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A wake-up call for new science on the role of vitamin E in the human body
Vitamin E is an essential nutrient for human health and growth, yet little new science is devoted to studying its role in the human body. Unlike other vitamins, such as vitamin D, little research has been conducted to uncover the benefits of vitamin E, or to shed light on potential deficiencies in populations.
Just last year, the International Osteoporosis Foundation developed a global vitamin D status map, which revealed vitamin D insufficiencies in both the developing world and developed countries-a public health problem, as lack of the vitamin can lead to brittle bones that policymakers now have the data to address. Vitamin E deficiency is primarily observed in people with impaired capacity to absorb dietary fat, such as people with cystic fibrosis, Crohn’s disease, chronic liver disease, pancreatic problems and cancer, as well as severely malnourished people and people with specific genetic defects.
We know vitamin E functions as a powerful biological antioxidant, protecting our cells, tissues, and organs from damage due to oxidative reactions. Vitamin E is likely also involved in heart disease and cancer risk reduction, warding off diabetes, promoting eye health, and benefiting immune function. Vitamin E may play a role in the prevention of some neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and Parkinson’s disease.
But there is so much we don’t know, which is why we need a quantum leap in research. With additional information and research on vitamin E, we can assess where the highest insufficiency regions are, and help these populations gain access to the vitamin E they need for optimal health.
One new trend in vitamin research is the study of how genes and vitamins interact. There is emerging evidence that genetic variants may affect how we process nutrients. Much like how genetic variants determine eye color and blood type, they also determine how we process food and nutrients. What this means is that different people may need different amounts of vitamins for optimal health, and some of this is genetically determined. The study of genes and vitamins, combined with the study of vitamins’ relationships with risk reduction for noncommunicable diseases, can help scientists establish dietary intake recommendations that help all people-including those with a disadvantaged genetic background-stay healthy and avoid disease.
For example, diabetes patients with a certain genetic variant may have increased risk of heart disease. About one-third of U.S. diabetics and half of European diabetics carry this genetic variant. But a vitamin E supplement of 400 IU/day may reduce their heart disease risk to almost the same level as individuals not carrying the genetic polymorphism.
Despite national guidelines on recommended levels of daily vitamin E intake, insufficient dietary intake is common. An analysis published in 2012 in the British Journal of Nutrition, based on national vitamin intake data, found that more than three-quarters of the U.S. population does not meet the dietary intake recommendations for vitamin E.
National vitamin E intake recommendations vary between countries, in part because scientists have not yet come to a consensus on ideal daily intake levels. Current recommendations are based on data from the 1950s and studies on animals. We need more research, including on how genetics affect vitamin requirements. One challenge is that the amount of vitamin E needed depends on the level of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) in an individual or population’s diet. Because these fats are highly susceptible to oxidative damage, the more fat a person or population consumes, the more vitamin E is required to prevent oxidation in tissues.
Some research is already under way. For example, Maret Traber, PhD, the world’s leading researcher of vitamin E in humans, has reported landmark discoveries on the bioavailability of vitamin E, its antioxidant function and its metabolism in health and disease.
But there is much left to learn. This is a wakeup call for new science on vitamin E. We must encourage young scientists to engage in new research on nutrient–gene interactions and to use novel biomarkers and analytical tools to truly gauge the role of vitamin E for health and wellness. We must explore further how vitamin E may reduce the risk of heart disease and other diseases. We must improve our understanding of the ideal daily intake levels for various populations. And then we must educate the public.