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Is Vitamin E Good for the Heart?

WebMD Health News

Dec. 3, 1999 (Atlanta) -- Those looking to establish some "heart healthy" habits for the New Year might consider increasing their intake of vitamin E -- just don't look to do it through food. While numerous studies have suggested that vitamin E has cardioprotective effects, you'd have to overload on seeds, nuts, and oils to get those benefits.

"If you ate enough of [those] your diet would be incredibly high in fat," says Sheah Rarback, RD, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Miami Medical School, and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.

The answer, of course, is supplementation. And by now, many people are making it a habit to down a gelatin capsule of vitamin E every day. The question is, is it a good idea for everyone to do so? Rarback says Americans should get the official word in a few months, when the National Academy of Sciences unveils daily recommended intake figures for antioxidants, including vitamin E. "For now, if someone wants to take vitamin E supplements, it has low toxicity and a high potential for benefit," she says. But first, she adds, check with your doctor.

By now, most doctors have probably seen what Rarback is calling exciting and strong research concerning vitamin E's benefits for the cardiovascular system. As an antioxidant, vitamin E is able to detoxify naturally forming chemicals in the body known as "free radicals." These chemicals are a problem because they can attach to -- and thereby change the structure of -- almost anything they come in contact with. That would include such sensitive items as DNA.

Researchers believe heart disease occurs because of the free radical that results when LDL -- commonly known as "bad" cholesterol -- combines with oxygen. The oxidized LDL causes damage to the lining of the arteries, which eventually results in the formation of lesions or "plaques." Laboratory studies have shown vitamin E prevents this damage. Oxidized LDL also causes an immune reaction in the body, the end product of which are "foam cells." These are the fatty streaks doctors have identified as a predictor of cardiovascular disease.

The problem is, clinical studies have yet to answer whether everyone can benefit from taking extra vitamin E. A recent article on the subject in the journal Archives of Family Medicine illustrates the problem. While epidemiologists have found a relationship between taking vitamin E and not having heart problems, no one is really sure if it's the vitamin E that's wholly responsible for the effect. It could be that the study subjects also ate a healthy, balanced diet or exercised regularly.

One clinical trial -- the Cambridge Heart Antioxidant Study (CHAOS) -- found a nearly 50% reduction in heart attacks in those who took daily vitamin E. But the researchers can't say whether taking the supplement will mean a longer life -- though it might be beneficial for those with existing coronary artery disease.

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