Vitamin E is a naturally occurring fat-soluble vitamin. It is found in some foods or added to others through fortification. The other vitamins in this group are vitamin A, D and K. there are eight forms of the vitamin but only one, alpha-tocopherol is preferentially used by the body. In cases of vitamin E deficiency, only this form can be used to correct the problem. This is the form that is found outside the liver in the largest amounts.
Functions of vitamin E
- It acts as an antioxidant and prevents free radicals’ damage to tissues. The effects of the alpha-tocopherol end once its molecule neutralizes a free radical molecule. However, vitamin C, another powerful antioxidant, is capable of recycling the used vitamin E molecule to continue with its free radical scavenging work.
- Support cell-mediated immunity
- Other forms of the vitamin are also antioxidants. The tocotrienol and gamma tocopherols are particularly effective in scavenging for reactive nitrogen species
- Helps to dilate blood vessels and inhibit platelets from coagulating together on the vessel lining. This thins the blood which facilitate easier flow
Signs and symptoms of vitamin E deficiency
Overt vitamin E deficiency is not common. Subtle deficiency may present with nonspecific symptoms. According to a number of studies, up to 93% of the American population gets vitamin E below the recommended daily allowance. As the problem worsens, more definite signs will arise. These include:
- Muscle weakness and wasting
- Neurological disorders such as loss of coordination and balance. Simple movements such as repeated hand movement from nose to mouth may be impossible for a person with this deficiency. Some of these neurological problems do not fully recover even with treatment
- Poor reflexes
- Poor sense of vibration and position. This means a person is unable to tell the position they are in in relation to certain coordinates
- Vision problems
- Liver disorders
- Mental disorders
- Blindness, dementia and abnormal heartbeats are late and ominous signs of chronic deficiency
Causes and risk factors of vitamin E deficiency
Primary vitamin E deficiency may be caused by severe and prolonged malnutrition. Since it is a fat soluble vitamin, the body can have enough stock of the vitamin to last it through temporary unavailability. Risk factors include:
- Premature babies
- Genetic disorders in the metabolism of alpha-tocopherol
- Low or no fat diet
- Malabsorption disorders such as inflammatory bowel disease
- Poor coordination between the pancreas, biliary secretions, micelle formation (needs adequate bile flow) and the state of the gut for effective absorption of the vitamin. Any problem along this process leads to issue with the vitamin’s functions and possible deficiency. Cystic fibrosis is a disorder that can lead to poor pancreatic juice secretion.
- Short-bowel syndrome. This can follow gut surgery that involve gut severance or other procedures that reduce the length of the gut. This effectively reduces the surface area needed for adequate vitamin E absorption.
Early detection and treatment of vitamin E has a good outcome. Late diagnosis can lead to permanent health issues even with effective medical intervention.
Sources of vitamin E
Vitamin E is sourced from plants. Here vegans and other people have a wide range of sources to choose from. They include:
- Plant-based oils such as corn, canola, sunflower, soybean and safflower oils.
- Roasted sunflower kennels
- Cooked spinach
- Nutritional supplements
- Wheat germ oil
- Kiwi fruits
- Vitamin E fortified foods and drinks
Specific health benefits of vitamin E
The specific health benefits of vitamin E probably arise from its main three functions. These are:
- Its antioxidant properties
- Its anti-platelet congregation properties (prevents clot formations in the blood vessels)
- Its immune-modulation effects.
When these properties work together they result in a wide range of benefits that include the following.
Supports cardiovascular health
This comes about through the reduced risk of clots forming in the blood vessels (therefore reducing risk of stroke) and the prevention of oxidation of low-density lipoproteins (bad cholesterol). This reduces the risk of vessels degeneration (atherosclerosis). More than one study has supported the view that vitamin E is vital for heart health.
High intake of vitamin E is associated with a lower risk of eye disorders. One study found that people who took adequate amounts of vitamin E had a 20% lower risk of developing age-related macular degeneration. The risk of cataracts also appears to reduce with this nutrient.
As an antioxidant, vitamin E reduces DNA damage and lowers the risk of mutation and malignant changes to cells. It is also thought that the vitamin is capable of preventing the absorption of the carcinogenic compounds called nitrites from the gut. The immune-modulation effects are also thought to support the body against the development of cancer. A study that followed almost a million people for about 17 years found that vitamin E had protective properties against bladder cancer.
Research-backed other benefits of vitamin E include
- Reduces risk of type 2 diabetes
- May reduce the risk of fatty liver disease
- Promotes cognition
- Reduces PMS symptoms
- Thought to support fertility
- May help in the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease
- Healthy pregnancy and prevention of preeclampsia
- Can be used as an addition to the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis
As a fat soluble vitamin, vitamin E can accumulate in the body and potentially cause toxicity. This is unlikely with food sources but supplements can lead to the problem. Common toxicity symptoms include:
- Severe toxicity will cause coagulation problems and hemorrhage
- May inhibit the uptake of vitamin K
- Abdominal pains
- Visual problems
- Generalized tiredness
Vitamin E can interact with a wide range of medications. If you are on any treatment, then consult your doctor before taking the vitamin and determine whether there is a risk of drug interaction. To be safe, only take vitamin E in amounts recommended for your age or condition.
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