New Research on an E-ssential Vitamin for Your Brain
By Brenna Thompson, MS, RD, LD
February 10, 2017
In the land of science and nutrition, we are always learning and re-learning just how important different nutrients and foods are in the prevention and treatment of disease. Last November, we interviewed Dr. Mary Newport on Dishing Up Nutrition to discuss how coconut oil has helped preserve some of her husband’s cognitive function despite his early onset Alzheimer’s disease (listen to the podcast). More recently, new research shows that vitamin E is also important in the preservation of cognitive abilities in people with Alzheimer’s dementia.
The Journal of the American Medical Association published a study in January 2014 by Dr. Maurice Dysken and his colleagues from the Minneapolis VA Health Care System. The researchers found that out of 561 participants, those given a daily vitamin E supplementation (2000 IU) showed a slower decline in functional abilities compared to the placebo group. While participants’ memory and cognitive abilities were not changed, they were able to perform activities of daily living (such as bathing and dressing) more independently for approximately six months longer. This may not seem like much to those of us who have never cared for a loved one with the disease; however, the fact that a simple vitamin supplement helped decrease the hours of assistance needed by a caregiver is huge. While vitamin E is not a cure, the study sheds light on its importance in the disease process. (Dr. Dysken will be our guest on Dishing Up Nutrition on April 19 to talk about the study on vitamin E and its effect on those with Alzheimer’s)
What is vitamin E and why is it so important?
Vitamin E is one of four fat-soluble vitamins, which means you need to eat fat in order for your body to absorb it. Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that protects your cells from free radical damage because it becomes part of the fatty layer around cells. Studies have shown that vitamin E is especially important for the prevention of LDL cholesterol oxidation. What does this mean for your brain? Well, LDL cholesterol helps build and repair the blood vessels and tissues in the brain, but cholesterol that has been oxidized can damage these same tissues, leading to dementia or other neurological disorders. It is fairly difficult to diagnose vitamin E deficiency since there are almost no symptoms associated with it. However, deficiencies have been reported. For example, in the 1930s when people began eating refined grains there was a surge in vitamin E deficiency, which caused an increase in infertility rates. When wheat is stripped of its outer protective bran layer, the small amounts of vitamin E found in the inner portion quickly become rancid and no longer provide men and women with vitamin E, which supports fertility. As people continued to eat more and more processed grains in the form of bread, crackers, pasta, and cereal, they unknowingly put themselves at risk for vitamin E deficiency, infertility and dementia. (Murray) It’s amazing how one nutrient can affect both fertility and memory.
Get the vitamin E your body needs—food first, supplement second
Studies have shown that the vitamin E in food is absorbed better than supplemental form. Let’s take a look at four foods that naturally contain this important nutrient and how you can fit them into your life.
- Sunflower seeds are at the top of the list. One ounce contains 15 IU of vitamin E. Unfortunately, the sunflower seeds on most salad bars are probably roasted in cottonseed oil which is heavily refined and damages our cells, leading to a slow metabolism and memory impairment. Instead of eating roasted sunflower seeds, buy raw or dry roasted sunflower seeds. Sprinkle them on cottage cheese as part of an afternoon snack.
- Coming in second are almonds. It’s easy to bring almonds along as part of a snack with a small fruit and a hard-boiled egg, or enjoy them sliced in our Crunchy Broccoli Salad recipe. And why not try incorporating almond oil into your life? Just one tablespoon of cold-pressed almond oil contains 8 IU of vitamin E. Replace the olive oil in homemade vinaigrette with almond oil, or drizzle it over roasted green beans. One caution: Almond oil is very sensitive to heat, so do not cook with it. This will cause the fats and vitamin E in it to become damaged. As you now know, damaged fats lead to damaged cells.
- Swiss chard is third on the list. One cup, or about one handful, provides approximately 5 IU of vitamin E. If you have never bought or eaten Swiss chard before, it comes in several different varieties which you can tell by the color of the stems. Chard is closely related to spinach, another source of vitamin E. Rip up the leaves and sauté them in butter with garlic for a quick side dish, or replace the spinach in our Greek Style Lamb Stew with chard for a simple twist on one of my favorite winter recipes.
- Last but not least, avocados. Sure you can make guacamole with them, but for a quick breakfast, mash one-half of an avocado onto two Wasa® crackers and then top with four ounces of nitrate-free deli meat. It’s even better in the summer with a few slices of fresh tomato. Just one-half an avocado provides 3 IU of vitamin E. Not only will you receive a nice dose of vitamin E, but the monounsaturated fats from avocado will leave you feeling full and satisfied all morning long.
Unless you eat these foods on a regular basis, there is a good chance you may not get the recommended daily allowance. If you choose to supplement, we recommend 400 IU of mixed tocopherols. Higher doses may be helpful for people with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. It is also important to supplement with 500-1000mg of vitamin C since it protects the vitamin E from becoming oxidized. To learn more about the importance of nutrition and its effect on Alzheimer’s listen to our Dishing Up Nutrition podcast: The Latest on Alzheimer’s and Vitamin E.