Vitamin E is one of the more popular vitamin supplements. It is important for our well-being, although how beneficial it is to supplement is debatable.
What is Vitamin E?
Vitamin E is a group of compounds. These are called tocopherols. This name derives from two Greek words meaning 'child birth' and 'to bring forth.' The word tocopherol was applied to these vitamin E compounds because animals deficient in vitamin E were found to have unsuccessful pregnancies.
What Does it Do?
Tocopherols are fat-soluble. Their absorption depends also on effective fat absorption and digestion. Because of this, stomach, liver and pancreatic diseases can cause deficiencies. Vitamin E is especially useful as an anti-oxidant.
Where Do We Get it From?
We get vitamin E from food sources. It is found in nuts, seeds, most vegetable oils, lettuce, whole grains, green leafy vegetables and soya. There is also some in dairy produce and eggs. A little is found in animal products too.
Vitamin E, due to its anti-oxidant properties, helps to prevent foods derived from vegetables from going off. It therefore acts as a natural preservative. Unfortunately, chemical preservatives are usually used in commercially produced food instead.
How Much Do We Need?
How much we need depends on how our intake of polyunsaturated fats. If we eat more polyunsaturated fats, we also need more vitamin E. However, most polyunsaturates that we eat also contain sufficient amounts of vitamin E. Most adults require 8-10mg daily. More is needed by pregnant and lactating women. Less is needed by infants, although premature babies, especially, are often deficient.
What Are the Symptoms and Signs of a Deficiency?
There are no signs that you can rely on to diagnose a deficiency, but lack of vitamin E can lead to many health problems. Some of these problems in adults include mild anemia, cataracts, neurological damage, infertility, gastrointestinal diseases, leg cramps, muscle weakness, decreased blood circulation and enlarged prostate. In babies and children, problems caused by a deficiency include lack of coordination, muscle weakness, a motor speech disorder, slow growth, weight-loss, eye disease, ataxia and chronic liver disease.
Should We Supplement?
People without any medical conditions who eat a healthy, well-balanced diet are not likely to benefit too much from vitamin E supplementation. Also, as a fat-soluble vitamin, we store it in the liver and in fat cells. This means that it can potentially be toxic in large doses, so it is best to be careful when deciding whether or not to supplement with vitamin E.
There are some situations when vitamin E supplementation may be useful, however. These include:
- In people with coronary artery disease and bad leg circulation. Vitamin E has been shown to help with bad blood circulation in the legs and may, therefore, be helpful in overall blood circulation. Its benefit to people with coronary artery disease is uncertain, however.
- Supplementation can help to lower cholesterol, especially in young people.
- Stroke victims may benefit from supplementation.
- Premature babies may need supplementation due to a deficiency. They are also susceptible to damage from oxygen while being incubated and vitamin E may help to prevent, or reduce, such damage.
- Other conditions which have been helped by vitamin E include some blood diseases, premenstrual tension, menopausal hot flushes, period pains, osteoarthritis and leg ulcers.
- Absorption of vitamin E may be affected in people with cystic fibrosis and those with diseases of the liver and pancreas. Therefore, in these cases, special forms of vitamin E supplementation may be needed.
If you have any of these health problems you should consult your doctor. Do not self-supplement with high doses of vitamin E as it can be toxic over time. Those taking anticoagulant medications should be especially careful and avoid any kind of vitamin E supplementation without proper medical advice. Diabetics too should be cautious of taking vitamin E supplements. Some cases of diabetics being able to reduce their insulin after taking vitamin E have been reported. This, however, could be dangerous if their insulin requirements are unexpectedly affected. It may trigger hypoglycemic attacks.
Overall, it is best to get your vitamin E intake from food sources. If you feel you want to increase your levels, simply include more of the foods that contain it in your diet. A balanced, healthy diet is key to adequate nutrition.