History: tracing the roots
Vitamin E was first discovered in 1922 by University of California researchers, Herbert McLean Evans and Katharine Scott Bishop. They found an essential nutrient for the diet of rodent that was necessary for reproduction, and therefore, they named it 'Vitamin E'. Over the next several decades, researchers discovered the different isomers of Vitamin E and began to understand their unique roles in human health.
The biology of vitamin E
Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin composed of eight naturally occurring compounds, which are divided into two groups: tocopherols and tocotrienols. Each group consists of four isomers: alpha, beta, gamma, and delta. Alpha-tocopherol is the most commonly found isomer in the human body and is thought to have the highest bioavailability.*
Vitamin E may serve as an antioxidant, helping to neutralize harmful free radicals that can damage cells and might contribute to certain diseases.* The body stores vitamin E in the liver, fat tissue, heart, muscle, and brain, releasing it as needed.
Each isomer of vitamin E has unique biological activities. For example, research has shown that gamma-tocopherol and delta-tocopherol may play a role on inflammation, while alpha-tocopherol may be used for support immune function.*
The realm of vitamin E supplements
Vitamin E supplements have been the subject of considerable interest. They are predominantly alpha-tocopherol, which is the most studied isomer due to its potential bioavailability.* However, there is growing evidence that the other isomers supplements, particularly gamma and delta, might also provide certain wellness benefits that might not be provided by alpha-tocopherol alone.*
While supplements might be beneficial in preventing or treating vitamin E deficiency, excessive intake of alpha-tocopherol supplements can lead to a decrease in the levels of other tocopherols, especially gamma-tocopherol. Therefore, a balanced intake of all isomers might be considered important.*
Fascinating facts about vitamin E isomers
Here are some intriguing facts about vitamin E isomers:
Vitamin E is the only vitamin that is not a single molecule but a complex of eight structurally related compounds.
Even though the alpha form of tocopherol is most abundant in the body, it is the gamma form that is most common in the American diet, found in soybean, canola, and corn oil.
Vitamin E might not only be beneficial for our health but also to help support our skin.* As an antioxidant, it might help neutralize harmful free radicals from UV rays, pollution, and other sources that can damage the skin. Hence, it is a common ingredient in many skincare products.
While overconsumption of Vitamin E from supplements may lead to toxicity, overconsumption from food sources is rare.
Some studies have suggested that the combination of all eight vitamin E isomers could have a synergistic effect, meaning their collective benefit is greater than the sum of their individual benefits.*
Vitamin E isomers are a fascinating area of nutrition science that continues to evolve. They are an essential part of our diet, playing important roles in a variety of physiological processes, from supporting immune function to promoting skin health.* As we further delve into the roles and complexities of these different isomers, we can continue to develop a more nuanced understanding of their individual and collective impacts on human health.
Diving deeper: functions of vitamin E isomers
Our understanding of vitamin E has been primarily framed around alpha-tocopherol, due to its prevalence in the body and its recognized function as an antioxidant. However, emerging research is increasingly highlighting the importance of the other isomers.
Gamma-tocopherol, for instance, seems to play a role in inflammation in the body. It might trap and neutralize reactive nitrogen species, a type of free radical that alpha-tocopherol cannot neutralize.*
Meanwhile, studies on tocotrienols, particularly delta and gamma forms, have demonstrated their potential.
The future of vitamin E research
The future of vitamin E research is brimming with potential. Scientists are continuously striving to better understand the distinct biological activities of each isomer.
Moreover, the realization that all the isomers may act synergistically has stimulated research into the benefits of consuming a balanced mixture of vitamin E isomers. The shift from a singular focus on alpha-tocopherol to a comprehensive approach that considers all eight isomers marks a significant evolution in the field of vitamin E research.
A balanced view of vitamin E
In conclusion, vitamin E is a multifaceted nutrient, a complex of eight distinct yet related compounds. While supplements might be a convenient way to complement an adequate intake of certain isomers, particularly alpha-tocopherol, it's also essential to obtain a variety of isomers through diet.
Consuming a diet rich in seeds, nuts, whole grains, and vegetable oils may help ensure a balanced intake of all vitamin E isomers.* As science continues to evolve our understanding of these molecules, it becomes clear that the ensemble of vitamin E isomers, much like a well-orchestrated symphony, might provide a harmonized approach to health, with each one playing a unique and important role.*
Understanding the complex world of vitamin E isomers serves as a potent reminder that nature's wisdom often surpasses our initial understanding. Each isomer, with its unique characteristics and health implications, illustrates the intricate and subtle beauty of our biological systems, reminding us that in nutrition, as in health, diversity and balance are key. You may also want to learn more about their potential role in sport performance.
As always, talk to your doctor before taking any supplements. Get professional advice if you think you might need any vitamin E supplement or are already taking one to ensure you're not exceeding the amounts you may need.