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vitamin E

What can high-vitamin E foods do for you?

  • Protect your skin from ultraviolet light
  • Prevent cell damage from free radicals
  • Allow your cells to communicate effectively

What events can indicate a need for more high-vitamin E foods?

  • Digestive system problems, especially malabsorption
  • Tingling or loss of sensation in the arms, hands, legs, or feet
  • Liver or gallbladder problems

Excellent sources of vitamin E include: mustard greens, chard, sunflower seeds, and turnip greens. Very good sources include almonds and spinach.


What is vitamin E?

Even though its name makes it sound like a single substance, vitamin E is actually a family of fat-soluble vitamins that are active throughout the body. Some members of the vitamin E family are called tocopherols. These members include alpha tocopherol, beta tocopherol, gamma tocopherol, and delta tocopherol.

Other members of the vitamin E family are called tocotrienols. These members include alpha, beta, gamma, and delta tocotrienol. As increasing information has become available about these forms of vitamin E, more and more of them are understood to have unique functions.

How it Functions

What is the function of vitamin E?

Prevention of oxidative stress

Although humans must breathe oxygen to stay alive, oxygen is a risky substance inside the body because it can make molecules overly reactive. When oxygen-containing molecules become too reactive, they can start damaging the cell structures around them. In chemistry, this imbalanced situation involving oxygen is called oxidative stress.

Vitamin E helps prevent oxidative stress by working together with a group of nutrients that prevent oxygen molecules from becoming too reactive. This group of nutrients includes vitamin C, glutathione, selenium, and vitamin B3. Some researchers believe that vitamin E is the most important member of this oxidative stress-preventing group.

Supporting healthy skin
Vitamin E has sometimes been described as the "lightening rod" of the cell, allowing reactive molecules to strike the cell, like lightening, without causing damage. This "lightening rod" function of vitamin E is particularly apparent in the case of the skin, since vitamin E directly protects the skin from ultraviolet radiation (also called UV light). In numerous research studies, vitamin E applied topically to the skin has been shown to prevent UV damage. When the diet contains vitamin E-rich foods, vitamin E can travel to the skin cell membranes and exert this same protective effect.

Protection against Bladder Cancer

One of the benefits of making foods rich in vitamin E—nuts, seeds, spinach, mustard greens, peppers and olive oil—a part of your healthy way of eating is an up to 50% reduction in risk of developing bladder cancer, according to research presented at the annual meeting of the American Association of Cancer Research, Orlando, FL, May 23, 2004.

Bladder cancer, which kills 12,500 Americans annually, is the fourth leading cancer killer among men, and is four times more common in men than women. The study, which included 468 bladder cancer patients and 534 cancer-free controls drawn from residents of Houston, TX, collected data using eating habits questionnaires. Those whose vitamin E intake was in the top 25% had half as much bladder cancer as those in the lowest 25%.

Increasing vitamin E intake to the amount consumed by those in the top group would not be difficult since the actually difference in the amount of vitamin E-rich foods the two extremes consumed was small—the equivalent of a single daily serving of spinach or a handful of almonds. The research team looked at the two most common forms of vitamin E, alpha- and gamma-tocopherol, and found that only alpha-tocopherol was associated with lower bladder cancer risk. Also, whether study participants got their vitamin E from food alone or from vitamin pills, the reduction in risk was roughly the same. Those with the highest intake of alpha-tocopherol from food had a 42% reduced risk of bladder cancer, and those with a vitamin E rich diet who also took vitamin E supplements had a 44% reduced risk.(June 3, 2004)

Other roles for vitamin E

While most of the research on vitamin E has focused on its role in prevention of oxidative stress, a variety of new roles have recently been suggested. Most of these new roles involve the transfer of chemical information from one cell to another, or across different structures inside of a cell. This transfer of chemical information is referred to as "cell signaling," and many researchers believe that cell signaling cannot accurately take place without the help of vitamin E.

Deficiency Symptoms

What are deficiency symptoms for vitamin E?

Deficiency symptoms for vitamin E are difficult to pinpoint and controversial in the research literature. The area of broadest agreement involves malabsorption. In many research studies, low levels of vitamin E are associated with digestive system problems where nutrients are poorly absorbed from the digestive tract. These problems include pancreatic disease, gallbladder disease, liver disease, and celiac disease.

A second area of focus for vitamin E deficiency symptoms is called peripheral neuropathy. This area focuses on nervous system problems in the arms, hands, legs, and feet. Pain, tingling, and loss of sensation in these extremities have been associated with vitamin E deficiency. Although many healthcare practitioners report that skin problems appear closely linked to vitamin E deficiency, there are limited human research studies to support this view.

Toxicity Symptoms

What are toxicity symptoms for vitamin E?

When obtained from food sources alone, vitamin E has no documented research of toxicity. Vitamin E supplements, when taken in very high doses of 3000 IU or more, have been shown to have toxic effects. These effects include intestinal cramps and diarrhea, fatigue, double vision, and muscle weakness. Below the 3000 IU level, the research on vitamin E toxicity is inconsistent, but the majority of studies do not demonstrate toxic effects.

An exception to the generally low risk of toxicity associated with vitamin E involves simultaneous vitamin K deficiency. For persons with vitamin K deficiency, high intake of vtamin E can prolong bleeding time and interfere with clotting. In 2000, the National Academy of Sciences set a tolerable upper limit (UL) for vitamin E of 1,000mg (or 1,500 IU of vitamin E in the form of alpha-tocopherol). This daily limit applies to supplemental vitamin E only, and is intended to apply to all individuals age 19 and older.

Impact of Cooking, Storage and Processing

How do cooking, storage, or processing affect vitamin E?

Exposure to air and factory processing can be particularly damaging to the vitamin E content of food. In wheat, for example, where most of the vitamin E is found in the germ layer, commercial processing removes 50-90% of the food's vitamin E. In 60% extraction wheat flour - the kind that is used to make over 90% of all breads, baked goods, and pastas sold in the U.S., the alpha tocopherol content drops almost 90%, and the beta tocopherol content drops 43%. (Alpha and beta tocopherol are two forms of vitamin E.)

To help protect their vitamin E content, vegetables oils like olive oil, sunflower seed oil, and peanut oil should be kept in tightly capped containers to avoid unnecessary exposure to air.

Factors that Affect Function

What factors might contribute to a deficiency of vitamin E?

Since vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin, poor absorption of fat in the digestive tract can contribute to vitamin E deficiency. Some specific health conditions that can cause fat malabsorption include pancreatic disease, celiac disease, and gallbladder disease. Premature birth has also been shown to increase risk of vitamin E deficiency in infants.

Drug-Nutrient Interactions

What medications affect vitamin E?

Use of the following medications can reduce the body's supply of vitamin E: Anticonvulsant drugs (like Dilantin ™) and cholesterol-lowering drugs (like probucol, cholestyramine, clofibrate, colestipol, and gemfibrozil) can significantly reduce the body's supply of vitamin E.

Long-term, regular use of mineral oil (for example, as non-prescription laxative) can also compromise the body's supply of vitamin E.

Nutrient Interactions

How do other nutrients interact with vitamin E?

The recycling of vitamin E in the body is intricately connected to four other nutrients: vitamin C, glutathione, selenium, and vitamin B3.

Vitamin C is required to keep vitamin E in its metabolically active form; glutathione (a very small protein molecule called a tripeptide and consisting of three amino acid building blocks) is required to keep vitamin C in its active form; and selenium (a micromineral) and vitamin B3 (in a special form called NADPH) are required to keep glutathione in its active form.

The fact that vitamin E is so heavily dependent on vitamin C, vitamin B3, selenium, and glutathione means that a diet high in vitamin E cannot have its optimal effect unless it is also rich in foods that provide these other nutrients.

At moderately high levels of 1,000 milligrams or more, vitamin E can interfere with the bodily activities of vitamin K. The potential injury to vitamin K metabolism was largely the reason why the National Academy of Sciences, in the year 2000, set a Tolerable Upper Limit (UL) of 1,000 milligrams per day for vitamin E.

Health Conditions

What health conditions require special emphasis on vitamin E?

Vitamin E may play a role in the prevention and/or treatment of the following health conditions:

Form in Dietary Supplements

What forms of vitamin E are found in dietary supplements?

The vast majority of vitamin E supplements contain a single form of the vitamin, alpha-tocopherol. More specifically, most supplements contain a natural form of alpha-tocopherol, called d-alpha tocopherol (or d-alpha tocopheryl acetate). Practitioners often prefer this form of the vitamin over a synthetic version called l-alpha tocopherol.

However, because vitamin E is actually a family of vitamins involving many tocopherols and many tocotrienols, some practitioners recommend vitamin E supplements containing not only d-alpha tocopherol, but other tocopherol and tocotrienol forms of vitamin E.

Supplements containing this wide variety of vitamin E forms are typically referred to as "mixed tocopherol" or "mixed tocotrienol" supplements. Human research studies comparing the effects of different types of vitamin E supplements are too limited to allow definite conclusions.

Food Sources

Introduction to Nutrient Rating System Chart

The following chart shows the foods which are either excellent, very good or good sources of this nutrient. Next to each food name you will find the following information: the serving size of the food; the number of calories in one serving; DV% (percent daily value) of the nutrient contained in one serving; the nutrient density rating; and the food's World's Healthiest Foods Rating. Not all of our Daily Value standards are obtained from the FDA. In most instances, we used FDA Daily Values when available because they are widely recognized and apply to both men and women. However, when unavailable, we've used other science-based research to establish nutritional standards. Underneath the chart is a table that summarizes how the ratings were devised. Read more about our Nutrient Rating System.

Foods Ranked as quality sources of:
vitamin E
Food Serving
Cals Amount
Foods Rating
Greens, Mustard, Boiled 1 cup 21.0 2.81 14.1 12.0 excellent
Chard, Boiled 1 cup 35.0 3.31 16.6 8.5 excellent
Sunflower Seeds, Dried 0.25 cup 205.2 18.10 90.5 7.9 excellent
Greens, Turnip, Cooked 1 cup 28.8 2.48 12.4 7.8 excellent
Parsley, Fresh 1 oz-wt 10.2 0.51 2.5 4.5 good
Almonds 0.25 cup 205.2 9.29 46.4 4.1 very good
Spinach (boiled, with salt) 1 cup 41.4 1.72 8.6 3.7 very good
Collard Greens, Boiled, Drained 1 cup 49.4 1.67 8.3 3.0 good
Kale, Fresh, Boiled 1 cup 36.4 1.11 5.6 2.7 good
Papaya 1 each 118.6 3.40 17.0 2.6 good
Olives, Ripe 1 cup 154.6 4.03 20.1 2.3 good
Red Bell Peppers (sliced, raw) 1 cup 24.8 0.63 3.1 2.3 good
Brussels Sprouts, Boiled 1 cup 60.8 1.33 6.7 2.0 good
Kiwifruit 1 each 46.4 0.85 4.3 1.7 good
Tomato, Red, Raw, Ripe 1 cup 37.8 0.68 3.4 1.6 good
Blueberries, Fresh 1 cup 81.2 1.46 7.3 1.6 good
Broccoli (pieces, steamed) 1 cup 43.7 0.75 3.8 1.5 good
World's Healthiest
Foods Rating
excellent DV>=75% OR Density>=7.6 AND DV>=10%
very good DV>=50% OR Density>=3.4 AND DV>=5%
good DV>=25% OR Density>=1.5 AND DV>=2.5%

Public Health Recommendations

What are current public health recommendations for vitamin E?

In 2000, the National Academy of Sciences established the following Adequate Intake (AI) levels for vitamin E:

  • Males and females, 0-6 months: 4 milligrams
  • Males and females, 6-12 months: 5 milligrams

In 2000, the National Academy of Sciences established the following Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) for vitamin E:

  • Males and females, 1-3 years: 6 milligrams
  • Males and females, 4-8 years: 7 milligrams
  • Males and females, 9-13 years: 11 milligrams
  • Males and females, 14 years and older: 15 milligrams
  • Pregnant females, 18 years and older: 15 milligrams
  • Lactating females, 18 years and older : 19 milligrams


  • Azzi A, Stocker A. Vitamin E: non-antioxidant roles. Prog Lip Res 2000;39(3):231-255.
  • Bendich A, Machlin LJ. Safety of oral intake of vitamin E. Am J Clin Nutr 1988;48:612-619.
  • Cooney RV, Franke AA, Harwood PJ et al. Gamma-tocopherol detoxification of nitrogen dioxide:superiority to alpha-tocopherol. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 1993 Mar 1;90(5):1771-5.
  • Darr D, Dunston S, Faust HH, et al. Effectiveness of antioxidants (vitamin C and E) with and without sunscreens as topical photoprotectants. Acta Derm Venerol 1996;76:264-268.
  • Groff JL, Gropper SS, Hunt SM. Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism. West Publishing Company, New York, 1995.
  • Mascio PD, Murphy ME, Sies H. Antioxidant defense systems: the role of Carotenoids, tocopherols, and thiols. Am J Clin Nutr 1991;53:194S-200S.
  • Packer L. Vitamin E is nature's master antioxidant. Sci Amer 1994;Mar-Apr:54-63.
  • Packer L, Weber SU, Rimbach G. Molecular aspects of alpha-tocotrienol antioxidant action and cell signaling. J Nutr 2001;131(2):369S-73S.
  • Schwenke DC. Does lack of tocopherols and tocotrienols put women at increased risk of breast cancer. J Nutr Biochem 2002 Jan;13(1):2-20.
  • Sokol RJ. Vitamin E deficiency in adults. Ann Int Med 1984;100:769.
  • Wu X, Radcliffe J. Papers on alpha-tocopherol intake and bladder cancer risk. presented at the annual meeting of the American Association of Cancer Research, held in Orlando, FL, May 23, 2004.

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This page was updated on: 2004-11-21 12:28:55

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