It's difficult to get the 100 IU of vitamin E thought to be good for heart health from food alone.
Nuts and oil-rich seeds have provided humans with vitamin E for millennia, but only in the past fifty years has the vitamin developed a reputation as a valuable nutrient. Today a large body of research attests to the benefits of vitamin E for heart disease, tissue inflammation, arthritis, cataracts, cancer, bronchial disease, menopause, and Parkinson’s disease.
Two landmark studies conducted by Harvard Medical School established the value of vitamin E in the minds of conventional doctors in 1993. The Physicians Health Study followed more than 39,000 male physicians for four years and showed that physicians who used a daily supplement of at least 100 IU of vitamin E for at least two years showed a 40 percent reduction in heart disease. In the Nurses Health Study, 87,000 female nurses filled out questionnaires on diets and lifestyle habits over an eight-year period. After adjusting for age and the use of other antioxidants, researchers found that the nurses who had the highest intake of vitamin E, mostly from supplements, had a 36 percent lower risk of heart disease.
More recent research published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1997 has shown that vitamin E may also help treat Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and poor immune function.
Do you want supplements?
It’s difficult to get from food alone the 100-plus IU of vitamin E thought to be good for heart health—especially from a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet that typically excludes some of the primary sources of that vitamin E, such as vegetable oils, egg yolks, nuts, seeds, and margarine. A few vegetables such as asparagus and turnip greens are good sources, but overall, vegetables are not a major source.
Vitamin supplements can make up the difference and are increasingly recommended by physicians for cardiovascular health. Some studies, however, have shown negative effects from supplemental doses, such as acceleration of hereditary eye disease and increased rates of stroke and lung cancer. Talk with your doctor about the optimal dose for you. In particular, people with hypertension should seek professional advice before supplementing with vitamin E.
Robert Atkins, M.D., director and founder of the Atkins Center for Complementary Medicine in New York City, recommends carefully considering the form of vitamin E you take. In his book Dr. Atkins’ Vita-Nutrient Solution (Simon & Schuster, 1998), he recommends forms of vitamin E such as natural mixed tocopherols (including alpha, beta, gamma, and delta tocopherols) as they appear in nature for general health. Taking d-alpha-tocopherol by itself will increase the need for gamma tocopherol, and synthetic dl-alpha-tocopheryl acetate is not absorbed as well as the natural tocopherols. Atkins also suggests synthetic succinate (dry d-alpha-tocopherol) for its anticarcinogenic potential.
People who eat fresh nuts and seeds get their vitamin E undamaged by light and oxygen. When nuts and seeds are pressed to make supplements, however, the fragile oil can rapidly deteriorate, losing some therapeutic value. Look for products that are refrigerated in dark glass bottles (which protect the oil from light) and marked with the date of pressing. Because vitamin E is fat soluble, it should be taken with meals to be absorbed.
Focus on bulk minerals
The Earth's crust has long sustained the human species with its abundant supply of minerals. Calcium, phosphorous, potassium, sodium, and magnesium—the main bulk, or macro, minerals—are supplied in the foods we eat. But sometimes our mineral balance is off, in which case supplementation or dietary changes may be recommended for optimum health.
This special feature focuses on these top five bulk minerals and provides a simple overview to help you determine whether your mineral intake is balanced.
A few risk factors
People with an increased risk of mineral insufficiency include the elderly, pregnant women, individuals on low-calorie diets or who take certain drugs (such as diuretics), and vegetarians, according to Sheldon Saul Hendler, M.D., Ph.D., author of The Doctors’ Vitamin and Mineral Encyclopedia (Simon and Schuster, 1990).
Where your food grows can also make a difference. Vitamins are usually present in foods in similar amounts throughout the world, but this is not true of minerals, according to Hendler. Because of differing geological conditions, minerals and essential trace elements may be scarce in the soils of certain regions and rich in others. For example, the soil of South Dakota is very rich in selenium, whereas the soil in certain parts of China and New Zealand is poor in this element.
And remember, one size does not fit everyone. Just as people can get by on minimum wages, so can people get by on minimum levels of minerals and vitamins. The choice to supplement your mineral intake is a personal one.
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Magnified photos provided by Michael W. Davidson, National High Magnetic Field Laboratory.