Vitamin E – more than just an anti-oxidant.

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We need a good supply of Vitamin E to prevent cancer formation, help heart and brain health, reduce inflammation and bolster the immune system.  Vitamin E comprises 2 groups of 4 fat soluble compounds called tocopherols and tocotrienols.  Each group splits into alpha, beta, delta and gamma tocopherols and tocotrienols, with the alpha tocopherol compound most predominant in the tissues.  Scientists noted this and most research has centred on alpha tocopherol only, which has resulted in mixed findings and arguments.  More recent research came to realise the importance of the other compounds in Vitamin E as a group.  Here is a quote from some research published in 2007:

Tocopherols may modulate the development and progression of cardiovascular disease, cancer and neurological abnormalities as well as immune function, natriuresis [natriuresis means the excretion of sodium; therefore Vitamin E can act like a diuretic or water pill] and inflammation.  These newly identified functions of the tocopherols appear un-related to their Vitamin E associated bioactivity, rather, it is observed that subtle chemical differences in structure and/or function between the various tocopherols are responsible for the different biological properties they manifest.1

The uptake mechanism in the body led the scientists to believing in the supremacy of alpha-tocopherol.  Vitamin E gets absorbed through the small intestine, then trundled to the liver in the largest cholesterol, chylomicrons, from there the liver repackages it into VLDL cholesterol for delivery to the tissues.  VLDL cholesterol has greatest affinity for alpha-tocopherol, whilst not totally ignoring the others.

Interest in the other tocopherols caused scientists to find that people with heart disease have low levels of gamma-tocopherol in their tissues.  Other findings concern Vitamin E as an antioxidant.  The term anti-oxidant implies oxygen as the criminal, however, oxygen has a partner in trouble-making: nitrogen, as touched on in the blog on Vitamin C.  Vitamin E fights the battle against cancer forming agents  by using alpha tocopherol to neutralise the oxygen based free radicals and gamma tocopherol against the nitrogen ones.   Scientists are also coming to believe that nitrogen based oxidants generate the cellular damage associated with chronic inflammation.

In researching Vitamin E, I came across a good page on the web,, that summarised some of the latest thinkings on Vitamin E.  Apart from talking about the anti-oxidant qualities of both alpha and gamma-tocopherol, it also  says it inhibits the activity of Cox-2.  Now Cox-2 gets upregulated when tumours are present, so builds tumours and excessive inflammation.  Finally, the article points out that to protect against prostate cancer, we need not only alpha-tocopherol and selenium but also good levels of gamma-tocopherol.

So the body needs a good supply of balanced, natural Vitamin E to maintain good health.  As we age, it has been found that particularly gamma-tocopherol levels decline.  Difficulties with fat digestion will also lower levels of Vitamin E in the body.  These difficulties are characterised by intolerance of fatty food and the causes can be Chron’s disease, cystic fibrosis or lack of bile, the substance produced by the body to break down fats.2 The anti-oxidant qualities of Vitamin E alone make it an important supplement and the best supplements will have equal ratio of natural alpha to gamma tocopherol plus delta and beta tocopherols present, whereas the supplements containing alpha-tocopherol alone should be avoided.  The term dl alpha tocopherol denotes man made and so inferior, with some relating it to causing damage.

  1. Tanaka Y, Wood L AL, Cooney RV.  Enhancement of intracellular γ-tocopherol levels in cytokine-stimulated C3H 10T1/2 fibroblasts: relation to NO synthesis, isoprostane formation, and tocopherol oxidation.  BMC Chemical Bio 2007, 7:2 []
  2. There are also a couple of genetic conditions that mean the body cannot process Vitamin E.  These people need to supplement heavily with properly balanced natural Vitamin E []

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