The Vitamin E Factor—Summary and Review*

The benefits from taking vitamin E are many, but the form and dose, in which it is taken, make a great difference. Every individual has a unique biochemistry in his/her body, so one "standard" dose will not help everyone.

A couple of years ago, a high school student did an interesting survey of cardiologists (heart specialists) in which he found that they all personally took antioxidants and the one at the top of the list was vitamin E. They claimed it helped them maintain good health, avoid chronic diseases, and delay the ravages of aging. About ten years ago, most doctors ridiculed the idea of vitamin E, a simple nutrient, reducing heart attacks. Just recently, the president of the extremely conservative American Heart Association stated: "Vitamin E either in food or supplements helps prevent heart disease . . .". A puzzling paradox is that even though all the cardiologists in the high school student’s survey took vitamin E themselves, they did not recommend it to their patients. Perhaps some fear of ridicule remains.


Vitamin E deficiency can go undetected for a long time. Once damage is found, it is largely irreversible.

Vitamin E has been shown to help with:

•Alzheimer’s Disease
•Male Fertility
•Asthma and Allergies
•Effects of Pollution
•Skin Health
•Wound Healing

Vitamin E History

Discovery of Vitamin E
In 1922 at the University of California in Berkeley, Dr. Herbert M. Evans, a research physician, and his assistant, Katherine S. Bishop "discovered" vitamin E. They were feeding rats a special semipurified diet. The rats would grow very well, but for all female pregnancies, the pups would die in the womb. When the rat’s diet was supplemented with lettuce, then later with wheat germ, healthy pups were born. Something must be missing from the diet, but what? Evans and Bishop initially decided to call it "Factor X".

Continuing the research, Doctors Evans and Bishop found Factor X was in the lipid extract of lettuce—so they knew that the mysterious substance must be fat soluble. Even before Evans decided to call this vitamin E in 1925, in 1924 Dr. Bennett Sure at the University of Arkansas observed independently that a missing factor in the diet was making rats sterile. He proposed the name vitamin E one year earlier than Evans.

Frustrating Decade (1925-35): A Vitamin looking for a Disease
The excitement from finding vitamin E died away quickly and was replaced by the slow process of finding a function. Scientists didn’t know if vitamin E was a single compound or, if so, its structure. There was no good "standard" source, or a method to analyze vitamin E or to find its potency! In 1936 Evans and his group isolated an alcohol compound that appeared to be vitamin E. They even proposed the correct chemical formula for alpha-tocopherol. In 1937 Evans isolated beta and gamma tocopherols.

The Vitamin E Family

Some vitamins consist of a single compound, while others contain more than one compound, but the body converts these into a single form. An example is beta-carotine, which is converted into vitamin A.

Not so with vitamin E! EIGHT different compounds make up the vitamin E family—four tocopherols and four tocotrienols. All eight are found in our food. The name of each member of the two sub-groups starts with one of the first four letters in the Greek alphabet:


beta- tocopherol
gamma- tocopherol
delta- tocopherol


beta- tocotrienol
gamma- tocotrienol
delta- tocotrienol

The main difference between these compounds is in subtle molecular structure within these eight similarly shaped molecules. They all have a "head" attached to a "tail." The difference between tocopherols and tocotrienols is in the tail. The tocotrienols have three double bonds. The difference between alpha, beta, gamma, and delta is in the head or chroman ring. The head can have additional chemical groups called methyl groups attached at up to three different locations. These three locations are illustratied below by the black balls in the head. Alpha has all three sites filled. Beta and gamma have two methyl groups attached, but at different locations. Delta has only one methyl group attached.

Are the differences between the eight vitamin E family members a big deal? Yes. These eight members have some similar but other different functions. Where they go in our body varies, especially for alpha-tocopherol versus the others.


Nitric oxide (NO) allows cells to communicate with each other. It relaxes and dilates our arteries

How did alpha-tocopherol become the "flag bearing" definition of vitamin E? Most people in the vitamin business or in science will think alpha-tocopherol whenever vitamin E is mentioned. Recently scientists are recognizing that there is some value to the other seven long-ignored family members. They serve different important functions. Alpha-tocopherol became synonymous with vitamin E for two reasons: (1) It is the most abundant of the eight in our (and in other animals) bodies; (2) It is the most effective of the eight to support reproduction—which we thought was vitamin E’s main function.

Nitric oxide (NO) allows cells to communicate with each other. It relaxes and dilates our arteries and was found in 1986 to have a number of unique medical uses: heart attacks, shock, lungs, cancer, and blood pressure control. However, NO is so unstable that it converts into nitrite and nitrate within ten seconds. Both nitrite and nitrate can have harmful effects on our bodies by producing nitrogen radicals. Gamma-tocopherol reduces this damage BETTER than alpha-tocopherol. Gamma-tocopherol reduces nitrogen dioxide back to NO or reacts with it to form a harmless compound. Very preliminary data (not published yet) suggests that gamma-tocotrienol may have a similar effect. This begins to show that the WHOLE family of vitamin E compounds is important, not just alpha-tocopherol.

Proper Absorption of Vitamin E

Vitamin E deficiency can go undetected for a long time. Once damage is found, it is largely irreversible. This is especially so for damage to nerve tissue. For proper absorption of vitamin E, low fat diets can be bad. A healthy person absorbs oils (which include vitamin E) through micelles (tiny spheres), which carry the oil/fat compounds through our intestine wall. The fat is put into these unique tiny spheres (micelles) with a water-loving (hydrophilic) outer layer. There are several genetic diseases that can cause poor absorption of vitamin E:

•Cystic fibrosis
•Cholestasis (excretion of bile is reduced or stopped)
•Abetalipoprotein (a rare inherited disease-–-problems transferring vitamin E out of the gut)
•Inflammatory bowel disease, including Crohn’s Disease

There is also a special, unique form of vitamin E labeled TPGS. It is water soluble and forms its own tiny spheres so it can be more easily absorbed by people with diseases like AIDS and the above, who need it.

How Vitamin E Works

Vitamin E is an important anti-oxidant in our body, but it’s function goes beyond to many other functions completely unrelated to anti-oxidation. Oxidation causes our cars to rust and slices of apple to turn brown. Many free radicals are extremely reactive with a half-life of the most dangerous equal to less than a billionth of a second.

Free radicals are cellular renegades; they wreak havoc by damaging DNA, altering biochemical compounds, corroding cell membranes, and kill cells outright. Time, April 6, 1992

Our cells can survive because they have developed antioxidant devices.

"Vitamin E is Nature’s master antioxidant" Scientific American, March/April, 1994

Vitamin E places its "head" in the hydrophilic (water loving) sides of a cell membrane that face both in and out. Vitamin E’s "tail" extends into the hydrophobic (water hating) interior of the cell’s membrane. This gives vitamin E an excellent position from which to fight free radicals. With its head in the sides of the cell membrane and its tail in the interior of the membrane, it is similar to a soldier fighting in a bunker while being protected from the entire enemy’s firing. Vitamin E breaks the chain reaction of oxidation of fat and protects all our cell membranes, including those around our DNA.

The Strategic Position of Vitamin E in Membranes


. . . vitamin E [in our membranes is in] an excellent position from which to fight free radicals.

Vitamin E—Beyond Antioxidation

Cells use nitric oxide (NO) and protein kinase C (PKC) to "talk" to each other. These important messages tell them when and where help is needed and when and where to grow (multiply), among many other things. Cancer cells use PKC to keep up their uncontrolled growth. Vitamin E keeps PKC from going into overdrive. This means that the cascade of events, causing platelets to become sticky and form plaque, is slowed down or prevented. Alpha-tocopherol is most effective followed closely by gamma and delta tocopherol. The alpha- and gamma-tocotrienols are as effective as their tocopherol cousins.

Vitamin E also helps keep the bad cholesterol LDL from becoming really ugly.

Vitamin E and Major Chronic Diseases

Heart Attacks—Since vitamin E prevents PKC from going into overdrive, vitamin E slows down the whole cycle of events causing artery-clogging plaque. Vitamin E also prevents the oxidation of LDL, the bad cholesterol. LDL oxidation accelerates the formation of artery-clogging plaque. Heart disease is seven-fold lower in Asian countries than in the US and Northern Europe. Palm oil and rice bran oils are used a lot more in the Asian countries. Both of these oils are rich in tocotrienols. Could the tocotrienols be one of the reasons why the people in these countries have such a lower heart disease rate?

For proper absorption of vitamin E, low fat diets can be bad.

Cancer—Vitamin E helps prevent cancer by: (1) boosting the immune system, especially of the elderly; (2) slowing down key enzymes like PKC that promote the growth of cancer cells; and (3) vitamin E slows down the production of the prostaglandin E2 and other compounds causing inflammation that can lead to cancer.

Diabetes—Vitamin E helps prevent diabetes by: (1) preventing the inflammatory enzyme PKC from going into overdrive and damaging blood vessels; (2) Reduces the oxidation of LDL, the bad cholesterol, which is a major problem for diabetics; (3) Prevents platelets from piling up, becoming sticky, and causing plaque; and (4) prevents life-threatening blood clots.

Delaying Alzheimer’s and other terrible diseases of the Brain—The nerves in the brain are the most susceptible to damage from free radicals. Vitamin E is the best antioxidant to fight free radicals, which attack the membranes of nerve cells. Long-term brain/nerve damage is virtually impossible to reverse, so a prevention program should be started as early as possible. Almost everyone should agree that taking most of the many powerful drug medications with all of their negative side effects aafter disease has developed should be replaced by taking beneficial preventive nutrients, including vitamin E.


Heart disease is seven-fold lower in Asian countries than in the US and Northern Europe. Palm oil and rice bran oils are used a lot more in the Asian countries.

Vitamin E and You

For getting the full benefit from vitamin E, a personalized strategy is a MUST. Each different person has a different set of needs. Most of us can’t get enough vitamin E from our diet, so supplements are essential. How much? In what form?

Alpha-tocopheral is often synthesized. If the label says "dl alpha-tocopheral," you know that it is only half as potent as the natural "d alpha-tocopheral." You must read carefully for the "d," not the "dl."

Many supplements contain only one of the eight vitamin E compounds, specifically alpha-tocopherol. So what’s wrong with that? You are missing the benefits of the other seven vitamin E compounds


The nerves in the brain are the most susceptible to damage from free radicals. Vitamin E is the best antioxidant to fight free radicals, which attack the membranes of nerve cells.

Some people need special forms of vitamin E. Their digestive systems can’t absorb it. Some diseases like AIDS wreak havoc with the absorption of nutrients. These people need a special form of vitamin E like the water-soluble TPGS.

*This article summarizes the November 2000 NOHA lecture and the book The Vitamin E Factor by Andreas Papas, PhD, Harper Collins Publishers, Inc., 1999.

Article from NOHA NEWS, Vol. XXVI, No. 2, Spring 2001, pages 5-8.