The Vitamin with Heart
The latest knocks on vitamin E's value as our heartiest nutrient are nothing new.
But like an underdog in a Hollywood movie, the supplement has survived in its role
as hero to those who need and trust its bountiful health benefits.
From June, 2005
If someone made a Hollywood movie with vitamin E as the main character, what would be the plot? Vitamin E might play a poor peasant who is suddenly found to be of royal blood and is crowned a king. How about vitamin E as a humorless high school loner who becomes a handsome and idolized billionaire? Or perhaps vitamin E could play an unknown boxer who against all odds becomes champion of the world?
Vitamin E has persevered through decades of skepticism about its role and value as a nutritional supplement, including recent stories in the media suggesting that its benefits as a heart healthy vitamin are overstated. But like a true cinematic hero, vitamin E has overcome the criticism to emerge triumphant in the worldwide health community; it is still regarded by most experts as a supplement possessing extraordinary health benefits, especially for those with current or potential cardiovascular problems. To put it simply, vitamin E is a supplement with a lot of heart.
The Little Vitamin That Could
Vitamin E’s long and bumpy road to prominence is an epic tale. This powerful antioxidant was first discovered in 1922 by University of California researchers Herbert Evans and Katherine Bishop, who found it in green leafy vegetables. But Canadian doctors Evan and Wilfrid Shute were the first to champion the vitamin’s potential health benefits. In the 1930s, Evan Shute achieved successful results experimenting with vitamin E as a treatment to prevent miscarriage. By the early 1940s, Evan and his cardiologist brother, Wilfrid, had discovered that vitamin E also had a powerfully positive effect on the cardiovascular system. The Shutes showed that when administered in large doses, vitamin E was effective in the treatment and prevention of coronary disease.
When the Shutes attempted to publicize their findings, however, the medical and scientific communities reacted as if they had a collective angina attack. The ease with which vitamin E was treating unhealthy hearts was regarded as too good to be true. Such criticism from the medical community impeded vitamin E’s rise to widespread acceptance, rendering one of the most significant discoveries in cardiovascular health largely ignored.
“Hundreds of thousands more may die while scholars debate the etiological issue,” the Shutes wrote at the time. “Many more will go about clutching their anginal chests. What’s to do in the meantime? Oxygen tents and anticoagulants, rest, reassurance by experts that this is really a mild disease, seem to meet the situation poorly.” Evan Shute put it even more succinctly: “We didn’t make vitamin E so versatile. God did. Ignore its mercy at your peril.”
But the Shutes’ results could not be denied. Time and again, their innovative therapies demonstrated vitamin E’s efficacy in treating and reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. By 1946, the Shutes had successfully used vitamin E to treat atherosclerosis, thrombosis, angina and phlebitis. Vitamin E also appeared to normalize high blood pressure while strengthening and regulating the heartbeat. In time, the Shutes had successfully treated more than 30,000 patients, amassing a body of work so convincing that even the most skeptical critics began to take heed.
In 1959, the Food and Drug Administration officially acknowledged that vitamin E was essential to overall health and the little vitamin that could finally began receiving the recognition that it deserved. The medical establishment came to embrace vitamin E as an effective natural supplement for the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease. As vitamin E research deepened, even more benefits were discovered (see box at left), earning vitamin E the reputation as a “miracle vitamin.”
The Latest Attacks on Vitamin E
Fast-forward to November 2004. Johns Hopkins researchers publish a controversial analysis that captures national headlines. They assert that a daily dose of 400 IUs or more of vitamin E could actually cause health problems (because of it’s alleged toxicity), especially in people over 60. It was the attacks of the 1940s all over again.
The modern medical community, far more enlightened than that of the Shutes’ era, fought back. The counterattack after the release of the anti-vitamin E report was swift, as health experts from around the world lambasted the Johns Hopkins researchers’ findings.
“There is no data to indicate that vitamin E has toxic effects,” said Dr. Maret Traber, a principal investigator for the Linus Pauling Institute and Professor in the College of Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University. “The totality of a tremendous amount of literature in animals and basic science shows that vitamin E has beneficial effects.”
Dr. Andrew Saul, author of Doctor Yourself: Natural Healing that Works (Basic Health Publications, 2003), and its complementary website www.DoctorYourself.com, agreed: “Simply put, this and other vitamin-bashing articles are wrong. Their conclusions are pre-ordained; their approach is biased; their research design is faulty.”
In 1993, two of the most important vitamin E studies were published by Stampfer and Rimm and illustrated the cardiovascular health benefits of vitamin E supplementation. In the Nurses’ Health Study (Stampfer, 1993), which looked at 87,000 female nurses over eight years, among the 13% of women who regularly used vitamin E supplements (of at least 100 IU per day) there was a 31% reduction in relative risk for nonfatal myocardial infarction (heart attack) and death from cardiovascular disease compared with women who did not take vitamin E.
In a study by Rimm (1993), in which 39,000 male health professionals were studied for four years, 17% of the men took vitamin E supplements. Those who took the highest doses (median of 419 IU per day) had a 40% reduction in the relative risk for nonfatal myocardial infarction or death from coronary hearth disease. The positive effects of vitamin E treatment on heart health seemed clear.
“The more vitamin E they took and the longer they took it,” observes Dr. Saul, “the less cardiovascular disease they experienced.”
Secrets of Vitamin E’s Success
How does vitamin E help keep hearts healthy? For example, atherosclerosis, or the hardening of the arteries, starts when the arterial lining is damaged, leaving lesions. “Thousands of animal studies show that you can prevent or decrease arterial lesions if you have more vitamin E,” observes Traber.
When arterial lesions do occur, the body responds by sending LDL, or “bad cholesterol,” to repair them. When LDL deposits are attacked by free radicals, oxidation occurs, which hardens the deposits into plaque. Over time, this plaque builds up, narrowing and even blocking arterial blood flow—leading to angina, stroke, and heart attack. It is believed that vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant neutralizes free radical damage and helps to prevent the oxidation of LDL, preventing and reducing the buildup of arterial plaque.
Vitamin E is believed to reduce the formation of blood clots that can contribute to artery blockage. Vitamin E is also considered an oxygen conservator; in enabling the body to function efficiently with less oxygen, the nutrient eases the strain on the heart, helping to reduce cardiovascular disease. In addition, vitamin E’s ability to reduce inflammation effectively treats yet another key contributor to heart disease.
Vitamin E exists in several forms, but the most popular and effective is natural d-alpha-tocopherol (a-tocopherol). While foods like nuts, green leafy vegetables and vegetable oils contain vitamin E, one would have to consume impossible amounts to reach the recommended daily allowance. Even the most well-balanced diet rarely reaches recommended daily allowance of vitamin E, so vitamin E supplementation is advisable.
“By definition, supplements are designed to fill nutritional gaps in a bad diet,” says Dr. Saul. “They fill in what may be surprisingly large gaps in a good diet as well. In the case of vitamin E, doing so is likely to save millions of lives.” However, Traber stresses that there is much more to cardiovascular wellness than vitamin E intake: “In addition to vitamin E supplementation, be sure to exercise, maintain an appropriate body weight, eat the right foods, avoid saturated fats and do all the things that your mother told you to do.”
So if vitamin E were a character in a Hollywood saga, the story would end happily. Plucky little vitamin E, after facing perils worthy of any movie hero, would easily vanquish its foes.