Vitamin E is a fat-soluble nutrient found in many foods. In the body, it acts as an antioxidant, helping to protect cells from the damage caused by free radicals. Free radicals are compounds formed when our bodies convert the food we eat into energy. People are also exposed to free radicals in the environment from cigarette smoke, air pollution, and ultraviolet light from the sun.
The body also needs vitamin E to boost its immune system so that it can fight off invading bacteria and viruses. It helps to widen blood vessels and keep blood from clotting within them. In addition, cells use vitamin E to interact with each other and to carry out many important functions.
Vitamin E Deficiency
Frank vitamin E deficiency is rare and overt deficiency symptoms have not been found in healthy people who obtain little vitamin E from their diets. Premature babies of very low birth weight (<1,500 grams) might be deficient in vitamin E. Vitamin E supplementation in these infants might reduce the risk of some complications, such as those affecting the retina, but they can also increase the risk of infections.
Vitamin E deficiency is very rare in healthy people. It is almost always linked to certain diseases where fat is not properly digested or absorbed. Examples include Crohn’s disease, cystic fibrosis, and certain rare genetic diseases such as abetalipoproteinemia and ataxia with vitamin E deficiency (AVED). Vitamin E needs some fat for the digestive system to absorb it.
Vitamin E deficiency can cause nerve and muscle damage that results in loss of feeling in the arms and legs, loss of body movement control, muscle weakness, and vision problems. Another sign of deficiency is a weakened immune system.
Am I getting enough vitamin E?
The diets of most Americans provide less than the recommended amounts of vitamin E. Nevertheless, healthy people rarely show any clear signs that they are not getting enough vitamin E (see next question for information on the signs of vitamin E deficiency)
How much vitamin E do I need?
The amount of vitamin E you need each day depends on your age. Average daily recommended intakes are listed below in milligrams (mg) and in International Units (IU). Package labels list the amount of vitamin E in foods and dietary supplements in IU.
|Life Stage||Recommended Amount|
|Birth to 6 months||4 mg (6 IU)|
|Infants 7–12 months||5 mg (7.5 IU)|
|Children 1–3 years||6 mg (9 IU)|
|Children 4–8 years||7 mg (10.4 IU)|
|Children 9–13 years||11 mg (16.4 IU)|
|Teens 14–18 years||15 mg (22.4 IU)|
|Adults||15 mg (22.4 IU)|
|Pregnant teens and women||15 mg (22.4 IU)|
|Breastfeeding teens and women||19 mg (28.4 IU)|
What foods provide vitamin E?
Vitamin E is found naturally in foods and is added to some fortified foods. You can get recommended amounts of vitamin E by eating a variety of foods including the following:
- Vegetable oils like wheat germ, sunflower, and safflower oils are among the best sources of vitamin E. Corn and soybean oils also provide some vitamin E.
- Nuts (such as peanuts, hazelnuts, and, especially, almonds) and seeds (like sunflower seeds) are also among the best sources of vitamin E.
- Green vegetables, such as spinach and broccoli, provide some vitamin E.
- Food companies add vitamin E to some breakfast cereals, fruit juices, margarines and spreads, and other foods. To find out which ones have vitamin E, check the product labels.
What kinds of vitamin E dietary supplements are available?
Vitamin E supplements come in different amounts and forms. Two main things to consider when choosing a vitamin E supplement are:
- The amount of vitamin E: Most once-daily multivitamin-mineral supplements provide about 30 IU of vitamin E, whereas vitamin E-only supplements usually contain 100 to 1,000 IU per pill. The doses in vitamin E-only supplements are much higher than the recommended amounts. Some people take large doses because they believe or hope that doing so will keep them healthy or lower their risk of certain diseases.
- The form of vitamin E: Although vitamin E sounds like a single substance, it is actually the name of eight related compounds in food, including alpha-tocopherol. Each form has a different potency, or level of activity in the body.
Vitamin E from natural (food) sources is commonly listed as “d-alpha-tocopherol” on food packaging and supplement labels. Synthetic (laboratory-made) vitamin E is commonly listed as “dl-alpha-tocopherol.” The natural form is more potent. For example, 100 IU of natural vitamin E is equal to about 150 IU of the synthetic form.
Some vitamin E supplements provide other forms of the vitamin, such as gamma-tocopherol, tocotrienols, and mixed tocopherols. Scientists do not know if any of these forms are superior to alpha-tocopherol in supplements.
Can vitamin E be harmful?
Eating vitamin E in foods is not risky or harmful.
In supplement form, however, high doses of vitamin E might increase the risk of bleeding (by reducing the blood’s ability to form clots after a cut or injury) and of serious bleeding in the brain (known as hemorrhagic stroke). Because of this risk, the upper limit for adults is 1,500 IU/day for supplements made from the natural form of vitamin E and 1,100 IU/day for supplements made from synthetic vitamin E. The upper limits for children are lower than those for adults.
If you take vitamin E as supplement, take it after your meal. It has more benefits taken on full stomach.