00:00 Saturday 29 August 2009  Written by Rosie Shelley

Vitamin E is no one-trick pony!

NOW that we've come to the end of the E section of my alphabetical look at nutrition and health it's time to look at vitamin E itself. Some health practitioners believe it to be a hugely underrated nutrient, although its central importance as an antioxidant has never been in doubt.

We can hardly open a paper these days without coming across terms like antioxidant and free radical, and it can all seem a bit confusing, but all that we need to know is that free radicals are agents that bounce around our bodies doing damage to cells. They are created automatically during oxidational processes like turning food into energy, and normally we are well able to disarm them, using the body's stores of antioxidants. Problems only occur when we're either lacking in these antioxidant nutrients, or when too many free radicals are being produced. This can occur in response to other 'hot' elements such as exposure to sunlight, cigarette smoke, fried foods, pollution, radiation, and even illness and stress. When free radicals get the upper hand, damaged cells show up as the ageing process and all the diseases that go with it, and sometimes as cancer.

While there is an enormous range of antioxidants, found mostly in plant foods, the major players are vitamins A (also made in the body from betacarotene), C and E, along with the mineral selenium. The crucial role of vitamin E is to protect the fats in our bodies from oxidation, including all the oily substances like the walls of our cells; without it all of the cells, the tissues that make up our bodies would begin to break down.

But E is no one-trick pony: the revered nutritionist Adelle Davis describes it as the 'Guardian angel' that protects and enhances other vitamins and fatty acids, blood cells and proteins, hormones, and organs such as the liver and kidneys. In fact she says that 'Vitamin E is unique in playing a role in a wider variety of body functions than almost any other nutrient', and modern research suggests that it may play a role in the prevention or treatment of a raft of common problems. They include acne, Alzheimer's disease, anaemia, angina, asthma, atherosclerosis, bladder cancer, blood clots, breast cancer, bruising (easily), burns, cataracts, diabetes, epilepsy, fatigue (after light exertion), fibrocystic breast disease, gallstones, gout, Graves' disease, heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, infertility, irritable bowel disorder, low sex drive, macular degeneration, menopause, migraine, miscarriages, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, muscle weakness, oral cancers, osteoarthritis, Parkinson's disease, peptic ulcers, PMS, prostate cancer, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, scarring, slow wound healing, strokes, varicose veins and viral diseases.

I can only look at a handful of these issues here, and what could be more important than the health of our hearts, which vitamin E works for in several different ways? As we've seen, it protects fats from the oxidisation that harms our cells. Even the healthy oils in our diet are prone to oxidisation, which causes the build up of plaques on our arteries and raises blood pressure. Vitamin E also lowers blood pressure by acting as a diuretic. It can thin the blood, preventing and even dissolving blood clots, and lower levels of harmful cholesterol. Hardly surprising then, that studies suggest a good intake of vitamin E can cut the risk of heart disease by 35%. Perhaps more surprisingly, high levels of the vitamin have been shown to cut the risk of a (non-fatal) heart attack by 77%.

Something else that we all have to contend with as we get older is a decline in brain function, but due probably to its cell-protective abilities vitamin E can be of real benefit here too. Recent research has demonstrated a 36% reduction in the rate of decline in older people who were taking in the greatest amount of the vitamin, and a mighty 67% lower risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. It can also slow the progression of the disease, and in the US at least the American Psychiatric Association now recommends vitamin E supplements for all Alzheimer's patients.

For younger people, it's interesting to note that vitamin E was first discovered in 1922 when rats fed a diet without it became unable to reproduce. When wheatgerm oil - the richest source of vitamin E - was added to their food, their fertility was restored. And so it was named tocopherol, from the Greek meaning 'to bear offspring'. Vitamin E is now known to be crucial for reproductive health, so if you're trying for a baby think about taking a supplement along with plenty of the food sources listed below.

And finally, you've probably seen the ads for all the anti-ageing moisturisers containing vitamin E - a star player on the skincare front because of its ability to knock out those ageing free radicals. The skin is one of those 'fatty' body structures that is protected by the vitamin, and along with vitamin C it can actually help to prevent damage from UV rays. By keeping tissues intact it wards off those thread veins that can crop up on the face, as well as varicose veins in the legs. It helps keep skin elastic, reducing wrinkles, stimulates the growth of new skin cells, and calms inflammation. And this little wonder is also known as 'Nature's healer': if you have been injured, or burned, or undergone surgery, vitamin E can be used both internally and externally to speed up healing and prevent scarring. It can even help regenerate skin that is already scarred, and natural creams and oils containing vitamin E are widely available in pharmacies and healthfood stores. Instead of expensive eye creams, try breaking open a vitamin E capsule and applying around the eyes before bed.

It's true that most of us are getting the recommended minimum of vitamin E from our food, and that it is stored in the body. But unlike other fat-soluble vitamins it's only stored for a short time, and needs to be replenished daily. And some people need extra supplies, including those on cholesterol-lowering drugs, those trying to conceive, pregnant or breastfeeding, taking a contraceptive pill or HRT, or undergoing the menopause. Chlorine in our water can knock out vitamin E, as can iron supplements (don't take them at the same time), and cooking foods in oil or exposing them to air and light (which is why you should keep nuts and seeds, wheatgerm and cooking oils cool, dark, and airtight.) A supplement is always a good safety net, but if you prefer to get your goodness from food then the best options of all are wheatgerm and its oil, sunflower seeds, almonds, spinach, brown rice, and our old friends the oily fish.

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