So, What Is Vitamin E?
Vitamin E is an essential vitamin, meaning that the body cannot produce it so it must be obtained from dietary sources. Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin, and in the body it is found predominantly in cell membranes. The term "vitamin E" is actually a generic term for a group of complex chemicals referred to as tocotrienols and tocopherols, including alpha, beta, gamma, and delta tocopherol, with alpha-tocopherol being the most abundant.
How Does Vitamin E Work?
First, and most importantly, vitamin E functions as an antioxidant. To understand how antioxidants function, one must first understand what free radicals are and how they function in the body. Free radicals are toxic compounds that are naturally produced in the body as a by-product of metabolic oxidation. Free radicals are formed when a negatively charged electron is lost from their chemical structure. The result is an unstable renegade that destructs tissue in search of a free electron.
In excess, they can be extremely damaging because they have the ability to attract electrons away from body cell membranes resulting in damaging effects, as well as an inability for the cell to adequately function. Free radicals are produced in excessive quantities from exposure to air or water pollution, toxic chemicals, or cigarette smoke - so basically from simple day-to-day living.
The most efficient way to counteract the damaging effects of free radicals is to "stabilize" or "neutralize" them. This is where antioxidants play a role. Antioxidants, such as vitamin E, are potent free radical neutralizing agents. They halt the damaging actions of free radicals before they have a chance to attack body cells and exert their damaging effects by sacrificing themselves and donating a free electron to the free radical, thus stabilizing the structure. This is extremely important because free radical damage is believed to play a role in many conditions such as premature aging, cancer, coronary heart disease, cataracts, as well as an array of other degenerative diseases. To really aid the effect of antioxidants, take vitamin C in conjunction with vitamin E.
A second function of vitamin E is its ability to lessen the severity of inflammatory disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis, as well as premenstrual syndrome, and circulatory irregularities such as nighttime leg cramping.
Third, vitamin E has the ability to halt the conversion of nitrites found in smoked, pickled, and cured foods, to nitrosamines in the stomach. Nitrosamines have been found to be strong cancer tumor promoters.
Lastly, vitamin E has been shown to slow down the growth of smooth muscle cells, which are involved in the development of atherosclerosis. This is a very important area of vitamin E research that warrants further discussion.
Vitamin E and Cardiovascular Disease
Today, one of the best-documented roles of vitamin E is that of cardiovascular protection, specifically in the prevention of atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is the process whereby cholesterol accumulates to form waxy plaques in the walls of arteries. The cholesterol in question is LDL (low density lipoprotein), also known as "bad cholesterol".
Although LDLs have a bad reputation on its own, when it becomes oxidized by free radicals it is more likely to accumulate in the arteries, which is the first step in atherosclerosis. Thus, LDLs paired with free radicals result in catastrophic outcomes for the cardiovascular system. Vitamin E can protect LDLs from oxidation, and subsequent deposition in the artery walls. In addition, vitamin E is also believed to stop the excessive formation of muscle cells in damaged arteries and keep blood clotting in check, both of which are important in the prevention of heart disease.
As a matter of fact, a recent report by Cornell University's Weill Medical College stated, "more cardiologists take vitamin E supplements to protect their hearts than any other common antioxidant vitamin". Of the 181 doctors surveyed, vitamin E was the most popular antioxidant, at a daily dose of 400 I.U's.
Natural vs. Sythetic Vitamin E
A common question among consumers is "which is better... natural or synthetic vitamin E?" To answer this question one must first understand the difference between the two forms. With most vitamins, the body has a hard time distinguishing between the natural and synthetic forms. With vitamin E however, there is enough of a chemical difference between the two that the body can tell them apart. In recent studies, natural vitamin E was found to be better absorbed, and better retained, in comparison to its synthetic form. It was also found that people taking the natural form had approximately two times the level of vitamin E in their blood in comparison to those consuming the synthetic form.
In my opinion, any form of vitamin E is better than no vitamin E at all. It is important to note that a larger dose of synthetic vitamin E must be consumed in order to be equal to the same potency offered by natural vitamin E. As a rule of thumb, natural vitamin E is roughly one and a half to two times as effective as synthethic vitamin E. To distinguish between the two forms, natural vitamin E will be listed on the label beginning with the letter "d" (ie. d-alpha tocopherol), whereas synthetic vitamin E will begin with "dl" (ie. dl-alpha tocopherol).
Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs)
Recently, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommended an increase in the DRIs for vitamin E. Recommended intake levels were nearly doubled in comparison to former values.
New recommendations suggest that both men and women should consume 15 mg of vitamin E from food sources such as nuts, seeds, liver, leafy green vegetables, as well as some vegetable oils. In terms of IUs this would equal 22 IUs of natural source vitamin E, or 33 IUs of the synthetic form.
The new 15 mg recommendation is opposed to the former 10 mg for men, and 8 mg for women. However, it is important to note that these recommended intakes are based on dietary sources, not supplementation. Recent research, however, suggests that a higher quantity of vitamin E than what is consumed from dietary sources is required in order to prevent free radical cell damage. Current research states that adults should consume approximately 400 IUs of natural vitamin E daily, a quantity that is achievable only through supplementation.
Many bodybuilders and weightlifters take much more vitamin E than the recommended amount. Even in high doses, vitamin E is well tolerated and produces no significant side effects in normal, healthy individuals. Personally, I feel that 200-400 IUs of vitamin E taken multiple times throughout the day will produce the greatest effect.
In summary, the effects of vitamin E play an important role in trying to stay healthy, prevent certain diseases, and can be helpful in preventing muscle loss. This last consequence can be very important for weightlifters trying to maintain muscle mass while dieting away fat. Also, there are virtually no negative side effects to taking high doses of vitamin E.
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