Eight Types of Vitamin E —
And the Most Popular One is the WRONG One!
We’ve known for a while that vitamin E helps prevent cancer. But as it turns out, some forms of the vitamin are more powerful than others. And sometimes certain forms of this vitamin may actually increase your chance of developing cancer. Details follow. . .
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Even though scientists have known about vitamin E since 1922, they’ve only started to figure out what it can really do in the last several years.
For starters, there are actually eight types of vitamin E. Four are “tocopherols,” and four are “tocotrienols.” Each group has an alpha, beta, gamma, and delta subtype. The main difference between tocopherols and tocotrienols is a slight variation in chemical structure.
When you buy vitamin E supplements in the store, chances are you’re buying alpha-tocopherol. The ingredient list might say “alpha-tocopherol and mixed tocopherols,” but the reality is that it’s mostly alpha-tocopherol. Few vitamin E supplements include any form of tocotrienols.
Yet by some estimates, tocotrienols are 50 times more powerful than tocopherols. This makes them much more effective in disease prevention. Of course, they’re also a lot more expensive. But for those who can afford it, the benefits are extreme.
Tocotrienols and their incredible healing properties
Overall, vitamin E has a good reputation in the natural health world because it’s known to protect DNA from free radical damage — one of the causes of cancer. Other benefits are that it enhances the immune system, protects cell membranes, and shelters active enzyme sites from damage. It may even block the formation of nitrosamines (carcinogens that form in the stomach from nitrites).
Tocotrienols take that good reputation one step beyond. According to current research, this form of vitamin E effectively reduces cholesterol, protects against brain cell damage, and prevents cancer.
Tocotrienols don’t occur in nature as often as tocopherols, but they are natural compounds. They can be found in varying concentrations in vegetable oils, wheat germ, saw palmetto, barley, and certain nuts and grains.
Commercial sources of tocotrienol are rice, palm, and annatto. (Annatto is a natural yellow-orange food coloring. It comes from the fruit of the achiote tree, found in tropical South America.)
What’s interesting is that tocopherols — the form of vitamin E widely available in our supplement industry — don’t appear to have the same biological characteristics as their tocotrienol siblings.
In chemical terms, tocotrienols have an unsaturated side-chain that allows them to quickly penetrate tissues coated with saturated fatty layers. This boils down to a more functional molecular “tail.” It’s not as long or as stiff as the chemical tail found on tocopherols, so it’s easier for the compound to move around cells and neutralize free radicals — something tocotrienols do far more efficiently than tocopherols.
Tocotrienols are also better at reversing oxidative stress to skin that’s been exposed to UV rays. Overall, they appear to be much more potent than tocopherols when it comes to prompting an anti-oxidation and anti-cancer effect.
What’s strange is that this isn’t really new information. Scientists suggested back in 2000 that tocotrienols make better antioxidants than tocopherols, particularly when it comes to cancer prevention. So here we’ve known for over a decade that tocotrienols are more powerful and more effective, yet current formulations of vitamin E supplements still consist mostly of alpha-tocopherol.
Worse, alpha-tocopherol seems to interfere with tocotrienol benefits by decreasing absorption ability. A recent Japanese study even showed that tocopherols, and alpha-tocopherol in particular, interferes with the ability of delta-tocotrienol to induce apoptosis (natural cell death) in cancer cells.1 It does this by blocking the absorption of delta-tocotrienol.
Little-known anti-cancer research with promising possibilities
In terms of cancer prevention and treatment, tocotrienols seem to be able to neutralize something called vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF). This is important when you’re battling cancer, since VEGF prompts the development of new blood vessels built to feed growing tumors.
This process whereby cancer forms its own network of blood vessels is called angiogenesis. If tocotrienols indeed slow down or stop BOTH angiogenesis AND apoptosis, it’s a very big deal.
At the very least, we’ve seen this promising research come out about the specific benefits of tocotrienols:
1. Pancreatic cancer: Tocotrienols appear to be the more effective antioxidant over tocopherols thanks to their unsaturated side chain.
That chain allows the compound to penetrate better into saturated, fatty layers of the liver and brain, which gives it an advantage in terms of halting the formation of tumors, DNA damage, and cell damage.
A 1993 study on rats with liver cancer proved this.2 Less liver cell damage was detected in the group that received palm tocotrienols.
2. Breast cancer: In vitro studies conducted in the 1990s showed tocotrienols helped inhibit the growth of human breast cancer cells. Tocotrienols appeared to work synergistically with tamoxifen, (a common breast cancer medicine) to kill cancer cells.3
Delta-tocotrienols appeared be the most effective in inducing apoptosis in cancer cells, and gamma-tocotrienols supposedly inhibit ld1, a key cancer-promoting protein.
3. Prostate cancer: Different studies show delta- and gamma-tocotrienols suppress prostate cancer cell proliferation. In contrast, another study showed that alpha-tocopherol enhanced cancer cell growth.4
4. Skin cancer: In a study at the University of Hong Kong, skin cancer cell numbers decreased when treated with gamma-tocotrienol and chemotherapy drugs.5 Other studies have shown tocotrienols suppress the growth of melanoma.6
These studies seem promising because they’re focused specifically on tocotrienols. But as a whole the research is confusing. For example, some studies show lower prostate and breast cancer rates are associated with a higher intake of vitamin E. Yet, postmenopausal breast cancer incidence appears unaffected by vitamin E intake.
Part of the problem is that the scientific community only recently started to pay attention to tocotrienols. Most research up until a few years ago focused on alpha-tocopherol. Studies on tocotrienols made up less than 1% of total research on vitamin E.
That’s starting to change. Now researchers have ramped up their efforts to understand tocotrienols. In the past few years, almost 30% of the peer-reviewed studies on vitamin E have been specific to tocotrienols.
Based on those few studies, tocotrienols so far have been shown to be safe. They appear to have no adverse effects when taken for a period as long as four years (the length of the longest study to date).
Right now, a study going on at the Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute in Tampa, Florida, is recruiting participants for a study on tocotrienols. Researchers are hoping to determine the safest dose of delta-tocotrienol. They also want to establish how often it should be taken, along with how well it helps patients with pancreatic tumors. The study won’t be completed till 2013.
How to get hold of this natural, cancer-altering treatment
You can buy tocotrienol supplements without alpha-tocopherol, but they’re expensive. You want to look for supplements that are mostly made up of tocotrienols, with 15% or less of alpha-tocopherol.
You also want to look for supplements derived from natural sources — at least for now. It’s known that synthetic mixtures of tocopherols are not the biological equivalent to naturally occurring compounds, though they’re widely used in academic research and in commercial products. In fact, this is one of the problems with a lot of vitamin studies to date — they use synthetic tocopherols.
If you can afford tocotrienol supplements, you probably won’t have much trouble avoiding synthetic products because they’re not yet widely available. In theory, they should be relatively cheap to produce. They’d also likely provide many of the same clinical benefits natural tocotrienol appears to have.
Meanwhile, the research on widely-available alpha-tocopherol is confusing and contradictory. I wouldn’t take more than 400 i.u. a day, given the strange studies that suggest it may actually promote cancer under some circumstances.
I’m sure this statement will bring me a few angry emails from readers, but it’s a fact that the status of alpha-tocopherol is not at all clear right now. The research shows a confusing array of benefits and possible risks, with little to gain from taking large doses.
If you’re looking for the most powerful anti-cancer properties from vitamin E, go for the tocotrienols. You’ll probably have to pay a hefty price … but it might be worth it.
As our last issue mentioned, nuts (especially walnuts) are a rich source of vitamin E and are probably a better bet than alpha-tocopherol pills. In fact, just eating walnuts can knock back the growth of cancer cells as much as 40%! If you missed this article, you can scroll down and catch it now. . .