Vitamin E is an important fat-soluble vitamin and antioxidant that helps combat damaging free radicals. It also plays a role in the making of red blood cells and helps your body use vitamin K, the latter of which is important for heart health.1
Unfortunately, estimates suggest about 6 billion people worldwide are deficient in this basic micronutrient.
According to a recent review presented at the World Congress of Public Health Nutrition, more than 90 percent of Americans fail to reach the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of vitamin E.2
An earlier review3 published in 2012 found that over 75 percent of Americans and Britons failed to meet minimum RDA levels for vitamin E. The RDA for people over the age of 14 is 15 milligrams (mg) of vitamin E per day, but most Americans get only half that amount.4
Insufficient vitamin E can increase your risk for a wide variety of diseases, including immune dysfunction, cognitive deterioration and cardiovascular disease. As noted by Prevent Disease:5
“Adequate levels of vitamin E, an essential micronutrient, are especially critical for the very young, the elderly, and women who are or may become pregnant.
Deficiency of the vitamin is occurring at an alarming frequency, and the effects of this are less obvious in the short-term affecting everything from fertility to Alzheimer’s.”
How Much Vitamin E Do You Need for Optimal Health?
According to the most recent review mentioned above,6,7 a mere 21 percent of the people studied had a protective level of serum alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E), which studies have pegged at 30 micromol per liter (μmol/L).
This appears to be the threshold above which “definable effects on human health in multiple areas” are obtained.8 Human studies have also found that in order to achieve a level of 30 μmol/L, you need a daily intake of at least 50 international units (IUs) of vitamin E.9
Not surprisingly, the primary reason for such widespread deficiency is the fact that most people eat a primarily processed food diet, which tends to be lacking not only in vitamin E but also in many other important antioxidants and micronutrients, including healthy fats.
Vitamin E is fat-soluble, and if you’re on a low-fat diet you may simply have too little fat to properly absorb the vitamin E present in the foods you eat or supplements you take.
In fact, studies have shown your body will only absorb about 10 percent of the vitamin E from a supplement when you take it without fat.10 This is yet another adverse effect of the flawed recommendation to eat a low-fat diet.
Signs, Symptoms and Health Effects of Vitamin E Deficiency
Muscle weakness and unsteady gait
Loss of muscle mass
Vision problems, including constriction of your visual field; abnormal eye movements; blindness
Liver and kidney problems
As mentioned, vitamin E is important throughout life, but deficiency during pregnancy can be particularly problematic. Worldwide, about 13 percent of people have vitamin E levels below the “functional deficiency” threshold of 12 μmol/L, and most of these are newborns and young children.
Babies who are deficient in vitamin E are at increased risk for immune and vision problems. Being deficient in vitamin E during pregnancy also raises your risk for miscarriage.13
Studies have also found that low vitamin E levels tend to be associated with a higher risk of cancer and heart disease.14
It may be worth noting that while some studies have found vitamin E supplementation may actually increase your risk of cancer15 and has no beneficial effect on heart health, such studies appear to demonstrate the difference between synthetic and natural vitamin E, which I’ll review below.
Synthetic vitamin E is derived from petrochemicals and has known toxic effects, yet synthetic alpha-tocopherol is the type most commonly used when investigating the health effects of vitamin E.
Hence, it’s not so surprising that synthetic vitamin E supplements would fail to provide certain health benefits and potentially increase certain health risks.