Vitamin E is a generic term that refers to a family of fat-soluble vitamins, tocopherols and tocotrienols. The members of the vitamin E family include alpha tocopherol, beta tocopherol, gamma tocopherol, and delta tocopherol, as well as the alpha, beta, gamma, and delta tocotrienol. Each of them has a unique function in human health. As any other fat-soluble vitamin, vitamin E does not dissolve in water but in fats. This actually means that these vitamins are eliminated much more slowly than the water-soluble vitamins. Water-soluble vitamins are easily washed away from the body and excreted during urination. On the other hand, the excessive amounts of fat-soluble vitamins are stored in the body. When fat-soluble vitamins are stored for long periods, they normally pose a greater risk for toxicity than water-soluble vitamins. For the same reason, vitamin deficiencies of fat-soluble vitamins are extremely rare.
Functions of vitamin E
As already mentioned, vitamin E is a family of potent antioxidants. Antioxidants can protect the body from damage caused by harmful molecules called free radicals. Free radicals occur as a result of normal metabolic processes that take place in the human body. Free radicals are highly reactive, and they can literally steal electrons from other molecules, causing damage. Antioxidants are able to neutralize free radicals, and even reverse the damage that is already made by literally lending their own molecule to damaged structures. Another important role of vitamin E is to protect the skin from ultraviolet radiation. It also reduces the risk of developing bladder cancer up to 50%. Vitamin E from foods, but not supplements offers protection against prostate cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
Vitamin E deficiency
Vitamin E deficiency is an extremely rare health condition. The deficiency usually occurs as a result of malabsorption or extremely poor diet. This medical problem is rarely found in the Western world. In some undeveloped countries where people struggle for food, vitamin E deficiencies arise because of an extremely low fat intake. As already mentioned, vitamin E needs fats to dissolve in the body, and if the diet does not provide enough of fats, the body won’t be able to absorb vitamin E from the food.
Vitamin E deficiency is also found in very low birth weight infants (birth weights less than 1500 grams), and in individuals with rare disorders of fat metabolism, or diseases such as cystic fibrosis, Crohn's disease, liver disease or pancreatic insufficiency.
Symptoms of vitamin E deficiency usually manifest as a peripheral neuropathy and problems with the arms, hands, legs, and feet. Patients may complain about tingling and loss of sensation in the different parts of the body. In some patients, skin problems may also appear.