There are claims that vitamin E, as an antioxidant, fights a host of conditions, including Alzheimer's disease, age-related vision loss, and even certain cancers. Cosmetic shelves are loaded with goods that contain vitamin E that claim to reverse age-related skin damage. The real benefits behind vitamin E are found in the seesaw balance of free radicals and antioxidants.
Free radicals and antioxidants
Free radicals in the body are molecules with an unpaired electron, which makes them unstable. These unstable molecules interact with cells in the body in a way that can cause damage. As the process snowballs, cells can be damaged, and you're made vulnerable to disease.
Our bodies can create free radicals as we age or through everyday factors like digestion or exercise. They're also caused by exposure to external things like:
- tobacco smoke
- environmental pollutants
Antioxidants, like vitamin E, neutralize free radicals by donating the missing electrons that destabilize them. Antioxidants are found in many foods and are also made in our bodies using the vitamins and minerals found in foods.
How much vitamin E do you need?
Unless your diet is very low in fat, it's likely that you're getting enough vitamin E. But smoking, air pollution, and even exposure to the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays can deplete your body's stores of the vitamin.
According to the National Institutes of Health, teenagers and adults should get about 15 mg of vitamin E a day. Women who are pregnant should get the same. Women who are breastfeeding should increase their intake to 19 mg.
For children, the NIH recommends 4-5 mg for infants, 6 mg for children ages 1-3, 7 mg for those ages 4-8, and 11 mg from those ages 9-13.
You don't need capsules and oil to get vitamin E. Many processed foods, especially cereals and juices, are fortified with vitamin E. It's also found naturally in many foods, including:
- vegetable oils, especially wheat germ, sunflower, and safflower oils
- nuts and seeds
- avocados and other fats
Exposing the myths
Since their identification, vitamin E, and other antioxidants have been subject to research for their ability to prevent a number of diseases.
1. Heart protection
It's believed that people with higher levels of vitamin E are at reduced risk of heart disease. But one study that followed over 14,000 U.S. males for 8 years found no cardiovascular benefit from taking vitamin E supplements. In fact, the study determined that vitamin E was associated with a higher risk of stroke.
Another study that followed 35,000 men for 5 years found that taking vitamin E supplements had no effect when it came to reducing the risk of developing any type of cancer. A 2011 follow-up found that study participants who had taken vitamin E actually had a 17 percent higher risk of developing prostate cancer.
3. Skin healing
Vitamin E is widely claimed to help speed healing and reduce scarring when applied to skin. While there have been a few studies that support this, the greatest body of research indicates that vitamin E doesn't help skin wounds heal faster. One study found that slathering vitamin E oil on your skin can actually worsen the appearance of scars or simply have no effect at all. About a third of participants developed contact dermatitis, which is a type of skin rash.
The vitamin E paradox
The rush to supplement our diets with antioxidants, including vitamin E, may not be the best course of action. Some experts argue that taking large doses of any antioxidant has no real preventive or therapeutic value unless you have a vitamin E deficiency. Their findings, based on a review of 19 clinical trials, unleashed a firestorm of rebuttals, but little in the way of scientific proof. So, should you use vitamin E oil?
It's not likely it'll have positive effects on your skin, and it carries a high risk of developing a skin rash. As for taking vitamin E internally, if you take the recommended dose, it's considered relatively safe. Excessively high doses of vitamin E aren't recommended.