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Vitamin E: Super Antioxidant We Only Thought We Knew

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Surprisingly there are really two types of vitamin E, and both are potent disease fighters – if kept apart.

Discovered in 1922, vitamin E has long been known as a powerful antioxidant. In recent years, however, one particular form of vitamin E – tocotrienol – has been found to be especially effective in promoting lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels, reducing arteriosclerosis, suppressing the growth of certain types of cancer in animal and cell line studies, and promoting overall cardiovascular and metabolic health.

We tend to think of vitamin E as a single entity. Actually though, vitamin E contains two subgroups – tocopherols (toe KOF er ols) and tocotrienols (toe co TREE en ols). Each group consists of four separate molecules – alpha, beta, gamma, and delta. So all together, vitamin E is a family of eight different nutrients.

The Tale Is in the Tail

Both types of vitamin E, tocopherols and tocotrienols, are good antioxidant molecules that fight disease-causing free radicals. But there is a distinct difference in how they work. That difference lies in the molecules’ tails.

• Tocopherols have long, stiff tails that anchor them in the cell membrane,

•  While tocotrienols have short, flexible tails that allow them to move around the cell freely and enable them to neutralize free radicals more effectively. In fact, tocotrienols have been found to be 40 to 60 times more potent as antioxidants than tocopherols.

Noted biochemist and food scientist Barrie Tan, PhD, likes to explain the difference between tocopherols and tocotrienols by comparing them to local police and state troopers. Both go after bad guys, but the jurisdiction of the local police is limited to the town boundaries, while the state troopers can cover the entire state.

In the same way, tocopherols and tocotrienols both go after free radicals, but tocopherols are limited to the cell membrane in which they are anchored, while tocotrienols can cover a much larger area.

Discovering a Rich Source of Tocotrienols

In 2000, Dr. Tan went to South America to investigate plant pigments.  While in one of the rainforests, he came across the bright red annatto plant. Dr. Tan noticed that the annatto moved, turning its pods toward the sun. This is uncommon for plants of this color because the sun’s UV rays would normally damage them. He began to wonder what was in the annatto plant that protected it.

Dr. Tan soon discovered that the annatto’s secret was its rich concentration of tocotrienols. Not only does the annatto contain 90% delta-tocotrienols (the most active form) and 10% gamma-tocotrienols, but it has no tocopherols. In fact annatto was the first, and as of yet the only, source of tocotrienols ever found that does not also contain tocopherols.

Why is finding a tocotrienol source that does not contain tocopherols important?

Because in 1996, researchers found that tocopherols interfered with the absorption and metabolism of tocotrienols in the body, blocking their cholesterol-lowering effects. This interference was confirmed in 2010 by a Japanese group which found that alpha-tocopherol interfered with delt-tocotrienol’s cancer-suppressing benefits. (1, 1A) Until Dr. Tan’s discovery, rice and palm oil had the highest known concentrations of tocotrienols, but both also contain significant amounts of tocopherols.

Health Benefits of Tocotrienols

Ongoing research is revealing a number of exciting health benefits from tocotrienols.

Lowering LDL Cholesterol and Triglycerides. Statin drugs lower cholesterol by inhibiting HMG CoA reductase (HMGR), the enzyme responsible for cholesterol production. Tocotrienols also inhibit HMGR, by downregulating and degrading the enzyme, but without the negative effects caused by statins.

In addition to inhibiting cholesterol production, statins also inhibit the production of Coenzyme Q10, which is essential to the proper functioning of our mitochondria – the energy powerhouses of our cells. Tocotrienols, by contrast, do not interfere at all with CoQ10 production.

The ability of tocotrienols to inhibit HMGR and reduce cholesterol was first demonstrated in 1992 in a study done by Bristol-Myers Squibb.(2)  It was revalidated in a 2006 study conducted at the University of Texas.(3) According to Dr. Tan, “This is an unequivocal proof that tocotrienol reduces cholesterol synthesis [production].”

The next question became, what is the maximum dose of tocotrienols needed for optimal cholesterol-lowering effect?

In a 2002 study, 90 individuals with high cholesterol were administered 25, 50, 100, or 200 mg/day of tocotrienols in combination with a heart-healthy diet. The researchers found that 100 mg/day provided the maximum benefit, lowering LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol levels by 25% and triglycerides by 12%. No additional benefit was found at higher doses.(4)

Preventing Atherosclerosis. Tocotrienols inhibit the development of adhesion molecules – the sticky substances produced in the arteries during the early stages of atherosclerosis. Adhesion molecules act much like fly-paper, collecting circulating blood cells and contributing to plaque buildup and inflammation. By reducing the stickiness, tocotrienols have the potential to stop or possibly reverse the development of atherosclerosis.

This was demonstrated in a 1995 landmark study of 50 people with atherosclerosis of the carotid arteries. The treatment half of the group received 240 mg of tocotrienol along with 60 mg of alpha-tocopherol, while the control half were given a placebo. By the end of the study:

•  In 88% of the treatment group arterial plaque had either stabilized or been reduced.

•  Only 8% of the control group had stabilized, and approximately 60% showed an increase in plaque buildup.(5)

Two additional studies, one in Hawaii(6) and one in Japan,(7) not only confirmed that tocotrienols inhibit adhesion molecules, but also found that tocotrienols may be 30 times more effective against these molecules than tocopherols.

Anticancer Activity. An especially exciting area of tocotrienol research is cancer prevention and treatment. In animal studies, delta- and gamma-tocotrienols were shown to inhibit tumors of the breast, prostate, lung, liver, pancreas and skin.

Tocotrienols appear to help fight cancer by:

•  Interfering with the process tumor cells use to multiply.

•  Inducing apoptosis (programmed cell death).

•  Neutralizing the chemical that stimulates the development of new blood vessels that are needed for the tumor to grow (anti-angiogenesis).

The Moffitt Cancer Center in Florida is currently conducting Phase I clinical trials using delta-tocotrienol in the treatment of pancreatic cancer, one of the deadliest of all cancers. Of the 35,000 Americans who are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year, 95% do not survive beyond 6-12 months. Moffitt researchers have already found that in cell lines and animal studies, delta-tocotrienol inhibited pancreatic tumor growth, blocked malignant transformation and induced apoptosis.(8)

Diabetes and Metabolic Syndrome. Because the progress of atherosclerosis is more rapid in type 2 diabetics than in the general population, they are at an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. A 2005 study confirmed the beneficial effects of tocotrienol on type 2 diabetes – total lipids were reduced by 23%, total cholesterol was reduced by 30% and LDL cholesterol came down by 42%.(9)

Eye Health. The ability of tocotrienols to neutralize the chemical that stimulates the development of new blood vessels in tumors also may inhibit the growth of blood vessels associated with diabetic retinopathy and macular degeneration.

Which Type(s) of Vitamin E Should You Take?

Since tocotrienols seem to provide such superior benefits, the logical question is ‘Do I need to take tocopherols at all?’ Most experts agree that it is still important to take a mixture of the four tocopherols in addition to tocotrienol because they provide excellent antioxident protection against free radicals.

ProHealth offers both types of Vitamin E:

•  ExcellentE™ – pure, natural delta-tocotrienol from the annatto plant.

•  Vitamin E with Mixed Tocopherols – a balanced blend of the four tocopherols.

The key is not to take the two types of vitamin E together.

They should be taken at least six hours apart and with food to get the best absorption in the intestinal tract. For maximum benefit, take Vitamin E with Mixed Tocopherols in the morning with breakfast and ExcellentE with your evening meal.

Dr. Tan recommends taking the tocotrienols in the evening. The reason? The body’s cholesterol production peaks after midnight, so tocotrienol levels would peak in the blood when they are most needed.

Need-to-Know Info

Dosage:  The recommended dose of tocotrienols varies depending on why you are taking them. For cholesterol-lowering benefits, cardiovascular health, and eye health, 100 mg a day seems to be sufficient. A specific dosage has not yet been set for anticancer purposes; however, preliminary studies indicate the most effective dosage may be in the 200-400 mg range.

Contraindications:  Both forms of vitamin E inhibit blood clotting, so you should consult your doctor before taking them if you are taking blood-thinning drugs or are at risk of prolonged bleeding.

In Summary…

Both forms of vitamin E – tocopherols and tocotrienols – are important antioxidants that help prevent disease and promote overall health. Tocotrienols in particular are proving to be especially powerful nutrients for promoting cardiovascular health and possibly preventing devastating diseases like cancer.


* * Karen Lee Richards is Lead Expert specializing in Fibromyalgia and ME/CFS, for HealthCentral’s ChronicPainConnection ( Karen is co-founder of the National Fibromyalgia Association (NFA) and was Executive Editor of Fibromyalgia AWARE magazine for four years.


1.  Qureshi AA, et al. Dietary alpha-tocopherol attenuates the impact of gamma-tocotrienol on hepatic 3-hydroxy-3-methylglutaryl coenzyme A reductase activity in chickens. J Nutr. 1996 Feb;126(2):389-94.
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1A. Shibata A, Nakagawa K, et al. Alpha-Tocopherol attenuates the cytotoxic effect of delta-tocotrienol in human colorectal adenocarcinoma cells.  Bichem Biophys Res Commun. 2010 Jun 25;397(2):214-9.

2.  Pearce BC, et al. Hypocholesterolemic activity of synthetic and natural tocotrienols. J Med Chem. 1992 Oct 2;35(20):3595-606.

3.  Song BL, DeBose-Boyd RA. (Full text) Insig-dependent ubiquitination and degradation of 3-hydroxy-3-methylglutaryl coenzyme a reductase stimulated by delta- and gamma-tocotrienols. J Biol Chem. 2006 Sep 1;281(35):25054-61. Epub 2006 Jul 10.

4.  Qureshi AA, et al. Dose-dependent suppression of serum cholesterol by tocotrienol-rich fraction (TRF25) of rice bran in hypercholesterolemic humans. Atherosclerosis. 2002 Mar;161(1):199-207.

5.  Tomeo AC, et al. Antioxidant effects of tocotrienols in patients with hyperlipidemia and carotid stenosis. Lipids. 1995 Dec;30(12):1179-83.

6.  Theriault A, et al. Tocotrienol is the most effective vitamin E for reducing endothelial expression of adhesion molecules and adhesion to monocytes. Atherosclerosis. 2002 Jan;160(1):21-30.

7.  Naito Y, et al. Tocotrienols reduce 25-hydroxycholesterol-induced monocyte-endothelial cell interaction by inhibiting the surface expression of adhesion molecules. Atherosclerosis. 2005 May;180(1):19-25. Epub 2005 Jan 12.

8.  Husain K, et al. (Full text) Vitamin E delta-tocotrienol levels in tumor and pancreatic tissue of mice after oral administration. Pharmacology. 2009;83(3):157-63. Epub 2009 Jan 13.

9.  Baliarsingh S, et al. The therapeutic impacts of tocotrienols in type 2 diabetic patients with hyperlipidemia. Atherosclerosis. 2005 Oct;182(2):367-74.


Note: This information has not been evaluated by the FDA. It is general and is not intended to prevent, diagnose, treat or cure any illness, condition, or disease. It is very important that you make no change in your healthcare plan or health support regimen without researching and discussing it in collaboration with your professional healthcare team.

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