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Why Your Vitamin E Supplements Don’t Seem To Work

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Oct 12, 2018

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Almost a century ago now, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, discovered a new antioxidant: vitamin E. Since then, supplement makers and the pharmaceutical industry have been touting its many potential health benefits, from preventing skin aging, reducing joint degradation in rheumatism and arthritis, and even protecting against cancer and cardiovascular diseases. The assumption is that if antioxidants neutralize harmful free radicals in lab experiments, surely they’d do the same within the body. The past few years have seen vitamin E supplement sales soaring.

However, clinical research shows very little proof that these supplements benefit your health. “Here, we find very heterogeneous results,” said Andreas Koeberle, PhD, a biochemist at the Friedrich Schiller University, Jena, Germany. “Not just that the positive effects often fail to manifest themselves as strongly as expected, but sometimes administering vitamin E actually has detrimental effects.”

An international team of researchers, led by Koeberle, has now found a cause for this. It turns out that the beneficial effects of vitamin E in capsule form are not based on the vitamin itself, but on a metabolite — a substance produced by the body itself while breaking down the supplement. Named alpha-carboxychromanol, the discovery of this substance and its possible anti-inflammatory effect, is promising for the medical community.

The metabolite and its anti-inflammatory potential can play a central role in treating inflammatory diseases like asthma or arthritis. The hope is that, with this new research , a new drug candidate can be developed to treat these kinds of diseases.

In the meantime, if your vitamin E supplements don’t seem to be giving you the benefits they promised, their research has shown that it’s probably because your body may not be metabolizing that supplement, and therefore your liver isn’t producing that very helpful metabolite — alpha-carboxychromanol — which limits the effects promised. But Oliver Werz, one of the authors of the study published in Nature Communications, argues that these findings show how important personalised medicine could be. “If we first characterise a patient’s metabolism, it will be possible to achieve therapeutic success — and not just with vitamin E — with much greater precision.”

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Written By Nadia Nooreyezdan

Nadia Nooreyezdan is The Swaddle’s culture editor. Since graduating from Columbia Journalism School, she spends her time thinking about aliens, cyborgs, and social justice sci-fi. She’s also working on a memoir about her family’s journey from Iran to India.

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