When it comes to the mopping up of free radicals in the body, no vitamin comes close to being more effective than Vitamin E. Free radicals are basically any molecule that has extra space to bond other atoms – they are frequently unstable and undesirable in a closed system that is striving towards homeostasis (balance) – they tend to bind other molecules, oxidising them (removing one of their electrons), hereby increasing the stability of the whole system. Free radicals are produced by regular metabolic activity and some are also secreted by bacteria.
Vitamin E is actually a blanket term for eight different molecules – 4 tocopherols and 4 tocotrienols – together they are often referred to as (brace yourself..) ‘tocochromonals’. All eight of these molecules are present in our diet in varying levels and concentrations.
Yes, Vitamin E is a Potent Antioxidant (one that we don’t get enough of in our diet)
The total vitamin E content of food degrades over time. After one year, flour will lose approximately 30% of its vitamin E. Olive oil will lose the same amount in under 6 months, even if the lid is kept sealed over this period of time.
As shown in numerous studies, Vitamin E is fat soluble and a highly potent antioxidant; it confers protection against any potential damage to the fats that are present on the outside of every cell of our body, in the plasma membrane. As such it is an invaluable nutrient, one that we can’t afford to go without and one we usually don’t get enough of in our diets.
The overall functioning of our cells is compromised once the fats in our membranes begin to get damaged by free radicals. When these membrane fats become damaged, important cell functions cease working completely. Studies have shown that diets that are low in vitamin E, are associated with the onset of diseases associated with premature aging.
Clinical studies validating Vitamin E’s Efficacy as an Antioxidant
Several large studies have shown great benefits of vitamin E intake in reducing cardiovascular disease and death from heart attacks, while other clinical studies have failed to show similar results.
This could be be due to the fact that many of the studies analysed alpha-tocopherol only and gamma-tocopherol and tocotrienols were not considered.
This may also explain why vitamin E found in food is more effective than supplements (containing only alpha-tocopherol) in reducing cardiovascular disease. Food provides a broader spectrum of vitamin E than most conventional supplements.
For example, vitamin E in the typical kiwi diet contains considerably more gamma-tocopherol than alpha-tocopherol. in contrast to supplements that generally contain only alpha-tocopherol, or insignificant amounts of gamma-tocopherol, tocotrienols and other members of the vitamin E family.
Good for Cardiovascular Health
Vitamin E helps protect LDL (low desity lipoprotein) cholesterol (or “bad” cholesterol) from free radical damage. This usually involves a chemical interaction with another reactive molecule (most often containging oxygen). When our bodies are deficient in vitamin E —and under some other circumstances as well —it is possible for LDL cholesterol to become damaged by this oxygen. When damaged LDL cholesterol is called “oxidised LDL” – and this form of cholesterol is actually the one that is “bad” for our system.
If the process continues, it is possible for oxidised LDL to accumulate in blood vessel walls and create the early stages of hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis).
Diets rich in vitamin E from vegetables, fish, and plant oils—like the Mediterranean diet for example (see below)—have been linked to cardiovascular prevention in large multicentre health trials.
Foods high in Vitamin E
Sunflower seeds have the highest Vitamin E concentration of any food group. They are followed closely by almonds and spinach. Next come avocado, peanuts, turnips, asparagus and beets.
Many plants that are oil rich yield good amounts of vitamin E. These include olives and avocados (see above), both of which provide between 10-15% of the daily need. Fish are also good. Sardines and shrimp for dinner will comprise around 10% of the daily requirements. Salmon and cod contain a little less vitamin E, yet can still be solid contributors.
All of these contain varying degrees of Vitamin E content and have differing ratios of tocpherols to tocotrienols. By and large, all leafy green vegetables have a higher than average concentration of Vitamin E.
A great recipe for breakfast is poached eggs on spinach and mushrooms – it contains spinach, eggs, and olive oil as great dietary sources of vitamin E. Together, they provide one-third of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin E.
by Christopher von Roy BSc, MSc, DCP Immunology
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