Are You Taking the Wrong Vitamin E? Get the Facts on Vitamin E Tocopherols

Vitamin E has been shown to:

  • Prevent the fats and fat-soluble vitamin A stored in the body from breaking down and combining with other substances that may become harmful to the body
  • Reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke by disrupting a chain of events that leads to plaque buildup in the arteries
  • Slow down the mental decline associated with some neurological disorders
  • Boost the healing of burns and canker sores
  • Help prevent scarring
  • Improve the body’s response to muscle injury
  • Give protection against some forms of cancer because of its ability to stop free radicals and reduce damage to DNA
  • Help prevent cataracts
  • Reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes and Parkinson’s disease
  • Decrease the discomforts associated with PMS and menopause
  • Encourage the production of healthy male sperm
  • Increases the body’s production of CD4 cells, natural killer cells, and certain antibodies, boosting overall immunity without overstimulating the immune system or aggravating autoimmune disorders

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“Everyone should take vitamin E, especially heart patients,” says G. Edward Desaulniers, M.D., director of the Shute Institute Medical Clinic in London, Ontario. Evan and Wilfrid Shute, the clinics’ founders, discovered back in the 1940s that vitamin E could benefit patients who suffered from cardiovascular disease. And today most health practitioners agree that everyone can benefit from vitamin E … because it is the body’s most potent fat-soluble antioxidant and is crucial for protecting against free radical damage that results in degenerative diseases.

Vitamin E is a powerhouse unto itself. It helps reduce LDL cholesterol, reduce triglycerides, and raise “good” HDL cholesterol. It’s been shown over and over again to reduce risk of heart attack, rev up the immune system, fight cancer and lower risk of developing cataracts. The surprising development is that while high levels of DIETARY vitamin E have consistently shown these effects, typical vitamin E supplements have not. And there is a reason.

Although most people think vitamin E is just a simple vitamin, it’s actually much more. In fact, vitamin E isn’t even one compound, but rather a series of related compounds that have vitamin E activity. There are four main forms of vitamin E, or tocopherols (another name for vitamin E): alpha, beta, gamma and delta.

Check out your bottle of Vitamin E

Do you realize that you may be taking the wrong type of vitamin E supplement? Get out your bottle and check the label. It probably lists vitamin E in one of the following forms: alpha tocopheryl succinate, alpha tocopheryl acetate, vitamin E, natural vitamin E, mixed tocopherols, natural tocopherols, etc. You wonder, “What’s wrong with that?” Here’s what’s wrong:

An excellent vitamin E supplement must have the correct mix of tocopherols and tocotrienols, not just any mix. A mix of three ingredients in an 80-10-10 ratio is not the same as say a ratio of 20-40-40, for instance.

What exactly are supplement companies selling? Well, we don’t know because … uh … they don’t say. All they list on the vitamin E supplement label is “mixed tocopherols” (if they are even that advanced.) Given that gamma tocopherol is expensive and alpha tocopherol is cheap, we are willing to bet that some supplement companies are not providing the optimum “mix”—which should reflect what’s in an ideal diet. And an ideal diet – one that is protective against heart disease and rich in seeds, nuts, and vegetables – includes large amounts of gamma tocopherol and lesser amounts of alpha tocopherol.

The fact is, most mixed tocopherol supplements are spiked with alpha tocopherol, which raises the IU (International Unit) amount that can be placed on the label. This leads you to believe that you are taking a powerful supplement, when in fact you are not. Even though the IU (International Unit) is an obsolete and misleading measuring system, supplement makers are still legally required to list alpha tocopherol, vitamin A and vitamin D in their IU equivalents.

Too much alpha tocopherol impairs benefits of gamma tocopherol

And it is important that you don’t get too much alpha tocopherol relative to the amount of gamma tocopherol…

It is well documented that plasma and tissue gamma tocopherol are suppressed by alpha tocopherol supplementation 12. In sharp contrast, gamma tocopherol supplementation leads to a win-win situation, increasing both alpha and gamma tocopherols.3

What is gamma tocopherol?

Gamma tocopherol is one of several vitamin E compounds. It is usually the most prevalent form of vitamin E in plant seeds and in products derived from them, including vegetable oils such as corn, soybean and sesame. Also nuts such as walnuts, pecans and peanuts are rich sources of gamma tocopherol.

Recent studies indicate that gamma tocopherol is extremely important to human health and that it possesses unique features that distinguish it from alpha tocopherol,4 it has finally moved into the spotlight.

Gamma tocopherol is a better protectant against inflammatory diseases

Although alpha tocopherol has been shown to be a better antioxidant than gamma tocopherol, gamma tocopherol is a better anti-inflammatory. It is very good at controlling chronic inflammation-related diseases including arthritis, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and neurodegenerative disorders4 such as Alzheimer’s disease.5

Cancer preventative

Cancer chemoprevention (the use of non-cytotoxic drugs and natural agents to block the progression to invasive cancer) is a new approach in the management of cancer. Recent evidence indicates that gamma-tocopherol may be a more powerful chemopreventive than alpha-tocopherol,6 and that it is better at inhibiting cancer cell proliferation.7

Gamma tocopherols help protect against prostate cancer

A 1989 study that tested men living in Washington County, Maryland who developed prostate cancer found that the men who had high levels of both alpha and gamma tocopherols had a five-fold reduction in prostate cancer when compared to the group that had high levels of only alpha tocopherol.8

Mixed tocopherols help prevent cardiovascular disease

A study that appeared in the May 2002 edition of the Journal of Cardiovascular Pharmacology indicates that mixed tocopherols (gamma, delta and alpha) counteract the development of cardiovascular disease when compared to an intake of large amounts of pure alpha tocopherol. In the laboratory experiment, a mixture of tocopherols was found to have a stronger inhibitory effect on lipid peroxidation in human red blood cells, than alpha-tocopherol alone.9

In another study with CVD (cardiovascular) patients, serum concentrations of gamma tocopherol, but not of alpha tocopherol, were lower in CVD patients than in healthy control subjects.1011 And in a cross-study of Swedish and Lithuanian middle-aged men, plasma gammatocopherol concentrations were twice as high in the Swedish men, who had a 25% lower incidence of CVD-related mortality. In contrast, this inverse correlation was not observed with alpha tocopherol.12

Alpha tocopherol is definitely good for you. It is a stronger antioxidant than any of the other tocopherols. But gamma tocopherol provides potent benefits that alpha tocopherol does not. And there is research showing that a combination of gamma tocopherol plus alpha tocopherol gives synergistic benefits in the protection against cardiovascular disease, cancer and many other diseases.

The next time you look for a multi or vitamin E supplement, look at the label closely. If it doesn’t list exactly how much gamma tocopherol is in it, then it probably does not contain a significant amount (since gamma tocopherol is expensive.)

We still don’t know exactly what the perfect ratio of vitamin E compounds should be. But based on recent scientific research, we have a pretty good idea that you should be getting at least 50 mg of gamma tocopherol and that the total mg amount of gamma tocopherol should be greater than the amount of alpha tocopherol IU’s.


  1. Handelman GJ, Epstein WL, Peerson J, Spiegelman D, Machlin LJ, Dratz EA. Human adipose -tocopherol and -tocopherol kinetics during and after 1 y of -tocopherol supplementation. Am J Clin Nutr 1994;59:1025-32
  2. Handelman GJ, Machlin LJ, Fitch K, Weiter JJ, Dratz EA. Oral alpha-tocopherol supplements decrease plasma gamma-tocopherol levels in humans. J Nutr 1985;115:807-13.
  3. Clement M, Bourre JM. Graded dietary levels of RRR-gamma-tocopherol induce a marked increase in the concentrations of alpha- and gamma-tocopherol in nervous tissues, heart, liver and muscle of vitamin-E-deficient rats. Biochem Biophys Acta 1997;1334:173-81.
  4. Qing Jiang, Stephan Christen, Mark K Shigenaga and Bruce N Ames. Gamma Tocopherol, the major form of vitamin E in the US diet, deserves more attention, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 74, No. 6, 714-722, December 2001.
  5. Handelman GJ, Epstein WL, Peerson J, Spiegelman D, Machlin LJ, Dratz EA. Human adipose -tocopherol and -tocopherol kinetics during and after 1 y of -tocopherol supplementation. Am J Clin Nutr 1994;59:1025-32
  6. Ibid.
  7. Williamson KS, Gabbita SP, Mou S, West M, Pye QN, Markesbery WR, Cooney RV, Grammas P, Reimann-Philipp U, Floyd RA, Hensley K. The nitration product 5-nitro-gamma-tocopherol is increased in the Alzheimer brain. Nitric Oxide 2002 Mar;6(2):221-7
  8. Krishnan K, Campbell S, Abdel-Rahman F, Whaley S, Stone WL. Cancer chemoprevention drug targets. Curr Drug Targets 2003 Jan;4(1):45-54
  9. Helzlsouer KJ, Huang HY, Alberg AJ, Hoffman S, Burke A, Norkus EP, Morris JS, Comstock GW. Association between alpha-tocopherol, gamma-tocopherol, selenium, and subsequent prostate cancer. J Natl Cancer Inst2000 Dec 20;92(24):2018-23
  10. Gysin R, Azzi A, Visarius T. Gamma-tocopherol inhibits human cancer cell cycle progression and cell proliferation by down-regulation of cyclins. ASEB J 2002 Dec;16(14):1952-4
  11. Liu M, Wallin R, Wallmon A, Saldeen T. Mixed tocopherols have a stronger inhibitory effect on lipid peroxidation than alpha-tocopherol alone. J Cardiovasc Pharmacol 2002 May;39(5):714-21
  12. Ohrvall M, Sundlof G, Vessby B. Gamma, but not alpha, tocopherol levels in serum are reduced in coronary heart disease patients. J Intern Med 1996;239:111-7
  13. Kontush A, Spranger T, Reich A, Baum K, Beisiegel U. Lipophilic antioxidants in blood plasma as markers of atherosclerosis: the role of alpha-carotene and gamma-tocopherol. Atherosclerosis 1999;144:117-22
  14. Kristenson M, Zieden B, Kucinskiene Z, et al. Antioxidant state and mortality from coronary heart disease in Lithuanian and Swedish men: concomitant cross sectional study of men aged 50. BMJ 1997;314:629-33

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