The Foods You Should Be Eating To Get Your Daily Dose Of Vitamin E
Megan Fahey, MS, RD, CDN is a Registered Dietitian, Functional Medicine Nutritionist and Registered Yoga Teacher. She holds her Masters of Science in Nutrition and Dietetics from Bastyr University, where she was trained to artfully blend eastern and western healing modalities.
Readily available in many common foods, including a variety of nuts and seeds, vitamin E plays a number of vital roles in keeping our bodies healthy and our skin looking great—which is why you'll often spot it as an ingredient in lip balms, serums, lotions, and cleansers.
Vitamin E is the collective name for a group of eight fat-soluble compounds (called tocopherols and tocotrienols) that have antioxidant abilities. Alpha-tocopherol and gamma-tocopherol are considered the two most important forms for humans, which is why they're the forms of vitamin E you'll typically find in high-quality supplements.
Here, learn all about vitamin E, its health benefits, signs of deficiency, common food sources, and when to consider taking it in supplement form.
What role does vitamin E play in the body?
"Vitamin E's main function is to work as an antioxidant, scavenging loose electrons—so-called 'free radicals'—that can damage cells," says Joel Kahn, M.D., cardiologist and mindbodygreen Collective member. Left unchecked, free radicals can damage cells and contribute to the development of cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Its antioxidant capabilities also play an important role in protecting our cells from the damaging effects of environmental toxins like pollution and UV rays from the sun, making it extremely important for the health of our skin.
"Vitamin E is known as the 'skin vitamin' because it is a powerful promoter of skin healing and protection, making it beneficial for inflammatory skin problems, burns, and wrinkles," explains Will Cole, D.C., mbg Collective member and best-selling author of the newly published Ketotarian. "It can be taken orally or applied directly on the skin."
Additionally, vitamin E plays a key role in neurological and immune function and promotes vascular health by preventing the clumping of platelets that can lead to clots and enhancing vasodilation, which keeps blood pressure in check.
What are the health benefits of vitamin E?
Vitamin E has a variety of benefits, thanks in large part to its antioxidant properties. However, it's important to understand that many of these benefits can be achieved by getting vitamin E through your diet, a multivitamin, or, in some cases, topical vitamin E oil—not necessarily high-dose vitamin E supplements, which can contain excessive amounts of this nutrient.
1. Protects skin from sun damage and pollution.
There's a good reason you're seeing vitamin E as an ingredient in face creams and serums more often. Its primary role in the skin is to prevent damage induced by free radicals and reactive oxygen species, as well as reduce inflammation.
It turns out, the photoprotective properties of vitamin E may be strongest when combined with another antioxidant, vitamin C. In one study, people who supplemented with both had less DNA damage after UV exposure. This goes for topical application, too: Several studies have shown that the topical application of vitamins E and C decreases sunburned cells, DNA damage, and skin pigmentation after UV exposure. So, city dwellers and sunbathers, in addition to eating a diet rich in vitamins E and C, consider using a serum containing these two antioxidants before slathering on your sunscreen.
2. Reduces symptoms of eczema and psoriasis.
Vitamin E holds promise as a natural remedy for irritating, itchy skin conditions a well, likely due to its moisturizing and anti-inflammatory properties. In one study, oral supplementation of 400 IU vitamin E per day was associated with a reduction in the severity and self-rated itchiness of eczema. While topical vitamin E oil wasn't studied in this case, another study found that it was effective at reducing symptoms of psoriasis, an autoimmune disease that causes thick, itchy, dry, red, scaly patches on the skin.
3. Improves immune functioning.
As we get older, or when we're dealing with any chronic health condition, our immune functioning can become compromised, which puts us at increased risk for infectious disease, tumors, and other ailments. But research suggests that a diet high in vitamin-E-rich foods may help improve cellular immunity as we age by increasing differentiation in immature T-cells. Sounds complicated, but essentially, more T-cell differentiation means a more developed immune memory and more protection against microbial pathogens. Unless you're elderly or immunocompromised, food sources of vitamin E should be more than adequate to support your immune system. Otherwise, ask your doctor about supplementing.
4. Promotes overall cardiovascular health.
As an antioxidant, vitamin E plays an important role in cardiovascular health, as it's been shown to help prevent the oxidation of LDL cholesterol (a contributor to atherosclerosis), reduce formation of blood clots, and improve vasodilation. Several observational studies have found that an increased vitamin E intake from food sources has a protective effect against the risk of death from heart disease. But vitamin-E-rich foods may be all you need—clinical trials haven't found that regular vitamin E supplementation does anything to reduce heart disease risk or death.
5. Protects against cognitive decline.
Over time, the cumulative damage to our brain's neurons caused by free radicals can contribute to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's. So, researchers have speculated that getting adequate levels of antioxidants like vitamin E in your diet may help counter the damage. And this seems to be true—to a point. Although further research is warranted, studies suggest that vitamin E (along with vitamin C and beta carotene) consumption plays a protective role in age-related cognitive decline. . Most clinical trials do not show any benefit of specifically using vitamin E supplements to maintain cognitive performance or slow its decline, so for now, skip the pills and focus on vitamin-E-rich foods instead.
6. Keeps your vision sharp.
Macular degeneration is one of the most common causes of vision loss as we age. And, while we don't know exactly what causes it, oxidative stress is likely one culprit—which means antioxidants may help prevent or slow its progression. Studies have shown that people with relatively high dietary intake of vitamin E (around 30 IU, or internal units, per day) are about 20 percent less likely to develop macular degeneration than people consuming less than 15 IU per day. It's not clear just how beneficial vitamin E supplements are for eye health, but research supports a slowed progression of advanced macular degeneration in those taking antioxidant vitamin and mineral supplements (containing vitamin E).
How much vitamin E do we need?
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for vitamin E for adults is 15 mg (22.5 IU) per day, and some experts say that the average intake among healthy adults is sometimes higher than this. So, it's certainly possible to get enough vitamin E via diet alone (1 tablespoon of wheat germ oil alone would fulfill your daily quota!). However, if you're eating a low-fat diet, you may be falling short and integrative and functional medicine doctors often recommend extra vitamin E in supplement form for general health purposes and to help with some of the conditions mentioned above.
How to tell if you're vitamin E deficient.
Vitamin E deficiency is rare and often only occurs if you're malnourished. "Its absence can increase oxidative stress on the brain," says Kahn, which is why many deficiency symptoms are neurological. Some signs of deficiency include worsening of your vision, numbness or tingling in your hands and feet, muscle weakness, anemia, memory problems, and poor reflexes and coordination.
If your doctor suspects vitamin E deficiency, they can confirm this with a blood test. "Many things can cause these symptoms, though, so working with a qualified functional medicine practitioner can help you determine if this is an issue with a health history and any labs that may be relevant for you," says Cole.
I don't know if I'm getting enough! What foods should I be eating?
Food offers a mix of different forms of vitamin E, like tocopherols and tocotrienols, that likely act synergistically to exert health benefits. Here are 10 of the best food sources of vitamin E:
- Wheat germ oil (1 tbsp): 20 mg
- Almond milk (1 cup): 16.5 mg
- Sunflower seeds (1 ounce): 7.4 mg
- Almonds (1 ounce): 6.8 mg
- Sunflower oil (1 tbsp): 5.8 mg
- Hazelnuts (1 ounce): 4.3 mg
- Tomato sauce (1 cup): 2.9 mg
- Peanut butter (2 tbsp): 2.9 mg
- Dried apricots (½ cup): 2.8 mg
- Avocado (1 fruit): 2.7 mg
- Spinach (½ cup cooked): 1.9 mg
- Red bell pepper (1 medium pepper): 1.8 mg
- Broccoli (½ cup cooked): 1.2 mg
- Kiwi (1 fruit): 1.1 mg
Are vitamin E supplements necessary?
Vitamin E deficiencies are rare, however, if you’re not eating enough vitamin E-rich foods, it may be worth taking a supplement containing this nutrient. Multivitamins typically contain around 30 IU of vitamin E, around 100 percent of the RDA. Others contain higher doses for an added boost of this highly important nutrient.
Many vitamin-E-only supplements, on the other hand, contain 400 IU or more, which is substantially higher than the RDA, and unnecessary, unless your doctor says otherwise.
With vitamin E, more isn't necessarily better—so you should be careful not to go overboard. "Unlike water-soluble vitamins like B vitamins, which in higher doses are urinated out, fat-soluble vitamins like E, D, and A are stored in the body more readily, so not overdoing it on supplementation is important," cautions Cole.
People who are at risk for certain health conditions may also want to steer clear of vitamin-E-only supplements. "Oral use of vitamin E might increase the risk of prostate cancer," says Kahn. "It can pose other serious risks as well, particularly at high doses and if you have had a heart attack or stroke."
According to the National Institutes of Health, the most worrisome possibility of taking high-dose vitamin E supplements is impaired blood clotting, which can increase the likelihood of hemorrhage and stroke in some people. All that said, however, research hasn't found any negative effects from consuming vitamin E via food.
What type of vitamin E supplement is best?
In supplements, vitamin E is often present in one of two forms: natural or synthetic alpha-tocopherol. Naturally sourced vitamin E is commonly labeled as d-alpha-tocopherol, while the synthetically produced form is commonly labeled as dl-alpha-tocopherol.
The natural form of vitamin E is likely superior, research suggests, as it's more readily distributed throughout the body by carrier proteins in the liver. In one study, women took either natural or synthetic vitamin E and were then tested to see how much made it into their blood. It only took 149 IU of natural vitamin E to produce the same levels as 448 IU of synthetic.
But the choices don't end at natural vs. synthetic. While some supplements contain alpha-tocopherol alone, others contain a blend of mixed tocopherols, which often consist of a combination of alpha-, gamma-, and delta-tocopherol. Some research suggests that mixed tocopherol supplements are best because they more closely mimic what's found in nature. In fact, the presence of gamma tocopherol has been shown to dramatically increase the amount of alpha-tocopherol that actually makes it into your cells.
Bottom line: If you're going to supplement, consider a multivitamin with d-alpha-tocopherol, or a vitamin E supplement with d-alpha-tocopherol and mixed tocopherols.
What are some ways to use vitamin E topically?
Do you have dry, flaky, irritated skin? An itchy scalp? Or just want to protect yourself from wrinkle-inducing sun damage? While consuming enough vitamin E via your diet will go a long way toward smoothing and soothing, applying this nutrient directly onto your dermis may be a more direct way to reap its skin-protective properties.
"Because it is an antioxidant and an oil, vitamin E oil has been shown to improve skin moisture, lower inflammation, and improve overall skin quality when used topically," says Cole. "You can buy vitamin E oil as a liquid by the bottle and use it directly on the skin."
But you don't want to simply crack open a vitamin E capsule and slather it onto your face or scalp. That can cause irritation. Dermatologists and estheticians typically recommend pre-formulated products such as face creams or serums where vitamin E is one of many skin-soothing ingredients. As mentioned above, products with a combination of vitamin E and vitamin C may offer additional protection against damaging UV rays.
You can also purchase a topical vitamin E oil that's diluted in some combination of carrier oils such as almond, apricot, avocado, sunflower, or wheat germ. Topical vitamin E oil can be applied directly to your hands, face, and body, or massaged into your scalp before your shower. If you're the DIY type, you can add a few drops of it to homemade lip balms and other skin care products.
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