Healthy Eating Tips

Why RDs Call Vitamin E an Anti-Inflammatory Superhero (and How To Eat More of It)

Photo: Stocksy/Rachel Dewis
If vitamin E were a song, it would be Adam Sandler’s 'The Chanukah Song.' (Just hear me out.) “Instead of one night of presents… you get eight crazy nights!” A bit of a stretch, sure, but all of this is to say that this unsung hero is not a single compound. Instead, it is a family of eight related antioxidants called tocopherols and tocotrienols, and they all provide serious benefits to our bodies.

“Vitamin E is an essential nutrient—this means that our bodies don’t produce it, and we therefore have to get it from the foods we eat,” says Kaleigh McMordie, MCN, RDN, LD. “Vitamin E acts as an important antioxidant in the body, and plays a key role in the health of one's brain, eyes, heart, and immune system, as well as in prevention of some chronic diseases.” Let's jump into the many vitamin E benefits, as well as the top vitamin E foods to stock up on.

6 top vitamin E benefits, according to a registered dietitian

1. Vitamin E helps combat oxidative stress and inflammation

One of the biggest benefits of vitamin E is its antioxidant ability. “Free radicals in the body cause damage over time, which is known as oxidative stress," says McMordie. This form of stress can lead to chronic inflammation. "Oxidative stress has been linked to a number of chronic diseases and conditions, including cancer, arthritis, and cognitive aging. Vitamin E helps protect the body against oxidative stress by preventing the formation of new free radicals and by neutralizing existing free radicals that would otherwise cause damage.” McMordie goes on to note that this anti-inflammatory activity could potentially play a role in reducing risk of certain cancers, though research is mixed on whether there is a benefit or even potential harm when it comes to vitamin E supplementation and cancer.

2. Vitamin E is beneficial for eye health

Just like in the rest of the body, free radicals can damage the eyes over time. McMordie explains that the antioxidant activity of vitamin E may play a role in preventing macular degeneration and cataracts, two of the most common age-related eye diseases. “Vitamin E can help reduce oxidative stress on the retina and can even aid in repairing the retina, cornea, and uvea,” McMordie says. She highlights studies that have shown a reduced risk of cataracts with greater dietary intake of vitamin E, as well as potential prevention of macular degeneration. (It’s worth noting, however, that more research in this area is needed.)

3. Vitamin E can strengthen the immune function, especially in older adults

“Immune cells are highly dependent on the structure and integrity of the cell membrane, which tend to decline as people age,” says McMordie. “As an antioxidant, vitamin E can help prevent lipid peroxidation and resulting damage to immune cell membranes, among other functions, to prevent age-associated impairment of the immune system.”

4. Vitamin E may help improve certain inflammatory conditions

McMordie highlights a recent meta-analysis that found that vitamin E supplementation reduced ALT and AST, which are markers of liver inflammation, in patients with NAFLD. “It was also found to improve other parameters related to the disease, such as LDL cholesterol, fasting blood glucose and serum leptin and she tells us that vitamin E has proven effective at reducing markers of oxidative stress and pelvic pain in women with endometriosis, a pelvic inflammatory disease.

5. Vitamin E is linked to staving off cognitive decline

Cognitive diseases such as Alzheimer's are thought to be related to oxidative stress causing neuronal cell death. Including enough antioxidants, like vitamin E, in the diet is thought to help protect against this. “High plasma levels of vitamin E have been associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer's in older adults, however, research is mixed on whether or not supplementation with high doses of vitamin E offers a benefit in preventing or slowing Alzheimer’s,” says McMordie.

6. Vitamin E may boost heart health

Oxidation of low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and the resulting inflammation plays a role in coronary heart disease. “Together, multiple forms of vitamin E have shown an inhibitory effect on lipid peroxidation, reduction in arterial clotting and production of vessel-relaxing nitric oxide, suggesting that vitamin E could potentially reduce your risk for coronary heart disease,” says McMordie. (FYI: She notes this with a caveat that some trials have shown either no benefit of vitamin E supplementation, or even negative outcomes, such as higher risk of hemorrhagic stroke.)

Clearly, many of the benefits associated with vitamin E appear to be related to reaching optimal levels of vitamin E by eating vitamin E-rich foods—not supplementing with high doses. McMordie says that getting enough vitamin E from food will, in most cases, ensure that you’re getting the benefits while reducing risks of negative outcomes.

But how much vitamin E do we actually need from food?

“Vitamin E is definitely a Goldilocks nutrient, meaning that too little and too much can both cause problems,” says Ryan Andrews, MS, MA, RD, RYT, CSCS, principal nutritionist and adviser for Precision Nutrition, the world’s largest online nutrition certification company. “Too little may contribute to problems with the eyes, skin, muscles, nervous system, and immunity, while too much may lead to prooxidant effects [cell damage], blood clotting problems, interactions with certain medications, and may increase one's risk for hemorrhage.”

Andrews highlights that 15 mg/day (22.4 IU) is an amount that will meet the needs of most adults. Slightly more or slightly less is likely fine, as the body is quite adaptable with vitamin E. “Unfortunately, data indicates that most adults in the U.S. are getting around seven mg/day. And smokers may be at a higher risk of deficiency.”

Bottom line? Diving into some vitamin E-rich foods is always a good idea. Andrews notes that the digestive tract requires fat to absorb vitamin E (whether from food or supplements) because it is a fat-soluble vitamin—so to reap the many vitamin E benefits outlined above, be sure to include a source of fat with these foods. (Luckily, many of the richest sources of vitamin E naturally contain fat.)

The vitamin E foods to stock up on, according to McMordie and Andrews are:

  • Wheat germ oil: 1 Tbsp has 20.3 mg
  • Sunflower seeds: 1 ounce has 7.4 mg
  • Almonds: 1 ounce has 6.8 mg
  • Hazelnuts: 1 ounce has 4 mg
  • Dried apricots: 1/2 cup has 3 mg
  • Peanut butter: 2 Tbsp has 2.9 mg
  • Butternut Squash: 1 cup has 2.6 mg
  • Avocado: 1/2 an avocado has 2.1 mg
  • Peanuts: 1 ounce has 2 mg
  • Rainbow trout: 3 ounces has 2 mg
  • Spinach: 1/2 cup has 2 mg
  • Swiss Chard: 1/2 cup has 2 mg
  • Shrimp: 3 ounces has 1.9 mg
  • Eggs: 2 large eggs has 1.9 mg
  • Cooked spinach: 1/2 cup has 1.9 mg
  • Olive oil: 1 Tbsp has 1.9 mg
  • Cooked broccoli: 1/2 cup has 1.2 mg
  • Kiwi: 1 fruit has 1.1 mg

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