Vitamin E was first discovered when rats grown under laboratory conditions lost their ability to reproduce. Male rats became sterile, and female rats were unable to deliver living, healthy young.

It was found that improving their diets prevented these problems. The active compound was eventually isolated (in 1936) and called tocopherol from the Greek word meaning ‘to produce offspring’. So it became known as the fertility vitamin and was called Vitamin E.

More recently it has been found that this vitamin is not a single compound, but actually a family of 8 related molecules. These are called 8 members: alpha, beta, gamma and delta tocopherols and alpha, beta, gamma and delta tocotrienols.

The original discovery was of alpha-tocopherol, the most abundant member of the Vitamin E family in animal tissue at about 90%.

However, we now know that the tocotrienols more potent antioxidants than tocopherols, although they are not as well absorbed and are present in lower concentrations.

What does Vitamin E do?

It is an important antioxidant

In fact its antioxidant activity in protecting fats is probably its most important role. In order for the vitamin to perform this function optimally the daily intake should be around 400 IUs per day!

Many of the conditions discussed below can also be attributed to the oxidative process.


Couples who are struggling to conceive, and women who battle to carry infants to term and are prone to miscarriage, are often lacking in Vitamin E.

Women who are breast feeding and those taking contraceptive pills need to increase their intake of this vitamin.

Breast disease

Many women suffer from fibrocystic breast disease which is characterised by painful lumps and swelling of the breasts, usually associated with the start of menstruation.

A high Vitamin E intake can alleviate this condition.

While fibrocystic disease is not cancer, it is interesting to note that women with the lowest Vitamin E levels are the most likely to develop breast cancer.

It also help older women cope with problems associated with menopause such as hot flushes.

Cardiovascular health

o Poor circulation. Some people suffer from a condition known as intermittent claudication. This feels like cramping and is due to too little blood reaching the muscles of the extremities, particularly the lower leg. It affects the elderly as well as athletes.

o Anaemia. Losing functional red blood cells can be catastrophic as oxygen can no longer be carried around the body. This condition occurs after a prolonged period of Vitamin E deficiency, probably due to oxidative damage of the cell membranes.

o Preventing blood clots. Vitamin E reduces platelet aggregation. This function of platelets is the start of the clotting process. Blood is kept fluid because platelets are prevented from clumping unnecessarily.

In fact, high levels of Vitamin E (100-200 IU) can protect people from suffering from heart attacks and strokes.

o Extended studies have shown that Vitamin E can reduce the risk of heart disease, For example, male health professionals (aged between 40 and 75 years) who had taken at least 100 IUs of Vitamin E a day for four years or more had a 40% lower risk of developing heart disease. What an insurance policy!

o The artery walls are protected by the action of this vitamin: low-density lipoproteins (LDLs) which contain cholesterol are protected from oxidation, so they are less likely to deposit on the arterial walls as plaque.

o Angina (chest pains) is due to an insufficient supply of oxygen to the heart. Vitamin E deficiency is often a contributing factor in this condition.


Cancer protection is possible because Vitamin E protects the cell membranes as well as the DNA from damage, thereby preventing cells from turning cancerous. It also enhances immune function and slows tumour growth.

In addition, it reduces the possibility of toxic substances turning into active carcinogens. This may be one of the reasons why smokers need to supplement with this vitamin, as smoking actually destroys what is usually present.

Vitamin E applied to the skin may also reduce the incidence of skin cancers.

Diabetics benefit from extra Vitamin E

It appears to enhance the function of insulin, and improves glucose metabolism. It is believed that the positive effect of this vitamin in diabetes is due to its anti-inflammatory function.

A healthy nervous system

Nerves are coated with a protective layer called the myelin sheath. Vitamin E keeps the myelin sheath healthy.

It may therefore play an important role in protecting one from Alzheimer’s disease and other degenerative diseases of the nervous system.

Immunity and wound healing

Vitamin E improves the functioning of cells of the immune system, especially in combination with selenium. It is also very effective at improving wound healing and in reducing scar formation.

Lung health

Vitamin E protects the lungs from damage by air pollutants such as ozone and nitrogen dioxide.

It protects unsaturated fats and other oxygen-sensitive molecules from being damaged.

This is very important in membranes e.g. in the lungs, which are constantly in contact with oxygen, and membranes of the cells involved in immunity.

And people who smoke are certain to benefit from supplementation with this vitamin.

The risk of developing asthma might be reduced probably by reducing inflammation of the airways.

Diets high in Vitamin E also maintain better lung function in the elderly than those which are deficient.

Muscle power!

This is again thought to be due to its anti-inflammatory effect. It also reduces cramping.

Many symptoms of muscle weakness might be alleviated by Vitamin E.

Eye health

Eye disease such as cataracts can be reduced when Vitamin E (together with Vitamin C) are present in high amounts.

Some studies have shown that an intake of 400 IUs per day reduces the risk of getting cataracts by 50%.

Vitamin E probably also reduces the risk of macular degeneration because of its role in keeping blood vessels health.

Skin health

This vitamin can reduce scarring, help in treating acne and may also be useful in serious skin ailments.

It slows down the oxidative effects of ageing, such as liver spots, and wrinkles, and even cancers.

It is no accident that it is now included in a wide range of cosmetics.


Protection against oxidative damage would certainly delay many of the effects of ageing.

Vitamin E can alleviate the symptoms of inflammatory arthritis, maintain the health of the eyes, and slow down the development of dementias and possible Parkinson’s disease.

An extensive epidemiological study conducted by the National Institute on Aging found that Vitamin E supplementation lowered total mortality rates by 27%, reduced mortality from heart disease by 41% and from cancer by 22%. How much better to slip away as an old but healthy person!

Vitamin E deficiency

Symptoms of deficiency have been on the rise ever since we started eating refined diets.


Because the richest source of Vitamin E is in the germ of the grains – the very part that has been removed during the refinement process.

So what are the consequences of this deficiency?

* Loss of muscle tone and muscle degeneration, exhaustion after light exercise.

* Some anaemias, red blood cell destruction.

* Reproductive problems including a lack of sex drive and infertility.

* Poor skin condition, wounds that are slow to heal, scarring, easy bruising, varicose veins.

How much should one take?

As a rule of thumb it has been suggested that one takes 100 IUs (international units)per decade of life – so the dose gets higher as one ages.

And it has shown to be entirely safe: doses of 3000 IUs daily for 11 years produced no deleterious effects.

However, there are situations where one should be careful e.g. if you are taking the blood-thinning drug Warfarin the added blood thinning effects of the vitamin might be a problem. Consult your doctor if you are taking this drug or others like it.

Getting sufficient levels of Vitamin E from the diet can be very difficult, and supplementation is probably the best course of action.

As always, a supplement from a natural source, containing the full family of 4 tocopherols and 4 tocotrienols, is recommended.

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