Moderation is the key when it comes to vitamin E

For thousands of years discovering the secrets to a long life has been a primary goal for most of humanity.

But sometimes figuring out if something is a help or a hindrance to longer life is complicated. Such is the case with vitamin E.

Vitamin E is a supplement that has a long history of health claims, some accurate and some not. A recent medical study demonstrated that not all forms of vitamin E are equal. In fact, one form of vitamin E may be associated with a shorter life.

Vitamin E is an essential, fat-soluble, antioxidant vitamin that occurs in two basic classes: tocopherols and tocotrienols. These are further broken down into alpha, beta, delta, and gamma forms.

The most common and active form of vitamin E is alpha-tocopherol. Another form is gamma-tocopherol. Alpha- and gamma-tocopherol is all that is needed to satisfy human nutrition needs.

As an antioxidant, gamma-tocopherol is better than alpha-tocopherol. However, in humans, levels of alpha-tocopherol are about five times higher than gamma levels. Although the alpha and gamma forms of vitamin E have almost the same molecular structure some studies suggest that they have very different actions in the body.

One study suggested that these two forms of vitamin E actually oppose each other. In other experiments alpha-tocopherol seems to lowers lung inflammation while gamma-tocopherol increases lung inflammation.

A study in 2012 with approximately 370,000 participants showed higher alpha-tocopherol levels decreased the risk of prostate cancer and diabetes. Higher gamma-tocopherol had no association with prostate cancer but did increase the risk of diabetes, and in women increased the risk of death from hemorrhagic stroke. This type of research is important because gamma-tocopherol is a primary form of vitamin E in the typical American diet.

One recent medical study (Nutrients 2017) explored the effect of alpha- and gamma-tocopherols have on DNA. It is well-known that longer DNA, specifically the ends of the DNA called telomeres, are associated with longer life. A healthy lifestyle can increase the length of the telomeres while unhealthy choices can dramatically shorten telomere length.

The data for this study came from almost 6.000 participants in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. What was found was enlightening. Alpha-tocopherol was associated with longer telomeres and gamma-tocopherol was associated with shorter telomeres.

After adjusting for other factors, an increase of 50 micrograms gamma-tocopherol in the blood shortened the telomeres resulting in an estimated loss of one year of life. Those who had the greatest level of gamma-tocopherol in their blood were, at the cellular level, about three years older than those with a low level of gamma-tocopherol.

Interestingly, alpha-tocopherol did not result in any meaningful improvements in biological aging.

Other research seems to be conflicting, suggesting that gamma-tocopherol has anti-inflammatory properties and that higher blood concentrations lower the risk of heart disease and prostate cancer. The bottom line is that we just do not know and moderation is key.

Food sources of gamma-tocopherol are vegetable oils, nuts and seeds.

• Patrick B. Massey, MD, PH.D., is president of ALT-MED Medical and Physical Therapy, 1544 Nerge Road, Elk Grove Village. His website is

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