Myths about vitamin E have flourished since its birth as an essential nutrient in 1922, with the discovery that rats could not reproduce without it. Within a decade, vitamin E acquired a mystique as an enhancer and restorer of sexual and reproductive function, an image reflected in its chemical name, tocopherol, from the Greek "to bring forth in childbirth" or, more colloquially, "oil of fertility."
But while that belief never achieved much credibility, a host of other claims have since kept it in the limelight. Vitamin E has been hailed as an antidote to aging and air pollution, a beautifier of skin, a promoter of athletic prowess, and a preserver of visual functions. It has been claimed as a treatment for vaginal dryness, premenstrual syndrome, breast cysts, circulatory disorders in the legs and the heart pains of angina pectoris.
Vitamin E's status as a supposed panacea has kept many reputable researchers from exploring its actual benefits in well-designed clinical studies. Through the years, there have been only a few good studies documenting the real benefits of megadoses of vitamin E. These include protecting the eyes of premature babies against retrolental fibroplasia, a disorder caused by too much oxygen; increasing exercise tolerance in people with the crippling circulatory disorder called intermittent claudication; and countering heart muscle damage during bypass surgery.
Vitamin E And heart disease
An emerging scientific respectability for nutrients that function as antioxidants has elevated the status of vitamin E and prompted some doctors to prescribe it even in the absence of iron-clad proof of its preventive or curative potential.
Two studies of more than 120,000 men and women strongly suggest that supplements of vitamin E can significantly reduce the risk of disease and death from fat-clogged coronary arteries. The researchers and other experts caution against rushing to buy the vitamin supplements before further clinical trials confirm that they are beneficial and safe.
The ongoing studies, by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, showed that healthy people with the highest daily intakes of vitamin E developed coronary disease at about a 40 percent lower rate than men and women whose intake was lowest. The preventive effects of vitamin E occurred independently of any changes in blood levels of cholesterol.
The greatest protection was found at levels of about 100 IU of vitamin E daily for more than two years.
The Federal Recommended Daily Allowance for vitamin E is 15 IU, and most people consume fewer than 25 IU from ordinary foods like vegetable oils, wheat germ, seeds, whole grains and nuts.
Researchers think that vitamin E, as an antioxidant, might reduce heart disease by having an effect on low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, the so-called bad cholesterol. Studies have shown that this type of cholesterol damages arteries primarily after it has been oxidized.
Experts caution that studies involving thousands of people have not been done to test the safety of large doses of vitamin E taken over a period of decades. In this connection, it is still an unproved treatment until large, long-term, double blind clinical trials are completed.