Feature

January 2016 Issue




Vitamin E on the Brain

Vitamin E-rich foods may help keep your brain sharper as you age.

Along with its potential brain-boosting power, natural vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that may decrease the risk of heart attack, help prevent cataracts, and boost immune function. It even has been studied for preventing and treating cancer. Instead of taking supplements, focus on eating vitamin E food sources, like nuts, seeds, vegetable oils, and leafy greens to gain the health rewards this nutrient offers.

brain functioning

What’s so special about vitamin E? Vitamin E is involved in many processes in the body, from maintaining the integrity of cell membranes to supporting the immune system. The nutrient also contains eight compounds that act as antioxidants, reversing the damage of oxidative stress.

How much should I get? Vitamin E deficiency causes neurological damage. Men and women 14 and older should get at least 15 milligrams (mg), or 22.5 International Units (IUs), of vitamin E a day. More than 90 percent of Americans don’t meet this recommendation, but deficiency has only been reported with severe malnutrition, specific genetic defects, or diseases that interfere with fat absorption.

almond

Does vitamin E prevent dementia? Since the brain is very susceptible to oxidative stress, the antioxidant power of vitamin E was thought to be good for brain health. But the science has been confusing. Elevated blood levels of vitamin E are associated with reduced risk of cognitive impairment in older adults, and a 2000 study in Neurology found that vitamin E reduces the risk of vascular and other types of dementia, but other studies on vitamin E and Alzheimer’s disease (AD) have had mixed results. A 1997 study showed that taking high doses of vitamin E slowed the progression of AD. However, a more recent study found the same dose did nothing (New England Journal of Medicine, 2005).

sunflower seeds

Photos: Thinkstock

To make matters worse, the dose being tested (2,000 IUs a day) is so high it may be harmful. Anything higher than 1,000 IUs a day is dangerous for people with cardiovascular disease, especially for people taking blood thinners. A review of all the research concluded there is no convincing evidence that vitamin E helps in the treatment of AD or mild cognitive impairment (Cochrane Database Systematic Review, 2012).

Should I take supplements anyway? Vitamin E in supplements is not the same as the vitamin E found in nature. Synthetic vitamin E has only half the biological activity of natural vitamin E. Additionally, vitamin E in foods contains a combination of eight different antioxidant compounds, while synthetic vitamin E has only one. The bottom line: Instead of focusing on supplements, include vitamin E food sources in your diet regularly.

Judith Thalheimer, RD, LDN

Food SourcesServingVitamin E (mg)
Wheat Germ Oil 1 T 20.3
Almonds 1/2 c 16.5
Sunflower Seeds 1/4 c 12.3
Sunflower Oil 1 T 5.8
Tomato Puree 1 c 4.9
Spinach (cooked) 1/2 c 3.4
Butternut Squash 1 c 2.6
Canola Oil 1 T 2.4
Broccoli (cooked) 1 c 2.4
Tuna (canned) 3 oz. 2
Olive Oil 1 T 1.9
Shrimp (cooked) 3 oz. 1.9
Mango 1 c 1.5
Asparagus 1/2 c 1.4
Avocado 1/2 fruit 1.3

*Since only a-tocopherol is measurable in human blood, intake recommendations are based on a-tocopherol.
Source: USDA Nutrient Database
mg=milligrams, c=cup, T=tablespoon, oz=ounce