The Difference Between Fact…and Factitious
I’ve noticed that frightening myths about vitamin E persist in spite of vocal opposition from scientists and top experts. For those who want to know the facts behind the E “controversy”, here it is (just call it the E! True Supplement Story).
For years, doctors have recommended vitamin E supplements to patients seeking better heart health. But a fairly recent study claimed vitamin E increases the risk of death and should not be taken. Let’s take a closer look – because there’s fact, and then there’s factitious.
What is vitamin E?
Vitamin E, a fat-soluble nutrient, is found naturally in many oils, grains, nuts and fats. E is also present in meats, dairy and leafy greens.
What is it used for?
The body needs vitamin E for various processes in the blood, eyes, brain and skin. Doctors have been supportive of E because of its heart benefits. Vitamin E helps to thin the blood and fight free radicals, so many Americans fighting heart disease, blood clots or high blood pressure like to take this natural treatment. Vitamin E can help ease leg cramps, celiac disease, cystic fibrosis, and the pain associated with several cardiovascular diseases. Even some migraine sufferers have benefited from vitamin E supplements. Though the benefit to the heart may not be as powerful as initially thought, vitamin E may help to prevent Alzheimer’s disease.
What is the recommended dosage?
400 IU daily is the general recommendation of the government and most health experts – individual needs can vary.
What are known side effects?
Doctors have long known that excessive vitamin E intake can cause too much thinning of the blood. For that reason, large amounts of vitamin E should not be taken if you are already taking a synthetic blood thinner. There are no other known drug interactions and vitamin E cannot become toxic.
Will Vitamin E kill me?
No. A recent study that got a lot of spin (Vitamin E is bad! Oh no!) merely observed a correlation.
Are there any problems with that study?
Where to start? There are several issues with the study that launched the vitamin E scare:
It only looked at people over age 60 who already had serious pre-existing conditions like heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease; this study cannot possibly be applied to younger and/or healthier patients.
It eliminated observational studies from the analysis, most of which show clear benefit over several years.
The study of 136,000 people grouped dozens of studies together without taking into account the different – and possibly incompatible – processes and analyses the various studies used.
Many of the studies included in this broad study have been independently questioned for their reliability.
This study used “meta-analysis,” which means there was not a consistent, controlled approach in each individual study.
Most of the patients taking the vitamin E were also taking other drugs, and the study did not control for the possibility of interaction or complications.
The patients were only taking an incomplete vitamin E supplement. Many people are unaware that vitamin E is a complex vitamin; meaning, there are different types of vitamin E and the full complex is necessary for nutritional benefit. Furthermore, the study didn’t separate synthetic from natural E.
How many forms of vitamin E are there?
There are different forms of vitamin E – just like B vitamins. The B-complex includes many different vitamins that perform different crucial functions in the body. Vitamin E is a complex, as well. This means that, like vitamin B, there are several “types” of vitamin E, not just one. There are two main groups in the E complex: tocopherols and tocotrienols. I’m always amazed that this basic information about vitamin E gets swept under the rug. Taking only one form of E, which is what is in most supplements, is silly.
Strangely, the average vitamin E gel capsule contains only one part of tocopherol, di-alpha tocopherol. It’s worth noting that this Mayo study only examined the common di-alpha tocopherol. Studies examining patients who take the full E complex show different results.
So what do experts say?
Annette Dickinson, PhD and president of the Council for Responsible Health, has vehemently disagreed with the study’s findings, going so far as to say the study obviously pooled for certain results.
Dr. Raymond Gibbons of the Mayo Clinic stands by the study, saying there was clearly a slightly increased risk of death, but Dr. Dickinson and others point out that the patients in the study all had chronic or fatal diseases to begin with.
The overwhelming majority of health experts still adamantly support vitamin E – in its full complex form and at reasonable dosages. Doctors are aware of hundreds of controlled studies showing a clear causative link between the vitamin E complex and better heart health. Because this joke of a meta-study found a risk of 1.05 – 1.0 is considered neutral – most experts dismissed it completely. So you can see how media spin takes on a life of its own. There are a few studies that have questioned the benefit of taking vitamin E, but none of these have been statistically significant. The Mayo Clinic itself conceded that this finding needs further research. Fair enough.
Dr. Andrew Weil, one of America’s top health experts, says, “My feeling is that the health status of the study participants could be the problem here – perhaps the vitamin E had some unpredictable bad effect on their pre-existing conditions or didn’t mix well with certain medications. The researchers also may have overlooked controlling for the form of vitamin E used in the various studies.”
The bottom line:
Avoid using anything but the full complex of vitamin E, and don’t exceed recommend dosages. Be sure to eat foods that have vitamin E. Though vitamin E’s benefit to the heart may prove to be less significant than researchers initially thought, other benefits are well-documented: the dissolution of blood clots, possible prevention of many diseases including Alzheimer’s, and antioxidant benefit.
This government clickativity offers a good list of foods containing E. It also highlights several studies – the biggest and most significant study points to greater benefit from supplemental E instead of food sources. This link also details two studies which showed less promising results, although you’ll notice both studies were looking at people who already had heart disease or were at serious risk for heart attacks.