As the weather gets colder and the nights draw in, many of us will be thinking about the best ways to stay healthy. We might be trying to give our immune system a boost by eating a healthy diet that’s packed with vitamins and antioxidants – but while the functions of some vitamins are widely known, others seem to be more vague. Vitamin E is one essential vitamin that our bodies need to function, but what exactly does it do, and why is it important?

Here’s everything you need to know about vitamin E.

What is vitamin E?

Vitamin E is a nutrient that acts as an antioxidant and is present in certain foods. Our bodies need vitamin E to function, which makes it an essential vitamin – and because it’s fat-soluble, it needs dietary fats to be properly absorbed and pass through the body.

Because vitamin E is an antioxidant, it helps strengthen our immune system and protect against free radicals, which can cause damage and accelerate the ageing process.

Vitamin E is mostly stored in the liver and fatty tissue until it’s needed, at which point it’s released into the bloodstream. There are eight different chemical forms of vitamin E, although alpha-tocopherol is the one best suited to humans.

Why is vitamin E important?

Though vitamin is perhaps best known for strengthening our natural defences and helping maintain healthy skin and hair, it’s believed to have other functions too.

Let’s take a closer look at the benefits of vitamin E.

1. Vitamin E reduces oxidative stress

As we’ve already acknowledged, vitamin E is an antioxidant that protects the body from free radicals.

Free radicals are molecules that damage our bodies. If you think about the way metal rusts when exposed to water and oxygen, a similar thing happens within our own bodies – and when we’re exposed to these harmful molecules called free radicals, a similar oxidation process occurs.

Because free radicals harm healthy cells, they contribute to accelerated ageing and may also lead to chronic health problems like heart disease and cancer. When our bodies don’t have enough antioxidant defences to fight against free radicals, this is called oxidative stress. As an antioxidant, vitamin E helps ward off free radicals and protect us against cellular damage.

Because of its antioxidant properties, many experts believe vitamin E can help protect against coronary heart disease. Some studies suggest that there’s a link between reduced rates of heart disease and higher levels of vitamin E. However, more research is needed before we can draw any definitive conclusions on this.

2. Vitamin E is good for your skin

You might have come across cosmetics that advertise the fact that they contain vitamin E. Vitamin E is a popular ingredient in many cosmetics – particularly those aimed at a more mature audience – and it’s also frequently used in wound healing products.

Because vitamin E reduces oxidative stress, it’s also believed to protect the skin from environmental stressors like sun radiation, smoke and pollution. While research does suggest that topical vitamin E can protect the skin from damage caused by sunlight, the same evidence for its wound healing properties aren’t yet clear.

3. Vitamin E may alleviate symptoms of osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is a painful chronic condition where your joints deteriorate, which causes stiffness and soreness. Some studies suggest that vitamin E may help treat osteoarthritis by stimulating the production of new cartilage cells, while others have found that it’s anti-inflammatory properties are what help.

One 2017 study found that people suffering from late-stage knee osteoarthritis showed improved clinical symptoms and reduced oxidative stress after taking vitamin E supplements every day for two months. However, other studies found mixed results, so further research is also needed here.

4. Vitamin E may help manage diabetes

Just like osteoarthritis, diabetes is another chronic condition, and it’s also linked to high levels of oxidative stress. Because it’s known to help with insulin regulation and glucose metabolism, vitamin E is believed to help manage diabetes – a condition that involves insulin resistance.

A lot of research has been done into the effects of vitamin E supplementation on both type 1 and type 2 diabetes, and it does seem apparent that vitamin E may not only help delay the onset of diabetes, but also help alleviate the symptoms. However, once again more research is needed before we can draw definitive conclusions about this.

Am I getting enough vitamin E?

Our bodies store vitamin E for future use, which means you don’t need to consume it every day. Vitamin E deficiency is rare, and you should be able to get enough by eating a healthy balanced diet. According to the NHS, men need 4mg a day of vitamin E, and women need 3mg a day.

While vitamin E deficiency is rare, people who suffer from certain health conditions like cystic fibrosis or Crohn’s disease may experience chronic diarrhoea – and because of this, they may need to take water-soluble forms of vitamin E from time to time.

If you’re concerned you’re not getting enough vitamin E, you should always speak to your GP before taking any supplements. While it’s difficult to consume too much vitamin E through food, taking high doses of vitamin E through supplementation can cause serious side effects. Studies suggest that taking too much vitamin E can increase your risk of haemorrhagic stroke, as well as prostate cancer.

Plus, vitamin E can interfere with different types of medication and treatments, including anticoagulant and antiplatelet medications, simvastatin and niacin, and chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

The NHS states that taking 540mg or less of vitamin E supplements each is unlikely to cause any problems.

How can I get enough vitamin E?

Having healthy levels of Vitamin E is essential for your body to function normally – and if you don’t get enough, you may be more likely to experience oxidative stress and become more prone to infections. The good news is that vitamin E is found in many foods, so unless you have problems absorbing nutrients, you’re unlikely to become deficient. 

Still, it’s important to eat plenty of healthy whole foods that contain vitamin E. So which foods are highest in alpha-tocopherol (the most active form of vitamin E)? Here’s the top 10.

  1. Wheat germ oil — 135% of your daily value (DV) per serving

  2. Sunflower seeds — 66% DV per serving

  3. Almonds — 48% DV per serving

  4. Hazelnut oil — 43% DV per serving

  5. Sunflower oil — 37% DV per serving

  6. Almond oil — 36% DV per serving

  7. Hazelnuts — 28% DV per serving

  8. Abalone — 23% DV per serving

  9. Pine nuts — 18% DV per serving

  10. Peanuts — 16% DV per serving

Other foods that contain vitamin E include avocado, bell peppers (especially red), mango, kiwi fruit, olives, and broccoli.

Final thoughts...

Vitamin E is an essential vitamin that acts as an antioxidant, helping to protect our bodies from oxidative stress and strengthening our immune system. Studies also suggest that vitamin E might help to treat and prevent the symptoms of chronic conditions like diabetes and osteoarthritis – although further research is needed.

Topical vitamin E may also help to protect your skin – though we can’t necessarily take the promises of anti-ageing cosmetic brands at face value. Again, more research is needed before we understand exactly how vitamin E can benefit the skin.

Though vitamin E deficiency is rare, it’s still important to make sure you’re getting enough. So if you’re worried you’re not, you should speak to your GP before beginning to take any supplements. Generally speaking, the best way to make sure you’re getting enough vitamin E is to eat a healthy, whole food diet.