As an antioxidant, Vitamin E is essential for protecting body tissue from the damage of oxidation by neutralising free radicals in the body that cause tissue and cellular damage. It is important in the formation of red blood cells and also contributes to a healthy circulatory system.

Vitamin E is also great for cholesterol as it prevents it from being converted to plaque which thickens the blood vessels and leads to stroke and heart disease.

Skin and lip protection are also well-known health benefits of vitamin E where it is used to help heal minor wounds without scarring and to soothe and heal broken or stressed skin tissue. Women also use Vitamin E to help minimise the appearance of wrinkles.

Vitamin E and heart disease

Support for the role of vitamin E in heart disease prevention has come from observational studies, particularly 2 cohort studies which were published in 1993. In the 1st study, the Nurses’ Health Study, the researchers concluded that among 83,234 middle-aged women who participated in the study, there was a 40% reduced risk of coronary artery disease for those who took vitamin E supplements compared to those who did not (New England Journal of Medicine 1993;328: 1444-9). The 2nd study, the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, involved over 39,000 males and showed evidence of a significant association between a high intake of vitamin E from supplements and a lower risk of heart disease (New England Journal of Medicine 1993; 328:1450-1456).

Researchers are fairly certain that oxidative modification of LDL-cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol) promotes blockages in coronary arteries which may lead to atherosclerosis and heart attacks. Vitamin E may help prevent or delay coronary heart disease by limiting the oxidation of LDL-cholesterol. A 1994 review of 5,133 Finnish men and women aged 30 – 69 suggested that increased dietary intake of vitamin E was associated with decreased mortality from heart disease.

The results of at least 5 large observational studies suggest that increased vitamin E consumption is associated with a decreased risk of myocardial infarction (heart attack) in both women and men. Each study was a prospective study that measured vitamin E consumption in presumably healthy people and followed them for several years to determine how many of them were diagnosed with, or died as a result of heart disease.

Vitamin E and cancer

Antioxidants – such as vitamin E – help protect against the damaging effects of free radicals, which may contribute to the development of chronic diseases such as cancer. Vitamin E also may block the formation of nitrosamines, which are carcinogens formed in the stomach from nitrites consumed in the diet. Vitamin E may also protect against the development of cancers by enhancing immune function. However, human trials and surveys which tried to associate vitamin E with incidence of cancer have generally been inconclusive.

The Nurses Health Study, which we referred to earlier, studied 83,234 women at baseline and sought to assess the incidence of breast cancer during a 14-year follow-up. The study showed that pre-menopausal women with a family history of breast cancer who consumed the highest quantity of vitamin E enjoyed a 43% reduction in breast cancer incidence compared to only a 16% risk reduction for women without a family history of breast cancer.

Based on this study, vitamin E appears to protect against genetic-predisposed breast cancer better than environmentally-induced breast cancer.

However other studies which have reviewed the effects of standard vitamin E products (alpha-tocopherol acetate) taken by themselves have failed to decisively show a protective benefit for cancer. It is possible that other forms of vitamin E found in food (such as gamma tocopherol and tocotrienols) may be responsible for providing the protective effect against breast cancer shown in some surveys which evaluated total vitamin E intake.

Vitamin E and the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Some evidence on the role of vitamin E in reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s was reported in 3 recent studies. The first study, conducted at the Rush Institute for Healthy Aging of the Rush-Presbyterian-St Luke’s Medical Center found that an increased vitamin E intake from foods was associated with a decreased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

The second study, conducted in the Netherlands, showed that vitamin E from food, but not other antioxidants, may be associated with a decreased risk. The third study, which was conducted in Italy, evaluated a high dose of 2,000 IU and found a substantial protective effect. It appears that the effect of vitamin E from supplements is detectable only with high doses.

Vitamin E and cataracts

Cataracts are growths on the lens of the eye which cloud the vision. They increase the risk of blindness and disability in aging adults. Antioxidants are being studied to determine whether they can help delay or prevent cataract growth. Observational studies have found that lens clarity, which is used to diagnose cataracts, is better in regular users of vitamin E supplements and in people with higher blood levels of vitamin E.