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Foods rich in vitamin E such as are wheat germ oil, dried wheat germ, dried apricots, hazelnut, almonds, parsley leaves, avocado, walnuts, sweet potato, broccolii, sunflower seeds, spinach and green paprika.piotr_malczyk/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Q: I’ve read that vitamin E can help prevent Alzheimer’s. Is it a good idea to take a supplement?

Most of us don’t pay much attention to vitamin E, a nutrient that’s plentiful in nuts, seeds and leafy greens. But we should.

Vitamin E keeps cell membranes strong, enhances immune function, maintains healthy skin, helps relax blood vessels and prevents blood clots from forming in arteries.

But depending on what your go-to cooking oil is, or the type of diet you follow, you may not be getting enough of this underappreciated nutrient. Here’s what to know about vitamin E.

What is Vitamin E?

Vitamin E is actually a family of eight different naturally occurring compounds. The form that our bodies use, and which our daily requirement is based on, is called alpha-tocopherol.

Vitamin E’s main role is to act as a fat-soluble antioxidant, defending cell membranes from free radical damage. Free radicals are highly reactive molecules that are produced in the body naturally and also by exposure to cigarette smoke, air pollution and ultraviolet light.

If left unchecked, free radicals can damage proteins and DNA in cells, as well as cell membranes, which are especially vulnerable to harm because they’re rich in fatty acids.

As a potent antioxidant, vitamin E also protects immune cells, skin cells and tissues in the eye. It’s also thought that the nutrient can help quell free radical damage associated with fatty liver disease.

Vitamin E and brain health benefits

The brain is highly susceptible to free radical damage, which increases during aging, and its accumulation over time is thought to contribute to cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.

Several observational studies have found that cognitively healthy older adults with high dietary vitamin E intakes have a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease compared with those with low intakes of the nutrient.

Vitamin E may contribute to brain health by shielding brain cell membranes from free radical damage. Animal research also suggests that vitamin E is needed to provide the brain with adequate DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), an omega-3 fatty acid that maintains normal brain cell membrane function.

It’s also possible that other nutrients in vitamin E-rich foods are important in keeping the brain healthy.

There’s limited evidence for the benefits of vitamin E supplements on dementia risk. Including vitamin E-rich foods in your diet appears to be a more effective way to benefit to brain health.

How much, where to get it

Males and females, aged 14 and older, need 15 milligrams (22 international units) of vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol) each day. Women who are breastfeeding require 19 mg. Vitamin E needs of children range from six to 11 mg per day, depending on age.

Excellent foods sources include certain cooking oils, nuts and seeds and leafy green vegetables.

Per one tablespoon, wheat germ oil contains 20 mg of vitamin E, sunflower oil has six mg, safflower oil delivers 4.5 mg, grapeseed oil provides four mg and olive oil has two mg.

One-quarter cup of sunflower seeds provides 12 mg of vitamin E, while the same amount of almonds, hazelnuts and peanuts offer nine mg, five mg and three mg, respectively. Almond butter (four mg per tablespoon) and peanut butter (1.5 mg per tablespoon) are decent sources, too.

Eating cooked leafy greens will also increase your vitamin E intake. Cooked spinach and Swiss chard each provide 3.5 mg per one cup; kale has two mg.

Other food sources include avocado, canned tomato sauce, rainbow trout and kiwifruit.

People who eat a low-fat diet, or one that’s high in heavily processed foods, can fall short on vitamin E. Previous U.S. research has found than 90 per cent of Americans don’t meet their daily requirement for vitamin E from foods.

What about supplements?

In general, taking a vitamin E supplement isn’t recommended. Get your vitamin E from foods.

High-dose vitamin E has the potential to interact with certain medications (e.g., anticoagulants) and some evidence has suggested it could increase prostate cancer risk.

If you don’t get enough vitamin E from your diet, consider taking a multivitamin supplement; most contain 30 to 60 IU of the vitamin (check labels).

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan. Follow her on Twitter @LeslieBeckRD

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