Vitamin E is recognised as an important liposoluble antioxidant. It protects the lipoid structures of our cell membrane from oxidants, otherwise known as free radicals. Free radicals are highly reactive oxygen compounds because they have one electron missing. They are quite aggressive as they attempt to become complete as quickly as possible. Like a pickpocket, they steal the electron they need from the nearest molecule and so damage the cell membrane or the DNA. This results in an almost infinite chain reaction of oxidative processes – in other words, of stealing from and being robbed.
Antioxidants – protection against electron theft
Thankfully, help is at hand against electron theft: the radical catchers or antioxidants. These include vitamin E. Antioxidants hinder the oxidative process (1) because they have extra electrons to give away. They actively seek out the free radicals and give them the missing electrons. This stops the chain reaction, as everything now has what it needs.
"Changed eating habits mean we are consuming fewer and fewer antioxidants in the form of natural vitamin E."
And our body can cope with a few attacks by oxidants. Oxidative processes are in fact essential for the human organism’s survival. Free radicals activate our self healing forces and destroy disease-causing germs by triggering inflammatory processes. Despite the benefits of oxidants to health, it is important to delay the point at which they gain the upper hand for as long as possible.
Vitamin E helps against oxidative stress
Although the antioxidants work really well and attempt to maintain a balance with the oxidants, they do have certain limitations. An imbalance, and so a preponderance of oxidation processes, is inevitable. Over the years, our bodies rust like old iron. The natural ageing process sets in and significant membrane damage ensues. Cells stop working properly or die.
We cannot halt the ageing process, but we can slow it down by avoiding oxidative stress and trying to live a healthy life. This includes avoiding excessive alcohol consumption and smoking (2), as well as foods containing industrially produced fats and pesticide residues – an undertaking that is not always easy to achieve. Nowadays we are more susceptible to free radicals than our ancestors: air pollution, long-term stress, pesticides and lack of exercise all take their toll. And to make matters worse, changed dietary habits mean that we are also consuming fewer and fewer antioxidants in the form of natural vitamin E (3, 4).
Complete protection against the ageing process
It is well worth keeping vitamin E on the menu! For instance, vitamin E hinders agglutination of the platelets and prevents oxidation of harmful LDL cholesterol. This optimises blood flow and means that less fat and calcium is stored on the arterial walls. The risk of thrombosis, strokes and heart attacks can be minimised (5). A current Italian study shows that vitamin E can reduce the risk of heart attack by around twenty per cent (6).
Vitamin E also has an important role to play with regard to the cognitive impairments frequently associated with the ageing process. Our current assumption is that oxidative stress is a contributory factor in Alzheimer’s disease. The consumption of vitamin E does not prevent the onset of the disease, but it can slow its course (7) because vitamin E can preserve the protective cloak around the brain’s nerve cells. With increasing age, the immune system and the eyes often grow weaker. Vitamin E strengthens the body’s defences for old people in particular (8) and prevents opacity of the eye lens (9). And these are all benefits that improve our quality of life.
Alpha-tocopherol: more effective than anything else
Vitamin E has a relatively complex structure and serves as an umbrella term for eight liposoluble substances, the tocopherols and tocotrienols, which the body cannot form itself. Vitamin E is most effective as a holistic team with all its natural secondary associated materials.
But one member of the vitamin E family outshines the rest: alpha-tocopherol. Unfortunately only a pale imitation of alpha-tocopherol can be produced synthetically. Natural vitamin E is preferable as it has the closest affinity to the human organism. And natural alpha-tocopherol is far more effective than its synthetic equivalent. The bioactivity of natural alpha-tocopherol is around 50 per cent higher (10).
Vegetable oils – a natural source of vitamin E
Cold pressed vegetable oils are an excellent source of alpha-tocopherol. Wheat germ, sunflower and safflower oil have the highest alpha-tocopherol content. But the aromatic almond, apricot and sesame oils also contain healthy vitamin E. The best choice is a product that is organically grown, which avoids subjecting the body to harmful substances such as pesticides. These constitute an unnecessary increase in the oxidative stress factor (11).
- Article "Vitamin E in brief"
1) Biesalski H.K., Köhrle J., Schümann K.: Vitamine, Spurenelemente und Mineralstoffe. 14–18, Georg Thieme Verlag; Stuttgart/New York 2002
2) Bruno RS., et al. A-Tocopherol disappearance is faster in cigarette smokers and is inversely related to their ascorbic acid status. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005; 81:95–103
4) Maras JE., et al. Intake of alpha-tocopherol is limited among US adults. J Am Diet Assoc. 2004;104:567–575
5) Glynn R., et al. Effects of Random Allocation to Vitamin E Supplementation on the Occurrence of Venous Thromboembolism: report from the Women´s Health Study. Circulation 2007; 116:1497–1503
6) Loffredo L., et al. Supplementation with vitamin E alone is associated with reduced myocardial infarction: a meta-analysis. Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases. Published online February 2012
7) The TEAM-AD VA Cooperative Randomized Trial. JAMA. 2014; 311(1): 33–44
8) Meydani SN., et al. Vitamin E and respiratory tract infections in elderly nursing home residents: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA. 2004; 292:828–836
9) Leske MC., et al. Antioxidant vitamins and nuclear opacities: the longitudinal study of cataract. Ophthalmology 1998; 105:831–836
10) https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminE-HealthProfessional, Jan. 2016
11) International Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences Review and Research, Volume 3, Issue 1, July–August 2010; Article 021, ISSN 0976–044X