RESEARCHER'S NOTE: The following briefing is taken directly from the website of the National Institute for Health, a US federal government body.
NIH on Vitamin E
Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin that exists in eight different forms. Each form has its own biological activity, the measure of potency or functional use in the body Alpha-tocopherol is the most active form of vitamin E in humans, and is a powerful biological antioxidant.
Antioxidants such as vitamin E act to protect your cells against the effects of free radicals, which are potentially damaging by-products of the body's metabolism. Free radicals can cause cell damage that may contribute to the development of cardiovascular disease and cancer. Studies are underway to determine whether vitamin E might help prevent or delay the development of those chronic diseases.
Results of two national surveys, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III 1988-91) and the Continuing Survey of Food Intakes of Individuals (1994 CSFII) indicated that the dietary intake of most Americans does not provide the recommended intake for vitamin E. However, a 2000 Institute of Medicine (IOM) report on vitamin E states that intake estimates of vitamin E may be low because energy and fat intake is often underreported in national surveys and because the kind and amount of fat added during cooking is often not known. The IOM states that most North American adults get enough vitamin E from their normal diets to meet current recommendations. However, they do caution individuals who consume low fat diets because vegetable oils are such a good dietary source of vitamin E. "Low-fat diets can substantially decrease vitamin E intakes if food choices are not carefully made to enhance alpha-tocopherol intakes".
Preliminary research has led to a widely held belief that vitamin E may help prevent or delay coronary heart disease. Researchers are fairly certain that oxidative modification of LDL-cholesterol (sometimes called "bad" cholesterol) promotes blockages in coronary arteries that may lead to atherosclerosis and heart attacks. Vitamin E may help prevent or delay coronary heart disease by limiting the oxidation of LDL-cholesterol. Vitamin E also may help prevent the formation of blood clots, which could lead to a heart attack. Observational studies have associated lower rates of heart disease with higher vitamin E intake. A study of approximately 90,000 nurses suggested that the incidence of heart disease was 30% to 40% lower among nurses with the highest intake of vitamin E from diet and supplements. A 1994 review of 5,133 Finnish men and women aged 30 - 69 years suggested that increased dietary intake of vitamin E was associated with decreased mortality (death) from heart disease. But even though these observations are promising, randomized clinical trials raise questions about the role of vitamin E supplements in heart disease.
The Heart Outcomes Prevention Evaluation (HOPE) Study followed almost 10,000 patients for 4.5 years who were at high risk for heart attack or stroke (15). In this intervention study the subjects who received 265 mg (400) IU of vitamin E daily did not experience significantly fewer cardiovascular events or hospitalizations for heart failure or chest pain when compared to those who received a sugar pill. The researchers suggested that it is unlikely that the vitamin E supplement provided any protection against cardiovascular disease in the HOPE study. This study is continuing, to determine whether a longer duration of intervention with vitamin E supplements will provide any protection against cardiovascular disease. Vitamin E and cancer
Antioxidants such as vitamin E help protect against the damaging effects of free radicals, which may contribute to the development of chronic diseases such as cancer. Vitamin E also may block the formation of nitrosamines, which are carcinogens formed in the stomach from nitrites consumed in the diet. It also may protect against the development of cancers by enhancing immune function. Unfortunately, human trials and surveys that tried to associate vitamin E with incidence of cancer have been generally inconclusive.