What do different types of nutshells have in common? Besides their hard and sturdy outer layer, it is one healthy ingredient that they tend to store inside. The name of this ingredient is vitamin E–an essential nutrient to our health and wellbeing.
It may come as a surprise, but strictly speaking, vitamin E is not a single nutrient. In fact, vitamin E refers to a group of 8 different compounds. However, only one out of these 8 compounds, alpha-tocopherol, is stored and used by the human body. Thus, when speaking about vitamin E in relation to nutrition and health, we always refer to alpha-tocopherol.
Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin with multiple roles in the body. It is called fat-soluble because it “likes” to exist only in fats. In particular, vitamin E has a preference for plant-based oils. And because nuts are naturally rich in these oils, they become saturated with vitamin E. That is how it ends up being so abundant in a nutshell. For the same reason, vitamin E can be found in large amounts inside seeds.
That is vitamin E in a nutshell. Now let’s take a closer look at this important vitamin.
Vitamin E is essential for the health and proper functioning of the human body, and plays the following important roles (1, 4):
1) Antioxidant –a potent antioxidant, vitamin E prevents damage from harmful substances called free radicals that arise from multiple sources including exposure to x-rays, ozone, cigarette smoking, air pollutants, and food preservatives, as well as normal metabolic activity of the body. This can help prevent chronic health diseases such as cardiovascular disease, arthritis, cancer and strokes.
2) Immune booster – vitamin E promotes a healthy immune system and improves its functioning.
3) Red blood cell maker – vitamin E plays an important role in RBC production. Red blood cells are the most abundant cells of the body. They supply all body tissues with oxygen from the lungs and carry carbon dioxide away. Their healthy appearance and amount is absolutely essential for health.
4) Vasodilator – vitamin E promotes healthy widening of blood vessels, which supports normal blood flow and helps reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
5) Blood thinner – vitamin E is a natural blood thinner that helps prevent the formation of blood clots, which can be dangerous for health. Vitamin E helps keep our blood-clotting cells, platelets, apart and prevents their clumping. Also, vitamin E maintains a balance with another important nutrient – vitamin K, which is known to promote blood clotting.
6) Cell communication facilitator – cells constantly communicate between each other and their environments via special messages called signals in order to maintain healthy functioning of tissues, organs and body systems. Vitamin E plays a key role in this communication process of cells signaling with each other.
7) Gene expression coordinator – vitamin E helps in regulation of gene expression. This is an essential function for the production of new proteins, cells and other essential body components from the instructions found within the genes.
Vitamin E Deficiency
The good news is that vitamin E deficiency is very rare in developed countries. However, some reports state that inadequate vitamin E consumption from diet is widespread. According to some estimates over 90% of Americans do not get sufficient amounts of vitamin E from their diets (5).
This is unlikely to result in complete deficiency. However, it will also likely fail to provide all the potential benefits of vitamin E or fully meet the body’s demands for it. Also, some health conditions may place certain individuals at high risk for vitamin E deficiency. These conditions include (7, 8):
- chronic pancreatitis
- cystic fibrosis
- liver cirrhosis
- Crohn’s disease
Signs and Symptoms of Deficiency
Low levels of vitamin E in the body typically lead to the following signs and symptoms (1):
- Retinopathy – damage of the retina in the eyes which may lead to loss of vision and blindness.
- Peripheral neuropathy – damage to nerves (usually in the hands and feet) resulting in numbness, tingling, pain and loss of strength.
- Ataxia – inability to control body movements.
- Weakened immune system.
The recommended daily dose of vitamin E for males and females 14 years of age and older is 15mg or 22 IU (international units) a day (1). This threshold is slightly higher for lactating women at 19mg or 28 IU daily (1).
Vitamin E Rich Foods
As mentioned earlier, Vitamin E is abundant in nuts. Certain seeds have very high content of vitamin E as well. Oils produced from these nuts and seeds are also naturally rich in this vitamin. Some other plants, certain types of seafood and duck follow suit. Here is a list of commonly found foods that contain highest amounts of vitamin E (1, 6):
- sunflower, safflower and soybean oils
- sunflower seeds
- almonds and almond butter
- peanuts and peanut butter
- hazelnuts and hazelnut butter
- pine nuts
- brazil nuts
- beet/turnip/collard greens and spinach
- goose meat
- abalone, Atlantic salmon and rainbow trout
Vitamin E Supplementation
Multiple studies examining vitamin E supplementation were conducted in recent years, and the following potential benefits have been summarized:
1) Heart disease risk factors – there are several risk factors that can negatively affect heart health leading to cardiovascular disease. Among main risk factors are high blood pressure, high blood levels of LDL (bad cholesterol) and triglycerides. Studies found that vitamin E supplementation can help lower systolic blood pressure (the top number) without affecting the diastolic blood pressure (bottom number) (2).
Research also showed that taking vitamin E supplementation in combination with omega-3 supplement may reduce levels of LDL cholesterol and triglycerides in people with metabolic syndrome (a cluster of conditions including hypertension, high blood sugar, high lipids and obesity) (2). Individuals with metabolic syndrome are known to be at very high risk for cardiovascular disease.
2) Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) – People with NAFLD have abnormal accumulation of fatty deposits in the liver not related to excessive alcohol consumption. Vitamin E supplementation was found to promote better lipid profile and lower levels of liver enzymes in the blood (2). Liver enzymes tend to be high in liver inflammation and damage.
3) Dysmenorrhea – this condition is characterized by painful menstrual periods and cramps. Vitamin E supplementation of 200 IU was shown to reduce pain during periods. Pain relief was found to be even better when vitamin E was combined with omega-3 supplement containing 180mg of EPA and 120mg of DHA fatty acids (2).
4) Skin health – there is evidence that vitamin E plays an important role in reducing UV damage to the skin (3). Supplementation with vitamin E has also shown promising results of reducing symptoms of atopic dermatitis (eczema) (2).
5) Cognitive health – obtaining recommended daily amount of vitamin E or taking vitamin E supplement may help decrease cognitive decline in people with normal brain functioning (2).
6) Lung function – certain studies have shown that vitamin E supplementation may improve respiratory function and even reduce symptoms of asthma in children and adults (2).
7) Healthy aging – vitamin E may be recommended for healthy aging, especially for older adults who do not obtain enough vitamin E through their diet. Supplementation may help these older adults live longer and maintain a higher quality of life thanks to improved functioning of the immune system, better cardiovascular health and antioxidant protection (2).
It is important to consult with a clinician when considering vitamin E supplementation as it may interfere with some medications (7).
Multiple studies examined the potential of vitamin E toxicity, and no evidence of vitamin E toxicity from diet or supplementation has been found in healthy people. However, high vitamin E intake above 1,000mg (1465 IU) may result in excess bleeding, especially in individuals taking blood-thinning medications such as warfarin (1). That is why 1,000mg a day is recognized as the upper limit, but vitamin E is considered a very safe nutrient overall.
1) Vitamin E
2) 8 Unique Benefits of Vitamin E
3) Vitamin E and Your Skin, Friends Through Food
4) Vitamin E
5) Vitamin E Inadequacy in Humans: Causes and Consequences
6) 20 Foods That Are High in Vitamin E
7) How to Identify and Treat a Vitamin E Deficiency