Vitamin E is essential for normal neurological function, according to a 2013 Journal of Internal Medicine study, which found that low levels of some types of the vitamin could help predict your risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Looking to take back control of your health?
Some types? That’s right: There are different types of vitamin E. In fact, there are 8 varieties or “isoforms” of E, and research suggests your brain needs all of them for optimal health and function, says Shawn Talbott, PhD, a nutritional biochemist, researcher, and author of The Health Professional’s Guide to Dietary Supplements.
Talbott says those 8 vitamin E varieties can be evenly divided into 2 categories of antioxidants—tocopherols and tocotrienols. “The problem,” he says, “is that most vitamin E supplements don’t include tocotrienols.”
So even if you’re taking a vitamin E pill, you’re probably not getting all the E your brain needs, he says.
And the foods you eat probably aren’t filling your vitamin E shortfalls either. Chandan Sen, PhD, associate dean for research at the Ohio State University, who has overseen research into the neurological effects of the various vitamin E compounds, says if you looked at the blood of most Americans, their tocotrienol levels would be low.
That’s concerning, because tocotrienols may be the most important forms of E when it comes to brain health, Sen’s research shows. Along with their neuroprotective benefits, tocotrienols may also have “anti-cancer and cholesterol-lowering properties,” he says. A study in Nutrition and Metabolism finds these forms of vitamin E also have big-time inflammation-fighting abilities.
At the same time, Sen says there is a “competition” between tocopherols and tocotrienols when taken in large amounts. So swallowing too much tocopherol—like the amount in many vitamin E supplements—could block your body’s ability to absorb other forms of the vitamin. “Some of these supplements have 1000% of the daily value of tocopherol, which can disrupt the antioxidant balance in your body,” Talbott explains.
Setting aside all this confusing body chemistry, how can you get all the right types of E into your system?
Talbott prefers diet tweaks to pills and powders. And when it comes to tocopherols—the ones that tend to be packed into supplements—almost every type of fruit, vegetable, seed, or nut contains these forms of E. Unless you’re on a seriously meat-centric diet, you’re probably set on tocopherols, he says.
Tocotrienols, on the other hand, are tougher to squeeze into your diet—though there are a few foods that contain them. Whole-grain wheat, rice, and barley—that is, forms of these grains that include the entire bran, germ, and endosperm—are all modest sources of tocotrienols, Sen’s research shows. Look for “sprouted” or whole-grain breads, as well as whole-grain rice and barley.
Red palm oil and rice bran oil are better sources of tocotrienols, Talbott says. (Full disclosure: He says the palm oil industry has covered his travel expenses so he can present his findings at conferences, but they don’t otherwise compensate him for talking up their product.) Sen also mentions palm oil as a good source of tocotrienols.
“Asian grocery stores or health foods stores should stock red palm oil, which is great for high heat cooking because it has a higher smoke point than something like olive oil,” Talbott says. “Use it a couple times a week.”
Sen recommends looking for “enriched” red palm oil, and says some may even mention tocotrienols on the label. You could also pick up a tocotrienol supplement, though Sen says research is incomplete on the dosage you’d need to take for optimal health.
Finally, check your current supplements to make sure none contains more than 100 IUs of vitamin E tocopherols, Talbott advises. Any more than that, and you risk limiting your body’s ability to absorb other forms of E.