Function of vitamin E
When it was discovered at University of California, Berkeley in 1922, researchers determined that there wasn’t a singular “vitamin E.” The term actually encompasses a group of eight compounds called tocopherols and tocotrienols that are found in various fruits, veggies, animal proteins, and grains. Vitamin E is typically fat-soluble, which means that it can be stored in the body until it’s ready to be used.
E functions primarily as an antioxidant, protecting cells against free radicals that can cause serious damage, leading to diseases like heart disease and cancer. It also plays a role in producing red blood cells (which encourage the delivery of nutrients to the rest of the body) and helping the body absorb and use vitamins A and K, iron, and selenium. Because it appeared to be so powerful, the scientists who discovered vitamin E hoped it might be able to help with everything from improving eyesight to curing cancer. But unfortunately, a plethora of studies on the supplement have since proven it’s not a cure-all—in fact, research has found that too much of it can be deadly.
Potential problems with Vitamin E
A meta-analysis of 19 major medical studies involving 136,000 patients completed by researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found that taking over 400 IUs of vitamin E daily on a regular basis increased likelihood of death. (For comparison’s sake, the recommended daily value of vitamin E for an adult is a mere 22.5 IUs.)
Scientists are unsure why, but an excess of E causes the blood to thin, which might explain why it’s shown to increase the rate of hemorrhagic (bleeding) strokes by 22 percent.
All of this doesn’t mean you should avoid vitamin E altogether. In fact, quite the contrary. The right amount of E—from food sources—is good for you, and part of a healthy diet. Luckily it’s found in some of the healthiest foods around (more on that below). Just be sure to use it sparingly in supplement form.
Where to find vitamin E
Following early observational studies, scientists thought vitamin E was the miracle antioxidant they’d been searching for all along. Not so much. Most of that research examined the effects of eating a vitamin E-rich diet—versus the effects of taking pure vitamin E supplements. The subjects had a lower risk of heart disease, were perceived to have healthier immune systems, and were less likely to develop cancer. So now we know—the best way to get vitamin E is through healthy food sources. Good thing it’s found in some of our easy-to-prepare favorites, including:
- Beet greens
- Cereal grains
- Collard greens
- Mustard greens
- Olive oil
- Sunflower seeds
- Sweet potatoes
- Turnip greens
It’s pretty difficult to unlikely you’ll find yourself with a vitamin E deficiency if you eat a balanced diet, although those that who have difficulty absorbing dietary fat due to a digestive condition (like IBS, colitis, Crohn’s disease, or gallbladder issues) might have a hard time getting enough. Symptoms of a vitamin E deficiency include:
- Muscle weakness
- Loss of muscle mass
- Abnormal eye movements
- Vision problems
- Unsteady walking
If you think you might not be getting enough, ask your doctor for a blood test to confirm. From there, you can both decide whether taking a supplement is a good choice.
Skin benefits of vitamin E
Where vitamin E can be hugely beneficial is in skin care. The antioxidants in vitamin E don’t just boost your internal health—as any all-natural beauty lover knows, they give you glowing skin, too. Vitamin E oil is often recommended for topical use to lighten scars (don’t even try to eat it—it doesn’t taste good and it isn’t food-grade) and added to beauty product formulations that promise to lighten age spots and nourish skin. You don’t need to buy an expensive formula to start reaping the benefits—mix a dime-sized amount of vitamin E oil with another carrier oil (we like apricot or jojoba) to make a super-powered face oil that nourishes and regenerates healthy skin.
Should you take it?
So do you need to supplement with vitamin E? Probably not—you should get ample amounts as long as you eat your veggies. But if you have a digestive issue that keeps you from absorbing nutrients, it might be a good idea to ask your doc to test for a deficiency. For healthier skin, try adding a few drops vitamin E oil to your favorite facial oil or moisturizer to help keep your complexion hydrated and healthy!
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Illustration by Foley Wu