalent of 54 IU.  Beneficial amounts of vitamin E are also found in vegetable oils, and nuts and seeds (almonds, hazelnuts, sunflower seeds), as well as green leafy vegetables and whole grains.

Shopping Hints

  • Alpha-tocopherol is the most prevalent form of vitamin E, but some labels now list 'mixed tocopherols'.  Any form of vitamin E is beneficial, but the body absorbs the mixed form most efficiently.
  • Some studies have shown that synthetic vitamin E (usually labeled 'dl-alpha') is absorbed only half as well as natural vitamin E supplements made from wheatgerm or soya oil.  Although it's more expensive, natural vitamin E may be a better choice.

Latest Findings

  • In a recent study of thousands of smokers, vitamin E supplements reduced the risk of prostate cancer by 33% and the death rate from the disease by 41%.  The dosage was 50 IU a day, indicating that even low doses of vitamin E may offer protective benefits.
  • Taking vitamin E supplements may strengthen the immune systems of older people.  In a study of 88 healthy subjects aged 65 and older, those taking 200 IU of vitamin E each day showed the greatest increase in immune-system responses (such as a build-up of antibodies to fight disease.)

Did you know?

You'd have to eat more than 2 kg of hazelnuts or 294 tablespoons of mayonnaise to get the vitamin E supplied by one 500 IU capsule.