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Vitamin E Supplementation – Yes or No?

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Many of you may remember about a year ago when a study from researchers at the John Hopkins University School of Medicine hit the front pages sending shock waves though the community that are still felt today. According to that report, Vitamin E supplementation is not only ineffective, but also shortens the lives of those who use it! They said supplementing with 400 iu or more of Vitamin E created a statistically significant increased chance of death by all causes. That increase in death rate was 0.4% (39 out of 10,000), and it included study subjects who died of accidents, suicides, homicides and natural disasters.

Less than a month after release of this study some of the world’s best scientists unleashed a firestorm of criticism and rebuttals of this study, stating the claims were unfounded and the study was severely flawed. So what happened to these rebuttals? The media ignored them! And yes, while they were published on the website of The Annals of Internal Medicine where the study was first published, this is a site that, unfortunately, the general public rarely sees.

What were these flaws? This was not a study but a “meta-analysis”, which means that the researchers hand- selected 19 studies out of thousands of studies looking at Vitamin E over a 12-year period. Why those 19? Because they supported their hypothesis that it can actually shorten life. Although none of the studies alone showed any harm, by combining all of them together they thought they could get a statistically significant increase in death rates from all causes. In addition, most of the study subjects already had serious diseases and some were even residents in nursing homes. The validity of studying supplementation in subjects with serious disease is questionable, since once serious disease has occurred the value of supplements is more limited. Hundreds of studies over that same 12-year period demonstrated that Vitamin E supplementation used for prevention in generally healthy people reduced heart and blood vessel disease, Alzheimer’s disease, some types of cancer and macular degeneration.

I regularly have clients in my office who have stopped taking Vitamin E based on this irresponsible reporting. And worse yet, many report that their physicians tell them to stop or decrease it to a very low dose. Again, I have to repeat, look at the actual study before making any changes based on media coverage. And, although many physicians keep themselves educated about supplements, most do not. If you are taking advice from your physician about use of supplements, be sure he/she looks deeper than what’s reported in the newspapers for the accurate information and analysis of recommendations.

And keep taking those Vitamin E supplements. It is best to supplement with mixed tocopherols rather than just alpha tocopherol.

Supplements generally work synergistically so it’s best not to rely on the benefits of one supplement, but to follow a balanced program combining vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants that best suit your goals.