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Tocotrienols: Vitamin E’s Better Half

Tocotrienols: Vitamin E's Better Half: Main Image
Tocotrienols may provide unique antioxidant protection
Vitamin E is a special antioxidant that protects fats in the body, like those found in cell membranes and around nerve cells. In nature, vitamin E is made up of two types of molecules: tocopherols and tocotrienols; most vitamin E supplements, however, are made of a single tocopherol. A preliminary study found that the tocotrienols accumulate in important body tissues like the skin, brain, and heart, and improve markers of liver health in people with liver disease, suggesting that they may provide unique antioxidant protection.

Following the path of vitamin E

The study, published in the Journal of Nutrition, included 16 healthy people and 28 people in the hospital for heart, liver, or brain surgeries, or for plastic surgery related to obesity. The healthy participants took 400 mg of tocotrienols per day for 12 weeks and provided blood and skin samples to measure vitamin E concentrations at the beginning and end of the study. The surgery patients took either 400 mg of tocopherols or 400 mg of tocotrienols per day for an average of 20 weeks. Vitamin E concentrations were measured in tissue samples taken from their surgery sites and were compared to those in similar control tissues collected from autopsies.

Tocotrienols are stored in key tissues

Researchers found that, after supplementation, tocotrienol levels:

  • were markedly higher in the blood and skin,
  • were higher than levels that have been shown to protect nerve tissue in other research (suggesting that supplements may have therapeutic effects),
  • were higher than control tissue levels in heart, brain, fat, and liver tissues of surgery patients,
  • accumulated most in fat tissue (levels in the fat tissue of obese plastic surgery patients taking tocotrienol supplements were ten times higher than levels in the control fat tissue), and
  • accumulated to a lesser degree than tocopherols in liver tissue, but the increase in tocotrienol levels was linked to greater improvement in markers of liver health.

"This work provides, to our knowledge, the first evidence demonstrating that orally supplemented tocotrienols are transported to vital organs of adult humans," the study's authors said. This suggests tocotrienols may play critical roles in these tissues, roles that have not been demonstrated in previous vitamin E research, in which only alpha-tocopherol was used and benefits have been marginal or absent. Eating vitamin E-rich foods has shown more consistent benefits than taking alpha-tocopherol supplements, and this study adds to the evidence that tocotrienols in natural vitamin E may be part of the reason.

Maximize your vitamin E

Here are some ways to ensure that you get the most from your vitamin E:

  • Eat your E. Foods rich in vitamin E include olives and olive oil, nuts and seeds, and avocados. These foods have natural vitamin E--all of the four tocotrienols and the four tocopherols.
  • Take a full-spectrum vitamin E supplement. Replace your alpha-tocopherol with a more complete vitamin E that has the full array of tocotrienols and tocopherols.
  • Take vitamin C. Vitamin C helps the body to recycle vitamin E so it can provide more antioxidant protection to fats and fatty tissues.

(J Nutr 2013;142:513-9)

Maureen Williams, ND, completed her doctorate in naturopathic medicine at Bastyr University in Seattle and has been in private practice since 1995. With an abiding commitment to access to care, she has worked in free clinics in the US and Canada, and in rural clinics in Guatemala and Honduras where she has studied traditional herbal medicine. She currently lives and practices in Victoria, BC, and lectures and writes extensively for both professional and community audiences on topics including family nutrition, menopause, anxiety and depression, heart disease, cancer, and easing stress. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.
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