Vitamin E is an antioxidant. Antioxidants are substances that may protect your cells against the effects of free radicals. Free radicals are molecules produced when your body breaks down food, or by environmental exposures like tobacco smoke and radiation. Vitamin E also plays a role in your immune system and metabolic processes. Good sources of vitamin E are vegetable oils, margarine, nuts, seeds, and some leafy greens, but not all. Vitamin E is also added to foods like cereals. Most people get enough vitamin E from the foods they eat. People with certain disorders, such as liver diseases, cystic fibrosis, and Crohn's disease may need extra vitamin E.
Vitamin E supplements may be harmful for people who take blood thinners and other medicines. Check with your health care provider before taking the supplements.
Vitamin E is a fat-soluble nutrient found in many foods. In the body, it acts as an antioxidant, helping to protect cells from the damage caused by free radicals. Free radicals are compounds formed when our bodies convert the food we eat into energy. People are also exposed to free radicals in the environment from cigarette smoke, air pollution, and ultraviolet light from the sun. The body also needs vitamin E to boost its immune system so that it can fight off invading bacteria and viruses. It helps to widen blood vessels and keep blood from clotting within them. In addition, cells use vitamin E to interact with each other and to carry out many important functions.
The amount of vitamin E you need each day depends on your age. Average daily recommended intakes are listed below in milligrams (mg) and in International Units (IU). Package labels list the amount of vitamin E in foods and dietary supplements in IU.
|Life Stage||Recommended Amount|
|Birth to 6 months||4 mg (6 IU)|
|Infants 7–12 months||5 mg (7.5 IU)|
|Children 1–3 years||6 mg (9 IU)|
|Children 4–8 years||7 mg (10.4 IU)|
|Children 9–13 years||11 mg (16.4 IU)|
|Teens 14–18 years||15 mg (22.4 IU)|
|Adults||15 mg (22.4 IU)|
|Pregnant teens and women||15 mg (22.4 IU)|
|Breastfeeding teens and women||19 mg (28.4 IU)|
Vitamin E is found naturally in foods and is added to some fortified foods. You can get recommended amounts of vitamin E by eating a variety of foods including the following:
Vitamin E supplements come in different amounts and forms. Two main things to consider when choosing a vitamin E supplement are:
Vitamin E from natural (food) sources is listed as "d-alpha-tocopherol" on food packaging and supplement labels. Synthetic (laboratory-made) vitamin E is listed as "dl-alpha-tocopherol." The natural form is more potent. For example, 100 IU of natural vitamin E is equal to about 150 IU of the synthetic form.
Some vitamin E supplements provide other forms of the vitamin, such as gamma-tocopherol, tocotrienols, and mixed tocopherols. Scientists do not know if any of these forms are superior to alpha-tocopherol in supplements.
There are two types of vitamin E:
Vitamin E is a common ingredient in multivitamins and vitamin and mineral combinations, but the human body absorbs it best in a liquid form. This means that when you take a multi-vitamin pill with vitamin E, the vitamin E is not being used by your body properly and you may not be getting all of the benefits of this antioxidant.
Even within the categories of natural and synthetic there are significant differences.
Synthetic vitamin E, or dl-alpha tocopherol, is not easily utilized by your body. The primary benefit of this petroleum by-product is that it is less expensive than the natural vitamin E. However, if your body is not utilizing it, then it is just a waste of money. While the synthetic form is less expensive, costing about half the price of the natural vitamin E, it is much less efficient. You must be careful when buying vitamin E to get the d-alpha tocopherol types. Even if the bottle says natural the vitamin may be partially synthetic. The only way to know for sure is to read the ingredients. Anything with dl-alpha tocopherols is, at least, partially synthetic. Generally, if it is a blend it is mostly synthetic vitamin E.
Natural vitamin E will never have dl-alpha tocopherols. If the first letters of the name are dl then it will always be synthetic.The "d" form of vitamin E is the only type that the body recognizes. Researchers found that in studies of pregnant women, the natural vitamin E was in the placental cords in three times the concentration of the synthetic form. The significance is that this finding would seem to imply that the natural forms of vitamin E are more easily passed to the developing baby.
Other researchers have come to similar conclusions, finding that the body absorbs twice as much vitamin E from natural sources. These results were consistent in both the blood and the internal organs. It seems that while both forms of the vitamin are absorbed equally well in the gut, the liver is choosier, preferring the natural form.
The diets of most Americans provide less than the recommended amounts of vitamin E. Nevertheless, healthy people rarely show any clear signs that they are not getting enough vitamin E (see next question for information on the signs of vitamin E deficiency).
Vitamin E deficiency is very rare in healthy people. It is almost always linked to certain diseases where fat is not properly digested or absorbed. Examples include Crohn's disease, cystic fibrosis, and certain rare genetic diseases such as abetalipoproteinemia and ataxia with vitamin E deficiency (AVED). Vitamin E needs some fat for the digestive system to absorb it.
Vitamin E deficiency can cause nerve and muscle damage that results in loss of feeling in the arms and legs, loss of body movement control, muscle weakness, and vision problems. Another sign of deficiency is a weakened immune system.
Scientists are studying vitamin E to understand how it affects health. Here are several examples of what this research has shown.
Some studies link higher intakes of vitamin E from supplements to lower chances of developing heart disease. But the best research finds no benefit. People in these studies are randomly assigned to take vitamin E or aplacebo (dummy pill with no vitamin E or active ingredients) and they don't know which they are taking. Vitamin E supplements do not seem to prevent heart disease, reduce its severity, or affect the risk of death from this disease. Scientists do not know whether high intakes of vitamin E might protect the heart in younger, healthier people who do not have a high risk of heart disease.
Most research indicates that vitamin E does not help prevent cancer and may be harmful in some cases. Large doses of vitamin E have not consistently reduced the risk of colon and breast cancer in studies, for example. A large study found that taking vitamin E supplements (400 IU/day) for several years increased the risk of developing prostate cancer in men. Two studies that followed middle-aged men and women for 7 or more years found that extra vitamin E (300–400 IU/day, on average) did not protect them from any form of cancer. However, one study found a link between the use of vitamin E supplements for 10 years or more and a lower risk of death from bladder cancer.
Vitamin E dietary supplements and other antioxidants might interact with chemotherapy and radiation therapy. People undergoing these treatments should talk with their doctor or oncologist before taking vitamin E or other antioxidant supplements, especially in high doses.
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD), or the loss of central vision in older people, and cataracts are among the most common causes of vision loss in older people. The results of research on whether vitamin E can help prevent these conditions are inconsistent. Among people with early-stage AMD, a supplement containing large doses of vitamin E combined with other antioxidants, zinc, and copper showed promise for slowing down the rate of vision loss.
Several studies have investigated whether vitamin E supplements might help older adults remain mentally alert and active as well as prevent or slow the decline of mental function and Alzheimer's disease. So far, the research provides little evidence that taking vitamin E supplements can help healthy people or people with mild mental functioning problems to maintain brain health.
Eating vitamin E in foods is not risky or harmful. In supplement form, high doses of vitamin E might increase the risk of bleeding (by reducing the blood's ability to form clots after a cut or injury) and of serious bleeding in the brain (known as hemorrhagic stroke). The highest safe level of intake from supplements for adults is 1,500 IU/day for natural forms of vitamin E and 1,100 IU/day for the synthetic form. The highest safe levels for children are lower than for adults. Some recent research suggests that intakes of vitamin E below these upper safe levels could increase the risk of prostate cancer in men. Vitamin E might also increase the risk of death in some adults with chronic health conditions, but this does not seem to be the case in healthy people.
Vitamin E dietary supplements can interact or interfere with certain medicines that you take. Here are some examples:
Tell your doctor, pharmacist, and other health care providers about any dietary supplements and medicines you take. They can tell you if those dietary supplements might interact or interfere with your prescription or over-the-counter medicines, or if the medicines might interfere with how your body absorbs, uses, or breaks down nutrients.
This fact sheet by the Office of Dietary Supplements provides information that should not take the place of medical advice. We encourage you to talk to your health care providers (doctor, registered dietitian, pharmacist, etc.) about your interest in, questions about, or use of dietary supplements and what may be best for your overall health. Any mention in this publication of a specific brand name is not an endorsement of the product.
NIH: National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements