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Vitamin E was discovered in 1922 during experiments on rats. When fed a diet low in vitamin E, the rats became infertile, but adding wheat germ oil to their diet restored their fertility. Later, the oil-based substance was isolated and called the “anti-sterility” vitamin.

  • Vitamin E is actually a group of 8 fat-soluble antioxidants, the most well-known of which is α-tocopherol.
What are the functions and potential benefits of this vitamin?
  • Vitamin E’s primary function is as an antioxidant. Without vitamin E, cell membranes, active enzyme sites, and DNA are less protected from free-radical damage.
  • As an antioxidant, vitamin E helps to stabilize cell membranes and protect the tissues of the skin, eyes, liver, breasts, and testes, which are more sensitive to oxidation.
  • It protects the lungs from oxidative damage from environmental substances.
  • It also prevents the oxidation of some hormones, such as those released from the pituitary and adrenal glands.
  • Vitamin E has some anti-clotting properties and protects the red blood cells’ membranes from oxidative damage.
  • Vitamin E could be effective in preventing heart disease and the development of atherosclerotic plaque in blood vessels.
  • Vitamin E has also been shown to neutralize free radicals generated during surgery.
  • It is needed for proper immune function and cellular signaling.
  • Vitamin E is particularly important for the elderly since a deficiency is associated with a higher risk of bone fractures. However, supplementing vitamin E will not provide additional benefits to bone health. The majority of vitamin E’s benefits come from avoiding a deficiency.
How can you obtain vitamin E from your diet and avoid deficiency?
  • The best sources of vitamin E are the oil components of all grains, as well as seeds and nuts (such as sunflower seeds and almonds). It is also found in olive oil, avocados, leafy greens, and olives.

NOTE: What contains the vitamin E in the grains is their protective covering or germ. The germ of the grain is lost easily in the milling of flour or in the refinement of grains. Therefore, for vitamin E to be preserved, the oils from nuts and seeds must be extracted naturally, as by cold-pressing, rather than by heat or chemical extraction.

Vitamin E works synergistically with vitamin C to protect our cells. The function of vitamin E is also performed and enhanced by other antioxidants such as beta-carotene, glutathione, coenzyme Q, and the mineral selenium.

Because of the general availability of vitamin E in popular foods, deficiency is rare.

However, conditions resulting in maldigestion of lipids, such as cystic fibrosis, celiac disease, and hepatic and biliary insufficiencies, may result in compromised vitamin E status.

A deficiency in vitamin E may also be a factor in the acceleration of Alzheimer’s disease. However, further research is needed before supplementation can be recommended.