Vitamin E — Today’s snake oil?

I receive dozens of letters every year from readers asking if they’re wasting money taking vitamin E. Is it the latest version of the old-fashioned snake-oil? Or are there bona fide medical advantage in taking it?For years, controversy has swirled around this vitamin. Some researchers claim it’s beneficial for heart disease, diabetes, skin ulcers, frostbite, phlebitis and improves athletic performance. But what should consumers really expect to get for their money?

Recent research suggests that vitamin E plays a role in preventing heart disease. Finnish and U.S. investigators reported a 65 per cent decreased risk of heart disease in people using it.

A British study of 2,000 men and women with partially clogged coronary arteries was carried out over 18 months. One group was given a daily dose of 400 to 800 IU of vitamin E. The other received dummy pills or placebos. Those who took vitamin E had a 77 per cent decrease in nonfatal heart attack. Even critics of vitamin E agree it’s beneficial to those suffering from intermittent claudication — when arterial rust (atherosclerosis) decreases the flow of oxygenated blood to the legs.

One of my patients, a n in his 70s with this condition, could only walk a few feet because of leg cramps. After a few months on vitamin E, he was back playing tennis.

There’s also evidence vitamin E decreases the risk of cataracts. And growing evidence indicates vitamin E can help fight the epidemic of Type II diabetes, often called “lifestyle diabetes,” since 90 per cent of cases are due to obesity.

Finnish researchers studied the levels of vitamin E in 944 males. Men with low blood levels of vitamin E had four times the risk of developing Type II diabetes.

Dr. Linus Pauling, the two-time Nobel Prize winner, preached for years that high doses of vitamin C helped prevent the common cold. Now Czech researchers report that nursing home residents taking 1,000 milligrams of C and 450 IU of E on a daily basis had fewer viral infections and were also less likely to succumb to influenza.

Does vitamin E help to slow the aging process? There’s no solid evidence. But since it fights Type II diabetes and heart disease, it’s reasonable to assume one might live longer. As well, there’s no sound evidence that vitamin E provides protection from cancer. But some scientists argue it may protect DNA, which controls normal cell division. If so, vitamin E may decrease the risk of cell mutation. Nevertheless, it’s logical to pose this question. How can vitamin E be beneficial for so many diverse diseases? Is this where the snake-oil hype comes into play?

I buy vitamin E. Why?
Years ago, I discovered that the great racehorse Northern Dancer, Pope Pious XII and U.S. astronauts have all been given this vitamin. My first reaction was, “If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.” But there are also several more scientific reasons why it makes sense to take vitamin E and why it fights what appear to be unrelated diseases. Vitamin E is an anticoagulant, so there’s less chance of a blood clot forming in coronary arteries, the heart, pancreas or other parts of the body. Vitamin E also increases the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood. Vitamin E’s major benefit might possibly be its antioxidant properties. Every minute of the day our cells burn oxygen, the fuel that gives us energy. During this oxidative process, free radicals are generated. Scientists believe these particles ricochet wildly, damage cells and accelerate the aging process.

Vitamin E helps gobble up these free radicals, and helps fight the formation of cataracts, a part of the aging process.

Many nutritionists say if you eat a healthy, balanced diet you don’t need vitamins. Maybe they’re right. But how many people do eat a balanced diet? And how many vitamins, including vitamin E, are destroyed during the preparation of food?

I’ve talked to many of the world’s authorities on vitamin E. I’m left with this message: They’re all taking it. They realize that while the jury is still out on this vitamin, taking vitamin E is a good insurance policy in the maintenance of good health.