Vitamin E is the egg of the supplement world. It seems like every other year we hear how awesome it is to take vitamin E for its antioxidant effects only to hear later it’s actually bad for you. It’s hard to imagine how something naturally occurring in the human body could be bad for you, but as the old saying goes, everything in moderation. Since I brought up eggs, they help to put things in perspective in this case. They are healthy, nutritious, and delicious, but eating too many eggs can be overkill. Perhaps vitamin E is the same way.
A study this month published by Nutrition and Metabolism aimed to clear up some of this confusion over vitamin E. The researchers took a new approach to examining the vitamin known as “metabolomics.” Metabolomics looks at how a substance influences metabolic pathways and the chemicals that are left behind.
We already know vitamin E has antioxidant and cardioprotective (it keeps your heart safe) influences. We also know high doses of the vitamin can increase mortality. Using metabolomics the researchers hoped to find out why vitamin E seems to be sometimes healthy, and sometimes very unhealthy. They took ten subjects, had them take 400 mg of vitamin E for 4 weeks, and studied the effects.
After 4 weeks the circulating vitamin E of the subjects was about 1.5 times what it was when they first started. The major result from this was an increase in various types of lysoPC, caused by increased metabolism of phospholipids (the stuff that makes up your cell membranes). It isn’t clear whether this is because vitamin E is directly affecting cell membranes, or because it is causing some other issue which initiates membrane metabolism, but the effect of this was generally pro-inflammation. Although inflammation has been shown in some studies to be reduced in the long term through vitamin E supplementation, this study showed that, at least in certain parts of the body, inflammation could be increased.
For athletes and other trainees, inflammation should be avoided when possible, and dealt with when not. However, this study seems to only hint at the mechanisms for increased mortality with high doses of vitamin E. The 400 mg used in the study was a pretty standard dose, and although there were increased markers for inflammation it wasn’t demonstrated as a detrimental health impact per se.
Vitamin E, especially in normal doses, seems to improve health. But as the dose goes up there is an increase in the impact on cell membrane integrity and metabolism. The inflammation caused as a result may overwhelm the positives, but so far it seems the moderate approach is best. If you’re taking vitamin E, don’t worry. You’ll probably be healthier than you would be if you didn’t. Just don’t overdo it.
1. Max Wong, et. al., “A metabolomic investigation of the effects of vitamin E supplementation in humans,” Nutrition and Metabolism, 9:110 (2012)
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