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Vitamin E Deficiency Widespread And A Significant Risk To Brain Health and Pregnant Women

Adequate levels of vitamin E, an essential micronutrient, are especially critical for the very young, the elderly, and women who are or may become pregnant. Deficiency of the vitamin is occurring at an alarming frequency, and the effects of this are less obvious in the short-term affecting everything from fertility to Alzheimers.
Findings published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, suggest that improving the diet of women in impoverished nations, or encouraging intake of vitamin E through prenatal supplements could have a direct impact on fertility.

The new study found that pregnant women in Bangladesh with low levels of the most common form of vitamin E are nearly twice as likely to have a miscarriage than those with adequate levels of the vitamin in their blood.

"For nearly a century, we have known about vitamin E and its role in the fertility of animals," commented one of the study leaders, Kerry Schulze from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "To our knowledge, this is the first study in humans that has looked at the association of vitamin E and miscarriage."

"The findings from this study support a role for vitamin E in protecting the embryo and foetus in pregnancy."

Vitamin deficiencies causes many different types of symptoms and illnesses. We generally assume that these types of deficiencies are confined to third world and underdeveloped nations. However contrary to popular beliefs, this is not the case.

Natural or Synthetic

Research suggests that the Vitamin E found in its natural form in foods such as almonds and sunflower seeds is indeed protective, while synthetic Vitamin E (alpha tocopherol acetate) supplements do not show the same protective effect. Researchers have identified an elusive anti-cancer property of vitamin E that has long been presumed to exist, but difficult to find.

Even though its name makes it sound like a single substance, vitamin E is actually a family of fat-soluble vitamins that are active throughout the body. Some members of the vitamin E family are called tocopherols. These members include alpha tocopherol, beta tocopherol, gamma tocopherol, and delta tocopherol.

Other members of the vitamin E family are called tocotrienols. These members include alpha, beta, gamma, and delta tocotrienol. As increasing information has become available about these forms of vitamin E, more and more of them are understood to have unique functions.

Taking a typical vitamin E supplement won't offer much benefit for at least two reasons: The most affordable supplements are synthetic and based predominantly on a form of the vitamin that did not fight disease as effectively at natural forms and the human body can't absorb the high doses that appear to be required to achieve the anti-cancer effect.

Recent research has revealed that, in humans, other vitamin E fractions may be even more beneficial. Gamma-tocopherol has been found to exhibit anti-inflammatory effects, which has led researchers to think this fraction may be more cardioprotective than the alpha-tocopherol found in most supplements. Not only is gamma-tocopherol anti-inflammatory, but it is also highly attracted to the nucleus in cells--the site where mutations in the genetic code can promote the development of cancer.

5 Important Points to keep in mind if you supplement:

  1. Vitamin E can become pro-oxidant and therefore potentially damaging to the body in large amounts.
  2. Being fat-soluble, most but not all Vitamin E supplements come with an oil such as safflower oil or sunflower oil. It is rare for these oils to be free of trans fats.
  3. In supplements or fortified foods, synthetic vitamin E is often used. It has only half the activity of natural vitamin E.
  4. Most supplements contain proportionately large amounts of vitamin E in the form of alpha-tocopherol. The other types of vitamin E are not absorbed as well in the presence of alpha-tocopherol so some of their benefits are likely to be lost.
  5. High dose vitamin E supplementation has been linked to and increase in all cause mortality.

90% of US Population Deficient

According to professor Manfred Eggersdorfer, who spoke at the satellite symposium on vitamin E at the third World Congress of Public Health Nutrition in November, he said that more than 90% of the US's population did not meet their recommended daily allowance of vitamin E, which was a worry.

Consumers were expected to take in enough vitamin E through their diets, but "they are characterised by an increasing intake of processed foods", said Lisa Wood, associate professor at the Centre for Asthma and Respiratory Diseases at Australia's University of Newcastle.

"This results in a nutrient profile that is low in beneficial nutrients, such as antioxidants."

"The results of several clinical studies suggest that the use of vitamin E is associated with a number of benefits including a reduction in aminotransferases and a reduction in fatty denegration and inflammation.

Other studies also linked the importance of vitamin E to "proper neuronal functions." It may protect essential fatty acids in the brain from lipid peroxidation, which protected cognitive function.

Link To Miscarriage

Researchers analysed data from 1,605 rural Bangladeshi pregnant women in the JiVitA-1 study that ran from 2001 to 2007.

Blood samples were taken upon enrolment in the first trimester and any miscarriages were recorded on a weekly basis thereafter. Of the 1,605 women in the study, 141 (8.8%) subsequently miscarried, said the team.

The researchers looked at two forms of vitamin E - alpha-tocopherol (the most active form of the vitamin in the body) and gamma-tocopherol.

Nearly three out of four women in the study had what was considered vitamin E deficiency, with low alpha-tocopherol levels, they said. Indeed, when looking at alpha-tocopherol, 5.2% of women with adequate levels in their blood miscarried in the first or second trimester as compared with 10.2% of women who miscarried with low levels.

The relationship with gamma-tocopherol, however, went the other way, with higher levels associated with increased miscarriage risk, though to a lesser degree, said Schulze.

Better Nutrition

"The new findings suggest that having pregnant women consume an adequate amount of vitamin E early in pregnancy could be beneficial," said Abu Ahmed Shamim from the Bloomberg School.

However he added that since miscarriages occur so early in pregnancy, levels of vitamin E ideally need to be boosted in women of childbearing age by improving access to a diverse diet that includes better vitamin E sources - so they already have what they need once they become pregnant.

"Vitamin deficiencies are considered a form of hidden hunger because they are not readily apparent but they can have huge health consequences," explained Schulze.

"What we really want to do is optimise health before women become pregnant, because if they don't start with a good vitamin E status, they are at a high risk of negative outcomes."

Schulze added that the study may not be generalizable to higher-income nations where women of childbearing age tend to have better nutritional status.


Dr. Marianna Pochelli is a Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine specializing in the treatment of disease through superfoods and herbal strategies. She actively promotes detoxification, colon cleansing, and a vegetarian lifestyle using living foods as a platform to health.

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