Scientists have recently discovered how vitamin E deficiency may cause neurological damage by interrupting a supply line of specific nutrients and robbing the brain of the ‘building blocks’ it needs to maintain neuronal health. They found that nutrients needed to build and maintain the brain can be cut by more than half, with possible implications for an elevated risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Researchers from the Oregon State University (OSU) in their findings on the work done on zebrafish – as published in the Journal of Lipid Research, which was supported by the National Institutes of Health, USA, showed that zebrafish fed with a diet deficient in vitamin E throughout their life had about 30 per cent lower levels of DHA-PC, which is a part of the cellular membrane in every brain cell, or neuron. Other recent studies have also concluded that low levels of DHA-PC in the blood plasma of humans are a biomarker than can predict a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Just as important, the new research studied the level of compounds called “lyso PLs,” which are nutrients needed for getting DHA into the brain, and serve as building blocks that aid in membrane repair. It showed the lyso PLs are an average of 60 per cent lower in fish with a vitamin E deficient diet.
According to a professor of Micronutrient Research in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences, at OSU and lead author on the research, Maret Traber, noted the implication of the study which connotes the indispensability of vitamin E in neurological health.
“This research showed that vitamin E is needed to prevent a dramatic loss of a critically important molecule in the brain, and helps explain why vitamin E is needed for brain health. Human brains are very rich in DHA but they can’t make it, they get it from the liver,” said Traber.
“There’s increasingly clear evidence that vitamin E is associated with brain protection, and now we’re starting to better understand some of the underlying mechanisms,” Traber said.
She explained that the year-old zebrafish used in the study, and the deficient levels of vitamin E they were given, are equivalent to humans eating a low vitamin E diet for a lifetime. In the United States, 96 per cent of adult women and 90 per cent of men do not receive adequate levels of vitamin E in their diet. This is a clear indication that Africans, especially Nigerians, will need a lot of vitamin E to boost and maintain their brain health.
Traber, who is also a principal investigator in the Linus Pauling Institute at OSU, added that the particular molecules that help carry it there are these lyso PLs, and the amount of those compounds is being greatly reduced when vitamin E intake is insufficient. “This sets the stage for cellular membrane damage and neuronal death.”
She continued: “DHA is the needed nutrient, but it’s lyso PLs which help get it into the brain. It’s the building block. You can’t build a house without the necessary materials. In a sense, if vitamin E is inadequate, we’re cutting by more than half the amount of materials with which we can build and maintain the brain.”
Some other research, Traber said, has shown that the progression of Alzheimer’s disease can be slowed by increased intake of vitamin E, including one study published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association. But that disease is probably a reflection of years of neurological damage that has already been done, she said. The zebrafish diet used in this study was deficient in vitamin E for the whole life of the fish – as is vitamin E deficiency in some humans.
Vitamin E in human diets is most often provided by dietary oils, such as olive oil. But many of the highest levels are in foods not routinely considered dietary staples — almonds, sunflower seeds, tomatoes, avocados, dried apricots and so on.
According to a Professor of Comparative Anatomy and Neuroscience, at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital, University of Ibadan, James Olukayode Olopade, “deficiency of vitamin E is very rare, and almost impossible clinical condition despite the fact that many diets are low in vitamin E which is as a result of vitamin E denaturing from food processing. Diets also low in fat pose a nutritional challenge, because vitamin E is contained in high quantity in fatty foods such as vegetable oils, nuts and seeds”.
The anatomy expert who explained the distribution of energy in the human body said, the brain accounts for only 2 percent of the body weight, but uses almost 25 per cent of the glucose energy supply. It also requires about 15 per cent of the blood supply and a host of vitamins to keep it functioning optimally. A deficiency of some vitamins can compromise how well one can remember things and concentrate, focus and balance, and the overall health of the brain.
A severe deficiency of vitamin E can lead to symptoms such as impaired balance and coordination (ataxia) as well as abnormal eye movements (Haris, 2015).
He however emphasized the benefits of vitamin E in the elderly; saying evidences exist that imply that the mind and memory of older people can benefit from vitamin E. One of such benefit is the prevention or reduction in the rate of cognitive decline, which can be achieved by a healthy intake of vitamin E. This implies that vitamin E supplementation may assist to prevent or delay the onset of serious neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Hence, the protection of neurons, by vitamin E, against oxidative damage is of immense importance on healthy neurological aging (Jensen, 2002).
Nonetheless, Prof. Olopade noted that caution should be taken in the use vitamin E as a supplement, as there are existing controversies surrounding the benefits of the vitamin.
Facts about Vitamin E
Vitamin E is found naturally in some foods, added to others, and available as a dietary supplement. “Vitamin E” is the collective name for a group of fat-soluble compounds with distinctive antioxidant activities.
Naturally occurring vitamin E exists in eight chemical forms (alpha-, beta-, gamma-, and delta-tocopherol and alpha-, beta-, gamma-, and delta-tocotrienol) that have varying levels of biological activity .Alpha- (or á-) tocopherol is the only form that is recognised to meet human requirements.
Serum concentrations of vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol) depend on the liver, which takes up the nutrient after the various forms are absorbed from the small intestine. The liver preferentially re-secretes only alpha-tocopherol via the hepatic alpha-tocopherol transfer protein; the liver metabolises and excretes the other vitamin E forms. As a result, blood and cellular concentrations of other forms of vitamin E are lower than those of alpha-tocopherol and have been the subjects of less research.
Antioxidants protect cells from the damaging effects of free radicals, which are molecules that contain an unshared electron. Free radicals damage cells and might contribute to the development of cardiovascular disease and cancer. Unshared electrons are highly energetic and react rapidly with oxygen to form reactive oxygen species (ROS). The body forms ROS endogenously when it converts food to energy, and antioxidants might protect cells from the damaging effects of ROS. The body is also exposed to free radicals from environmental exposures, such as cigarette smoke, air pollution, and ultraviolet radiation from the sun. ROS are part of signalling mechanisms among cells.
Vitamin E is a fat-soluble antioxidant that stops the production of ROS formed when fat undergoes oxidation. Scientists are investigating whether, by limiting free-radical production and possibly through other mechanisms, vitamin E might help prevent or delay the chronic diseases associated with free radicals.
In addition to its activities as an antioxidant, vitamin E is involved in immune function and, as shown primarily by in vitro studies of cells, cell signalling, regulation of gene expression, and other metabolic processes. Alpha-tocopherol inhibits the activity of protein kinase C, an enzyme involved in cell proliferation and differentiation in smooth muscle cells, platelets, and monocytes. Vitamin-E–replete endothelial cells lining the interior surface of blood vessels are better able to resist blood-cell components adhering to this surface. Vitamin E also increases the expression of two enzymes that suppress arachidonic acid metabolism, thereby increasing the release of prostacyclin from the endothelium, which, in turn, dilates blood vessels and inhibits platelet aggregation.\
Fruits and vegetables rich in vitamin E
Below is the list of vegetables that can naturally supply vitamin E to the human body, while the use of supplements is encouraged where it is difficult to obtain them.
Fresh, juicy tomatoes have a memorable taste and smell, but what’s even more impressive is the rich nutrients in each of these flavourful fruits. Slice up a tomato and add it to your scrambled eggs, salad, pizza, pasta, soup, sandwich, or whatever else you’re in the mood for. Doing so will reward your body with Vitamins E, A, C, and K, as well as fibre and lycopene. Serving Size (1 medium), 0.66 milligrams of Vitamin E (3 per cent DV), 22 calories.
The colourful and tropical mango is a nutritional powerhouse. It’s loaded with antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, including Vitamin E. The average mango contains about 2.32 milligrams, or enough to reach 11 per cent of the recommended daily value. Mangos are also a good source of Vitamin C, Vitamin A, copper, and potassium. Serving Size (1 mango), 2.32 milligrams of Vitamin E (11 per cent DV), 135 calories.
Sunflower seeds are full of essential vitamins and minerals that your body depends on. Half a cup of sunflower seeds provides just over the daily recommended value of Vitamin E for the average adult. Serving Size (1 cup), 46.52 milligrams of Vitamin E (225% DV), 818 calories.
Chili powders packs and punch, and not just in flavour. Just one tablespoon of this feisty spice contains 1.49mg of Vitamin E, contributing 7 per cent toward the recommended amount for the day. Its impressive Vitamin E contents helps your skin stay fresh and healthy, but other vitamins and minerals contribute to several additional aspects of your health. Serving Size (1 tablespoon), 1.49 milligrams of Vitamin E (7 per cent DV), 16 calories
When you’re in a hurry or you just want something easy, dried fruit is a great snack option because it’s healthy and hassle-free. One cup of dried apricot halves provides 5.63mg of Vitamin E, or 27 per cent of the recommended daily value. If you have yet to try them, enjoy dried apricots as a midday snack or as a sweet but healthy dessert option. Serving Size (1 cup), 5.63 milligrams of Vitamin E (27 per cent DV), 313 calories.
Spinach is almost always at the top of the list when it comes to the best health foods. Each dark green leaf is home to several essential vitamins and minerals including Vitamin E. A half-cup serving of cooked spinach provides 16 per cent of the daily value. Spinach can also be eaten raw, often in salads, but cooking or steaming the spinach prior to eating it can increase the amount of several of its nutrients. Serving Size (1/2 cup), 3.36 milligrams of Vitamin E (16 per cent DV), 32 calories.
Pumpkin seeds are generally known for two things: carving pumpkins, and Vitamin E. Once you’ve finished carving your Halloween pumpkin and have cleaned the gunk from the seeds (or you’ve simply gone out and purchased a pack of pumpkin seeds from the grocery store), you can cook and eat the seeds for their Vitamin E and several other healthful components. Serving Size (1/4 cup), 46.52 milligrams of Vitamin E (225% DV), 818 calories
When it comes to your skin, it doesn’t get much better than avocados. In fact, some people skip the snack and put the creamy mashed avocado right on their faces for silky smooth skin. If you actually eat the avocado instead, you’ll get all the benefits of the Vitamin E and more. Avocados are also high in B vitamins, Vitamin K, Vitamin C, and several minerals. Serving Size (1 avocado), 4.16 milligrams of Vitamin E (20 per cent DV), 322 calories
Vitamin E has an essential role in the health of the skin and body organs, and its antioxidant properties help reduce damage to cells. Make sure you’re looking and feeling your best by enjoying a diet that’s rich in fruits, vegetables, and other healthy sources of essential Vitamin E.
Other health benefits of vitamin E
Cancer and cardiovascular diseases
This vitamin is lipid-soluble, which means that it helps in cell-membrane stability. The antioxidant content in Vitamin E protects our cells from the negative effects of free radicals. Free radicals are the by-products of our body’s metabolic process. These free radicals are harmful to our body as they damage cells, which further increase the chances of the body developing chronic diseases like cancer and other cardiovascular diseases. Vitamin E has the ability to limit the production of these free radicals, so it might help in the prevention of cancer and other chronic diseases.
Improving metabolism and the immune system
Vitamin E plays a vital role in improving our immune system. It helps in DNA repair and also in improving the body’s metabolic processes. The intake of Vitamin E helps to stop the development of nitrosamines in our body. Nitrosamines are carcinogens that are formed in the stomach from nitrates in our diet. This helps in the improvement of our metabolic process. Vitamin E also helps protect some of the sensitive tissues of our body, like the skin, liver, eyes, breasts, and testes.
Researchers have shown that Vitamin E helps prevent or delay the onset of heart diseases. Blockages in the coronary arteries can sometimes cause heart attacks and these blockages in the arteries are promoted by the oxidative changes by LDL-cholesterol in the body. Vitamin E has the vital component of antioxidants, which limit the oxidation LDL-cholesterol and thus help to prevent heart disease. One of the major reasons for heart attacks is blood clots. Research shows that Vitamin E helps in the elimination of blood clots, which in turn helps to avoid heart attacks. Studies have shown that people with a high intake of Vitamin E are less prone to heart-related diseases.
This condition is a result of an abnormal growth in the eye’s lens. This results in cloudy vision and a high risk of vision disability in aged people. People with a high intake of Vitamin E have shown better lens clarity as compared to those who don’t consume appropriate amounts of vitamin E. Antioxidants present in Vitamin E aid in reducing or delaying the growth of cataracts and other conditions associated with premature aging.
- Jaewoo Choi, Scott W. Leonard, Katherine Kasper, Melissa McDougall, Jan F. Stevens, Robert L. Tanguay, Maret G. Traber. Novel function of vitamin E in regulation of zebrafish (Danio rerio) brain lysophospholipids discovered using lipidomics. Journal of Lipid Research, 2015