Thought vitamin E was just good for your skin? Justine Butler explains its full range of superpowers – from fighting cancer to helping eyesight.
Vitamin E helps to protect our cells from free radical damage and keep our organs, blood vessels and eyes functioning properly. As part of our immune system, it strengthens our natural defences against illness and infection.
How much do we need?
The government recommend three milligrams a day for women and four for men but this is just an ‘adequate amount’ and other countries recommend higher amounts – 15 milligrams a day for adults in the US; in the European Union, 11 milligrams for women and 13 for men.
Are you getting enough?
Government surveys suggest that most people get enough and the number of people falling short is low. The main source for children is cereals and cereal products such as bread and breakfast cereals. For adults, vegetables and potatoes provide a fifth of their intake, with cereals providing almost as much.
Vitamin E is made only by plants and it follows that it is found primarily found in plant products. Best sources include oils, margarines and spreads made from wheat germ, sunflower, safflower, rapeseed, corn, soya and peanut/groundnut – olive oil contains considerably less.
Nuts and seeds such as hazelnuts, almonds, sunflower seeds, peanut butter and pistachios provide reasonable amounts. So do avocado, butternut squash, tomatoes, mango, broccoli, spinach, kale and chickpeas. Meet your daily needs with one of the following: a tablespoon of sunflower seeds, a handful of hazelnuts or almonds or an avocado with sunflower oil.
Deficiency is rare and tends to indicate difficulty absorbing fat rather than a diet lacking vitamin E. Symptoms include muscle weakness, liver and kidney problems, cardiac arrhythmia, night blindness, problems with the nervous system and reduced immunity.
Free radicals are unstable molecules that wreak havoc on healthy cells. They’re produced in the body as by-products of normal bodily processes such as breathing, digesting food or moving about but alcohol, cigarette smoke, pollution, pesticides, ultraviolet light, stress and fried foods (especially meat) produce far more.
Our main defence against free radicals are antioxidants, which disarm these harmful molecules with the three big saviours being
the ACE vitamins – vitamins A, C and E. Many age-related degenerative diseases, such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cataracts and dementia have been linked to cell damage caused by free radicals. Antioxidants may help prevent or slow these diseases.
Vitamin E may also help prevent the build-up of fatty plaques in the arteries and so reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Should you take supplements?
You can get all the vitamin E you need by eating a varied, vegan diet and any your body doesn’t use straight away is stored, so there’s no need to include it in your diet every day.
If you take vitamin E supplements, don’t overdo it. Official advice says that taking 540 milligrams or less a day is unlikely to cause any problems but researchers from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore found that death rates were higher among people taking high-dose vitamin E supplements. Another study looking at lung cancer found that vitamin E supplements were associated with a small increase in risk, especially in smokers.
Eating a diet rich in fresh fruit, vegetables, wholegrain, pulses, nuts and seeds, with a sprinkle of good quality vegetable oil is a safe way to ensure a good supply of vitamin E.
By Dr Justine Butler, Senior Health Researcher at Viva!.
Viva!Health is part of vegan charity Viva! It monitors scientific research linking diet to health and provides accurate information on which to make informed choices about the food you eat. www.vivahealth.org.uk