Let’s take a look at Vitamin E. Vitamin E is an important fat-soluble vitamin that helps keep us healthy by playing several roles in our bodies. Its most important role is to act as an antioxidant reducing the damage caused by free radicals.
Main dietary sources of vitamin E are vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Specifically, wheat germ, almonds, and sunflower seeds are especially good sources of the vitamin. The maximum allowable dose – or upper limit (UL) – for vitamin E is 1000 IU/day for the synthetic form and 1500 IU/day for natural sources. Which begs the question: what’s the difference between the synthetic and natural vitamin E and, more importantly, which is best?
Our bodies need vitamins, whether we get them through diet or supplements. Vitamins like vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin B, and vitamin E provide the chemical building blocks our bodies need to stay healthy and reach optimal health.* For those who struggle to get the proper amounts of these through their diets (read: most of us) getting them through supplements can be a good option. What you may not know, however, is that the form of vitamins your multivitamin contains may matter just as much as which vitamins it contains.
Vitamin E exists in eight different forms (alpha-, beta-, gamma-, and delta-tocopherols and tocotrienols) each of which has slightly different activity in the body. Even though there are 8 forms of vitamin E, the most biologically active form of the vitamin is called alpha-tocopherol. Alpha-tocopherol is considered the active form because it is the preferred form of vitamin E transported and used by the liver.
Synthetic vitamin E does not come from a natural food source and is generally derived from petroleum products. Synthetic vitamin E (dl-alpha-tocopherol or any variation starting with dl- ) is found in most singular vitamin E supplements that can be purchased over the counter, whereas most multivitamins contain a semi-synthetic vitamin E extracted from plant oils. It is not believed dangerous to consume synthetic or semi-synthetic vitamin E, but you may not be getting as much of the vitamin into your system as you are intending.
Synthetic vitamin E, due to its chemical structure, is only about 12% as potent as natural vitamin E. It is also not as bioavailable (meaning easily used by the body) as its natural counterpart, decreasing overall absorption and utilization of the vitamin. Certain studies have shown that one may need three times more synthetic vitamin E to equal the biological activity of natural vitamin E. Synthetic vitamin E is also excreted faster than the natural form, so it doesn’t have as much time to get into the tissues where it is needed.
Natural vitamin E is generally labeled d-alpha tocopherol, d-alpha tocopheryl acetate, or d-alpha tocopheryl succinate but can sometimes appear as mixed tocopherols (mixed tocopherols, the most desirable of vitamin E forms, contain not only d-alpha tocopherol but natural mixtures of beta, gamma, and delta tocopherols). Natural E comes from plant oils instead of petroleum. Due to its molecular structure, natural vitamin E is much better absorbed in the body. Specific transport proteins in the liver tend to bind better to natural vitamin E, allowing it to be transported to other tissues in the body to be used for important functions, including as an antioxidant.
So, should you take a vitamin E supplement? If it contains synthetic vitamin E, probably not. And if it offers large doses of vitamin E, no again – there have been some studies that have shown that too much vitamin E, even at levels as low as 400 IU have been shown to increase all-cause mortality. But if your multivitamin or vitamin E supplement offers a dosage at or around the RDI of 30 IU and contains the natural forms of the vitamin, it might be wise to take it. With or without vitamin supplementation, try to increase your intake of plant oils such as olive oil, and add unsalted sunflower seeds or raw almonds to your diet as a healthy snack.
As always, make sure to consult your healthcare professional to see if a vitamin E supplement is right for you.