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Vitamin E is an Orchestra

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Vitamin E works like an action hero in your body

Vitamin E works like an action hero in your body. It fights free radicals, cleans toxins from your system and even battles aging. But the belief that alpha-tocopherol alone is vitamin E is one of the great outdated health myths of our time, brought about by misinterpretation of early experiments.

Alpha-tocopherol is not vitamin E, anymore than thiamine is vitamin B. Vitamin E is a family (four tocopherols and four tocotrienols) and all members of the family work together. Each member of the complex has its own unique function and no one family member can fully substitute for another.

But even though your vitamin E supplement contains natural mixed tocopherols, you're still missing half of the complex. These are the tocotrienols. They are very closely related molecules, but the tocotrienols' unique chemical structures allow them to move around more freely in cell membranes. As a result, they can rush in to intercept incoming free radicals more efficiently. Their greater mobility also allows them to get "recharged" (by vitamin C or coenzyme Q10) when they fall down in the free radical fight.

The bottom line on this "first in, first out" effect is that tocotrienols are more potent antioxidants than tocopherols. The proportions of the various tocopherol supplements must be balanced. It's now known that taking too much alpha-tocopherol alone depletes your body of other E-complex vitamins and counteracts their unique effects. This is again similar to B vitamins, where unbalanced supplementation with just part of the complex can create an artificial deficiency in other Bs.

Super Heros Super Power

Ever since the 60s researchers have looked for a substance that allows the body to release any excess water being held in the space between its cells (the extracellular fluid). Retaining too much extracellular fluid raises blood pressure, as well as the risk of congestive heart failure, cardiac fibrosis and cirrhosis of the liver.

The mystery factor was finally identified in 1996. It's a substance called LLU-alpha which is made in the body from another member of the vitamin E family gamma-tocopherol.

Two groups of scientists now report that other parts of the complex vitamin, namely delta-tocopherol, as well as all four tocotrienols, can cause breast cancer cells to commit "cellular suicide" in a test tube. Alpha-tocopherol alone does not have this power.

In a double-blind placebo-controlled trial, high-dose tocotrienol complex actually reversed the thickening of arteries leading into the brain.

Onward and Upward

We've only begun to explore the properties of the "missing" E-complex vitamins. Other effects include supporting healthy cholesterol balance, protecting neurons from cell death and the extension of life expectancy in flatworms.

Make sure that your vitamin E arsenal is complete: all of the eight molecules that make up vitamin E, including alpha-, beta-, gamma- and delta-tocopherol. Ditto for tocotrienols, especially delta-tocotrienol. Balance is crucial. While the ideal proportions of the E-complex members required for optimal health have not yet been worked out, the rule of thumb is that for every IU of alpha-tocopherol, you need an equal number of milligrams of other tocopherols and tocotrienols combined. (If you're taking 400 IU of alpha-tocopherol, you should also be taking about 400 milligrams of the other tocopherols and tocotrienols as well.)

These guidelines are supported by scientists like Dr Lester Packer, head of the Packer Lab, studying antioxidants at the University of California-Berkeley; Dr Andreas Papas, senior scientific advisor to the Cancer Prevention Group at the Harvard School of Public Health; and Dr Roy Walford, a world authority on the anti-aging effects of caloric restriction and professor emeritus of pathology at University of California-Los Angeles.

Vitamin E is an orchestra, not a soloist. You need vitamin E and that means eight molecules, not one.

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