Vitamin E

The term vitamin E covers eight related fat-soluble compounds found in nature: four tocopherols (alpha-, beta-, gamma-, and delta-) and four tocotrienols (alpha-, beta-, gamma-, and delta-). In humans, only alpha-tocopherol is specifically selected and enriched by the liver and is therefore the most abundant in the human body (1). The other vitamin E forms are rapidly metabolized and are present at much lower concentrations. Therefore, the Food and Nutrition Board recommended in 2000 to establish recommended intakes of vitamin E based on alpha-tocopherol (2).

The form of alpha-tocopherol found in plants is RRR-alpha-tocopherol (also referred to as natural or d-alpha-tocopherol). The vitamin E form mainly used in fortified foods and dietary supplements is all-rac-alpha-tocopherol (synthetic or dl-alpha-tocopherol). It contains RRR-alpha-tocopherol and seven highly similar alpha-tocopherol forms. All-rac-alpha-tocopherol is defined to be slightly less biologically active than RRR-alpha-tocopherol (~26% less); a revision of this definition is currently being discussed.

Vitamin E deficiency does not manifest itself as prominently as ‘scurvy’ (vitamin C deficiency) or ‘rickets’ (vitamin D deficiency). However, rare inherited disorders that result in vitamin E deficiency have been described. Untreated, these disorders can lead to nerve damage, muscle weakness, loss of ability to walk or blindness.

Health functions

The main function of vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol) in humans appears to be that of an antioxidant.

Disease risk reduction

Results of at least five large observational studies suggest that increased vitamin E consumption is associated with decreased risk of heart attack (‘myocardial infarction’) or death from heart disease in both men and women.

Learn more

Things to know about Vitamin E

  • Other applications

    Results of clinical trials using vitamin E for the treatment of heart disease have been inconsistent.

  • Intake recommendations

    The major problem in making recommendations for vitamin E is the dependence on the polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) intake.

  • Supply situation

    According to data from various surveys, mean vitamin E intakes in Europe are between 7 and 15 mg alpha-tocopherol per day (62).

  • Deficiency

    Severe vitamin E deficiency results mainly in neurological symptoms, including impaired balance and coordination (‘ataxia’), injury to the sensory nerves (‘peripheral neuropathy’), muscle weakness (‘myopathy’), and damage to the retina of the eye (‘pigmented retinopathy’).

  • Sources

    Major sources of vitamin E in diet (‘RRR-alpha-tocopherol’, also referred to as ’natural‘ or ‘d-alpha-tocopherol’) include vegetable oils (olive, sunflower, and safflower oils), nuts, whole grains, and green leafy vegetables.

  • Safety

    Few side effects have been noted in adults taking supplements of less than 2,000 mg natural or synthetic vitamin E daily for a few weeks to a few months.

  • References

    Consult the full list of scientific references.