The superstar vitamin you should be getting more of

Vitamin E is set to make a big comeback as a powerful protector of your health. But if you’re someone who takes or has taken supplements containing vitamin E, you likely won’t recognize it as it’s not the same old face you may be used to.

Tocotrienols, as they’re known, are part of the vitamin E family and are a hotbed of research as scientists discover their incredibly wide range of action in the battle against many common diseases. Heart disease and stroke, diabetes, osteoporosis, various cancers, eye disorders, liver disease and even cognitive decline are among those that can benefit from these compounds.

First, a little background on vitamin E. Many people know it simply by the name alpha tocopherol – the name that’s often on vitamin supplement labels. But in fact, there are eight different compounds that make up the vitamin E family: alpha, beta, gamma and delta-tocopherols and alpha, beta, gamma and delta-tocotrienols.

Tocopherols have been a favourite topic of research for scientists with more than 30,000 papers published on these members of the vitamin E family. While vitamin E supplements looked very promising in preventing a host of diseases, much of the hype fizzled as studies didn’t provide the expected protective results. While they are recommended for some conditions such as macular degeneration, in others, they led to adverse effects.

Tocotrienols, on the other hand, had long been ignored by the scientific community with only 600 papers being published, most within the last five years. But tocotrienols are showing that they indeed deserve star status, possibly superstar status.

Here’s a just a little taste of what scientists are uncovering about these compounds. Keep in mind that this research may be on one or more of the different forms of tocotrienols.

In the fight against cardiovascular disease, tocotrienols have shown that they can reduce both blood cholesterol and triglyceride readings, decrease the likelihood of forming blood clots which can lead to heart attacks and stroke and also reduce blood pressure levels. In addition, they possess anti-inflammatory action. And like their other family members, the tocopherols, they act as antioxidants and help to protect against cholesterol oxidation. Oxidized cholesterol is much more likely to be deposited in arteries. But where these compounds differ from tocopherols is that they can also suppress cholesterol production in the body in a similar fashion to some cholesterol-lowering medications.

These compounds seem to have an impressive impact on cancer. They have been shown to suppress tumour growth as well as induce the death of cancer cells for many different types of cancer including breast, prostate, colon, pancreas, liver, lung, stomach and skin.

Their action in both preventing diabetes and its assorted complications is also an exciting area of research. Tocotrienols may guard against insulin resistance which can lead to type 2 diabetes. But for those who already have the disease, these substances may guard against certain kidney ailments as well as a decline in cognitive function that’s linked to diabetes.

Researchers have also found that they can reduce nerve pain that’s all too often a consequence of having diabetes for a number of years. And if this isn’t enough, they’ve also been shown to help lower blood sugar readings and raise levels of the protective HDL-cholesterol.

On the osteoporosis prevention front, these compounds seem to protect against bone thinning in a number of ways. For example, they have been shown to reverse the bone thinning that’s associated with smoking – that’s not to say that it’s alright to smoke and tocotrienols will protect your health. Their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions are a perfect combo for maintaining healthy nerves, brains, and cognitive function.

An interesting but less common role may be in protecting the stomach against hyperacidity, particularly that linked to stress. For those of you who experience heartburn when you’re stressed, excess acid in the stomach is a common cause. Scientists are finding that tocotrienols may help protect against this hyperacidity.

Tocotrienols, though, are not found in as many foods as tocopherols. Whole grains such as barley, rye, oats and cornmeal supply these compounds with barley reigning supreme among the grains. It contains more than nine times the amount found in rye.

To boost your intake, include wheat germ and rice bran. While you can add wheat germ to your cereal bowl, it’s also great as a filler for meat, fish or vegetable patties or to add crunch to breading or in a savoury or sweet crumb topping.

Extra virgin olive oil, grapeseed oil and unrefined palm oil also offer appreciable amounts. But be aware that when you see palm oil as part of an ingredient list in a processed food, the tocotrienols will be MIA as they’re lost during the refining process.

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Categories: Research Roundup

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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