To E or not to E—Here is the Answer

The vitamin E supplement known as alpha tocopherol protects best against oxygen-based hydroxyl free radicals. However, vitamin E is actually a complex. It’s made up of eight molecules: four tocopherols (alpha, beta, delta and gamma tocopherol) and four tocotrienols (alpha, beta, delta and gamma tocotrienol). Each molecule is called a ‘vitamer’ and while they are closely related to each other, they can have quite different actions in your body.

Gamma tocopherol best neutralizes nitrogen-based free radicals called peroxynitrates, which are found in central nervous system diseases including Alzheimer’s disease. These nitrogen-based chemicals have much longer life spans than oxygen-based free radicals and are therefore capable of doing much more damage to membranes. Also, the more polyunsaturated fats there are in a membrane, the more susceptible that membrane is to free radical damage. The membranes highest in polyunsaturated fats are found in the brain, the eye and the sperm.

Studies of people with Alzheimer’s disease have shown decreased levels of gamma tocopherol in their brains, with increased levels of the breakdown products of gamma tocopherol, indicating that high peroxynitrite free-radical activity in their brains had drained their gamma tocopherol reserves. The more recent of these two studies used nitrogen-based free radicals to attack a key brain enzyme and found that alpha tocopherol reduced the damage by only15%, while gamma tocopherol protected the brain enzyme by 55%.

The most important insight of recent studies on vitamin E is that supplementing heavily with one vitamer, such as alpha tocopherol, can inhibit the absorption of other vitamers, such as gamma tocopherol. Therefore, supplementing with alpha tocopherol as the sole source of vitamin E, especially if central nervous system damage is suspected, is foolhardy. If one wants to use a vitamin E supplement, it should also contain gamma tocopherol. Many companies, including CP Health, now make vitamin E supplements that contain the full spectrum of the eight vitamers of E.

The other way to obtain vitamin E is from your diet. Up to 70% of the vitamin E in seeds, nuts, beans and whole grains is gamma tocopherol. Other sources of the vitamin E spectrum are fish and leafy greens. Of course, the nutrients in foods are only as good as the soil the plant is grown in and the storage, handling and processing it’s subjected to after harvesting. So searching out reliable producers and suppliers of quality food is important. Complete the CP Nutrition Profile to receive a personalized, healthy diet plan.

The best way to combat free-radical damage is to adopt a diet and lifestyle that minimizes the production of both oxygen-based and nitrogen-based free radicals, as outlined in many other CP Health articles. With a healthy lifestyle and proper diet, your need for vitamin E supplementation will be further reduced.