Quick: What does vitamin E do in the body?
Have no idea? You’re not alone.
When it comes to micronutrients, you can probably list at least one major function for most vitamins and minerals. For example: calcium for bone health; iron for healthy blood; vitamin C for a strong immune system. But what about vitamin E? If you don’t know much about this under appreciated compound, keep reading.
Vitamin E is often referred to as “the fertility vitamin.” Studies in animals and humans have shown that a deficiency of vitamin E interferes with healthy reproductive function. Beyond this, however, vitamin E has other important roles throughout the body, but especially in the brain and the rest of the central nervous system.
Neurons, which are cells that enable proper cognitive function and communication between the brain and muscle cells for coordination of motion, are built largely out of cholesterol and polyunsaturated fats. These compounds are highly susceptible to oxidative damage. If you’ve ever had a bottle of oil or a jar of nuts sit around too long and discover they’ve developed a foul odor or flavor, that rancidity is the result of oxidation. The same thing that happens to these food sources of fat happens inside the body, as well. Vitamin E is a potent antioxidant, and it protects these fats from oxidation. It’s not surprising, then, that some of the richest sources of vitamin E are nuts and seeds, which have a high content of unsaturated fats. Nature has conveniently packaged these foods together with this protective compound. But since human beings don’t come packaged with all the vitamins and minerals we need, we need to make sure we get them from a good diet and proper supplementation.
Patients with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) have been found to have lower levels of vitamin E in the cerebrospinal fluid that nourishes and protects the brain. And since high levels of oxidative stress in the brain may potentially contribute to AD, vitamin E may help protect neurons from undergoing this damage. Studies using supplemental vitamin E in Alzheimer’s patients have shown mixed results, but the bulk of the findings support a beneficial role. The same can be said for other neurological and neuromuscular conditions, such as ataxia (which involves abnormal and uncoordinated physical movements) and tardive dyskinesia (also involving involuntary and abnormal movements).
Vitamin E is not a single substance, but rather, a complex of sub-fractions. Many commercial multivitamins contain vitamin E with a high proportion of its alpha-tocopherol unit, but a growing body of research suggests that the gamma-tocopherol fraction has unique properties and may be more potent. Also, gamma tocopherol represents about 70% of the vitamin E consumed in a typical US diet.
Now that you know how important vitamin E is for neurological health, where can you find vitamin E? The foods richest in vitamin E are nuts and seeds, whole grains, and vegetable oils, such as corn, soybean, and safflower oils. However, large intake of these oils is not recommended, since that can skew the dietary omega-6/omega-3 fatty acid ratio toward the potentially pro-inflammatory omega-6 pathways (undesirable). Leafy green vegetables also contain substantial amounts of vitamin E.
While overt vitamin E deficiency is rare, it’s not unheard of. Vitamin E deficiency can result from inborn errors related to metabolism of the vitamin, as well as disorders of lipid (fat) absorption, transport, and assimilation. Conditions that affect digestive efficiency, such as celiac disease and Crohn’s disease, may interfere with proper absorption of fat-soluble nutrients. Biliary insufficiency resulting from compromised liver or gallbladder function may also contribute. An additional—and increasing—cause of vitamin and mineral deficiency is bariatric surgery. While this has been a lifesaving procedure for many people, altering the anatomy of the digestive tract can have severe consequences for nutrient absorption, so people who have undergone this procedure should work with their physicians to ensure sufficient nutrient uptake in the body.
- Ulatowski L, Manor D. Vitamin E trafficking in neurologic health and disease. Annu Rev Nutr. 2013;33:87-103.
- Kontush K, Schekatolina S. Vitamin E in neurodegenerative disorders: Alzheimer's disease. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2004 Dec;1031:249-62.
- Wagner KH, Kamal-Eldin A, Elmadfa I. Gamma-tocopherol--an underestimated vitamin? Ann Nutr Metab. 2004;48(3):169-88.
- Landais A. Neurological complications of bariatric surgery. Obes Surg. 2014 Oct;24(10):1800-7.
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