What Happens When You Have a Vitamin E Deficiency

The complex family of vitamin E: 4 tocopherols and 4 tocotrienols

Vitamin E is the master antioxidant that helps in protecting body from the damaging effects of free radicals that lead to serious degenerative health conditions such as premature aging, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, lung disease, cataracts, cancers and even Alzheimer disease. However, this vitamin is not one particle, it’s actually a family of 8 potent peroxyl radical scavengers compounds i.e. 4 (alpha(α), beta (β), gamma (γ) and delta (δ) tocopherols and 4 (alpha, beta, gamma, and delta) tocotrienols, with unique biological function and health promoting benefits.


What Happens When You Have a Vitamin E Deficiency

In the 1970s, researchers attempted to discover the symptoms of a vitamin E deficiency by providing subjects (read: graduate students) with a diet completely devoid of vitamin E.  After a year on this diet, the subjects showed no signs of deficiency.  The researchers concluded that vitamin E was vitamin in search of a deficiency syndrome (such as C and scurvy or D and rickets).  Later, researchers found that many nutrient deficiencies do not show up as a classical deficiency syndrome, but rather surface years later as heart disease, cancer, or some other catastrophic disease.

The Shute brothers were MDs who began using high doses (400 iu/day and up) to reverse heart disease with great success.  Bruce Ames, PhD of the University of California at Berkeley has proposed that long term sub-clinical deficiencies of nutrients result in fragile DNA which leads to cancer.  Vitamin E, or tocopherol, comes from the Latin word for fertility, because animals deprived of vitamin E are sterile.  Vitamin E is essential in the human diet and the more we know about this crucial nutrient, the more we respect its ubiquitous role in human health.  There is no vitamin E in white flour since the valuable germ has been removed.

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Antioxidants Act as Free Radical Scavengers

Free radicals are produced during normal oxidation process inside your body, when it gets energy from food and utilizes it. These free radicals are highly unstable molecules that react rapidly with oxygen and form reactive oxygen species (ROS). These ROS cause “oxidative stress”, which leads to cell damage and inflammation. Antioxidants are substances that act as free radical scavenger and counteract this oxidative damage to cells and their DNA. Normally body cope up with some free radicals with the help of these antioxidants but when there is an overload due to environmental factors like stress, cigarette smoke, alcohol, ultraviolet radiation from the sun, air pollution; oxidation and formation of free radicals get accelerated and the cell damage caused by these free radicals leads to irreversible changes and chronic degenerative diseases.

Vitamin E DeficiencyVitamin E is a Fat-Soluble Antioxidant

Vitamin E is body’s primary fat-soluble antioxidant, which provides highly effective defence system against oxidative damage caused to the lipids found in cell membranes, nerves and hormones. Their unique power lies in their ability to neutralize peroxyl radicals and break the chain reaction of lipid peroxidation. Alpha and gamma tocopherol isomers of vitamin E are the two main antioxidant compounds. While, alpha-tocopherol neutralizes reactive oxygen; gamma-tocopherol besides complementing alpha-tocopherol’s activity, counteracts highly reactive nitrogen radicals and balances inflammation response, thereby has higher antioxidant and anticancer properties.

Thus, tocopherol compounds help in preventing inflammatory cellular damage caused by free radicals and maintaining integrity of cell membranes. This antioxidant mechanism not only prevents chronic debilitating diseases but also promotes strong immunity, healthy skin, proper vision and cognitive abilities.

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Interestingly, these health improving effects are further enhanced, when all the eight forms are provided opportunity to work synergistically and provide maximum antioxidant protection. Research suggest that other vitamin E isomers i.e. “tocotrienols” also have important therapeutic and preventive role in maintaining healthy lipid levels and promoting arterial health by reducing pro-inflammatory compounds and reversing atherosclerosis. These compounds also help in preventing neurodegenerative disorders, inhibiting cancer cell growth and proliferation, repairing damage caused by irradiation and improving life span.

Sources of Vitamin E:

Vitamin E DeficiencyThe whole gamut of eight vitamin E compounds exists naturally in a well-balanced, whole-food plant based diet. Mostly tocopherol and tocotrienol compounds are concentrated in different parts of a plant, for example tocopherols are found in the green parts while tocotrienols are found in the seed germ and bran. Some of the best sources of dietary vitamin E are: whole grains, nuts almonds, peanuts, hazelnuts, pecans, walnuts), nut butter, seeds (sunflower), dark green vegetables (spinach, broccoli, asparagus), some fruits (kiwi, mango, olives) and unrefined oils (wheat germ oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, corn oil, soybean oil, extra virgin olive oil). Other good sources include algae and mint teas.

The recommended dietary allowance to yield optimal serum vitamin E concentrations for significant reductions in chronic disease mortality is only 15 mg/day. However, modern busy lifestyle and dietary patterns make an average diet devoid of the quality and quantity of vitamin E required for maintaining optimal health and you may consider supplementing with vitamin E complex.

Though, vitamin E is safe, there is a controversy around vitamin E supplementation and several studies have raised questions around its antioxidant health benefits. Research suggest that mega-doses of Vitamin E (>400 IU/day) can increase the chances of death from coronary heart disease (CHD) and even speed up the development of latent cancers. Unfortunately, most of these studies evaluated the effect of supplementation with only one of eight forms i.e. alpha-tocopherol and that too in synthetic (dl-alpha-tocopherol) form. This kind of high dose, synthetic alpha-tocopherol supplementation decreases absorption of other tocopherols and tocotrienols and inhibits their ability to protect you against heart disease and cancers.

Maximum health benefits of Vitamin E

Therefore, the key to reap optimal vitamin E nutritional and health benefits is combining the full spectrum of these potential compounds in the right amount, as supplementing only one part of the complex may provide only limited antioxidant benefits of preventing and reversing degenerative diseases of aging. Before you take a vitamin E supplement, make sure that your supplement contains mixed (alpha, beta, delta, gamma) and natural (d-) form (and not synthetic (dl) form) of alpha-tocopherol around 30 IU (low-dose) and gamma-tocopherol around 60 mg. Take it 2-3times a week, as it is a fat soluble vitamin and gets stored in your body. Also, to make sure that you get sufficient amount of tocotrienols eat a variety of handful of raw nuts (almonds, pecans and walnuts) daily.

Who Can Take Vitamin E

Vitamin E supplements are especially advisable for people at risk of its deficiency for example elderly population, people on low-fat diet and who have digestive issues that make it difficult for their bodies to absorb this vitamin. Symptoms of vitamin E deficiency are numbness or tingling sensation in limbs; eye disorders and weakened immune system.

Though, cases of vitamin E toxicity are rare, large doses (>1,000 units) may trigger blood thinning or coagulation problems, so people with vitamin K deficiency or on anticoagulant drugs should avoid vitamin E supplements. For the same reason, it is advisable to stop taking vitamin E supplement, atleast 2 weeks beforehand, if you’re scheduled to have a surgery.

Diabetics, people with a history of a previous heart attack or stroke, suffering from head and neck cancer, and liver disease should also avoid vitamin E supplements. Also, pregnant women should be careful as high levels may cause some complications in developing baby. Over-dosage of vitamin E may also cause gastrointestinal disturbances, nausea, weakness, headache and impaired immune function.

Dr. Patrick Quillin

Dr. Patrick Quillin, PhD,RD,CNS is an internationally recognized expert in the area of nutrition and health. He has 30 years experience as a clinical nutritionist, of which 10 years were spent as the Vice President for a leading cancer hospital system where he worked with thousands of cancer patients in a hospital setting. He is a Best Selling Author with 18 books which have sold over 2,000,000 copies and also a Keynote Speaker.

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