By Valerie Robitaille
A few years ago a meta-analysis (a group of independent studies) of vitamin E reported that vitamin E supplementation of 400 IU or more per day causes death and should be avoided. This was widely circulated in the media and frightened many people taking high dose vitamin E for their health, and other conditions the nutrient is recommended for.
The conclusion that vitamin E kills people was skewed and I’d like to explain why.
Vitamin E (also called tocopherol) occurs naturally in food in four different forms known as alpha-, beta-, gamma-, and delta-tocopherol. For each of these there are 2 types, a total of 8 tocopherols. Although approximately 70% of the vitamin E in food is in the form of gamma-tocopherol, most of the nutritional supplements on the market, at the time of the study, contained only alpha-tocopherol, and all 19 studies included in the meta-analysis used alpha-tocopherol only. Alpha-tocopherol by itself has been shown to increase cholesterol in scientific studies. Why, then, would any group of researchers use only alpha-tocopherol in a study of such great importance?
Many individuals and researchers are unaware of the importance that ALL of the forms of tocopherol must be present in their naturally occurring ratios for vitamin E to be effective (as was reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, “Vitamin E is the primary prevention for cardiovascular disease and cancer.” (2005, vol.294, pg 56-65).
Another flaw in the study was that the vitamin E group and placebo groups were not comparable. The vitamin E group had significantly higher serum cholesterol levels and significantly greater percentages of participants with high blood pressure, diabetes, cigarette smoking, and severe coronary artery disease than the placebo group. Thus, the people taking alpha-tocopherol vitamin E were sicker than those taking the placebo, a fact that could account for the slight increase in mortality seen in the vitamin E, alpha-tocopherol only group.
In one of the studies included in the meta-analysis, participants received not only vitamin E, but also 80 mg of zinc and 2 mg of copper per day, as well as other nutrients. Supplementing with large doses of zinc (more than 15-25 mgs per day) can lead to a copper deficiency, which can increase the risk of heart disease and other chronic illnesses. Of course copper was also given, but it was in a form that cannot be absorbed by humans. An intelligent informed conclusion may be that the deaths could have been due to a zinc-induced copper deficiency, and nothing to do with vitamin E.
Sound nutritional advice regarding vitamin E supplementation is not to stop taking it, especially if you are using it to prevent heart disease, cancer, etc., but make certain you use a supplement with high gamma/delta tocopherols and some beta – not just alpha. If you are unsure about your vitamin E intake, ask a qualified health professional for guidance.