Over the past few years, research has shown that vitamin E supplements have major health benefits such as safeguarding brain function, while other studies have linked them to increased risk of prostate cancer and early death. So should you take vitamin E supplements to keep your brain healthy? Or will they wind up killing you?
Recently, a study published in the 'Journal of the American Medical Association' (JAMA) found that people with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease who took high-dose vitamin E supplements had significantly slower mental decline than patients given a placebo. Lead study author Dr. Maurice Dysken says vitamin E probably helped slow the progression of Alzheimer's because it's an antioxidant. Other studies have shown that the vitamin protects nerve cells in the brain by combating free radical damage.
This is great news for people already dealing with Alzheimer's, but you shouldn't buy vitamin E pills based on this study alone. "We saw benefits among people who already had mild to moderate Alzheimer's," Dysken says. "We don't think younger men will benefit from supplementing with vitamin E."
There's also a fear that vitamin E supplements could harm the prostate. "Vitamin E supplements are controversial because a 2011 trial published in 'JAMA' tied them to increased prostate cancer risk – the opposite of what the investigators thought would happen," says Maret Traber, a vitamin E expert at Oregon State University's Linus Pauling Institute. The jury's still out over whether prostate cancer is a real concern for users of vitamin E supplements, or if something else accounted for the increased risk among patients in this study.
But these supplements have also been blamed for early deaths, thanks to a 2005 meta-analysis that found supplementing with 400 IU or more of vitamin E increased mortality risk. Although the media ran with this news, sparking widespread panic and prompting doctors nationwide to stop recommending the supplements, Dysken says it later came out that this research was flawed.
Given the potential safety concerns – proven or not – and the fact that studies don't show vitamin E supplements prevent Alzheimer's, many doctors say save your cash and skip them. But that doesn't mean vitamin E isn't good for your brain and body. In fact, it's highly beneficial, if you get it from real food.
"The best food sources of vitamin E are vegetable oils and the foods that contain them," says Heather Mangieri, RD, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She says avocados, nuts, leafy green vegetables such as spinach, and fortified cereals are also good. "Most nuts, but particularly almonds, are an outstanding source of vitamin E, because they are so high in alpha-tocopherol," says Richard Bruno, RD, a nutrition professor at Ohio State University, "And because vitamin E requires fat for absorption, nuts provide an excellent matrix to enhance its absorption."