Breakthrough Study Shows Natural Vitamin E Supplement of Choice, Especially for Pregnant Women


May 27, 1998

A new study suggests that pregnant women should ask their physicians for a prenatal supplement that contains "natural" vitamin E for optimal health insurance. The human body prefers natural vitamin E, according to this new research, which shows that the human placenta can deliver natural vitamin E to the fetus in much greater concentration (3 to 1) than the synthetic supplement.

Natural and synthetic vitamin E are not the same. Previous research has shown natural vitamin E is better retained and more biologically active than synthetic. To identify the kind of vitamin E in a supplement, it is necessary to read the ingredients listed on the label. Natural vitamin E begins with "d," as in "d-alpha-tocopherol." The synthetic version begins with "dl."

In the study, published in the March 1998 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (Am J Clin Nutr 1998;67;459-64), researchers gave 15 mothers different amounts of vitamin E in a capsule that contained both the natural and synthetic forms of the nutrient five days before giving birth. The dosage given ranged from 15 to 300 milligrams. At delivery, the researchers found nearly twice the concentration of the natural vitamin E in the mothers' own blood, and nearly 3 2 times the amount of natural vitamin E in their placental cords than the synthetic vitamin E, regardless of the amount given. "Basically, we found that the human placenta can deliver natural vitamin E to the fetus significantly more efficiently than synthetic vitamin E," says Robert V. Acuff, the study's lead author. Dr. Acuff is Professor and Director at the Eastman Center for Nutrition Research, College of Medicine, East Tennessee State University. In this most recent study, the ratio of 2 to 1 in the mother's blood, in favor of natural, is much higher than the accepted ratio of 1.36 based on animal research. The study showed an even greater preference for natural vitamin E in the placenta cord blood (3 to 1), and offers compelling evidence supporting the potency and health benefits of natural vitamin E.

A previous study of men and nonpregnant women, also published by Dr. Acuff in the same journal in 1994, showed that natural vitamin E remained in organ tissues much longer than synthetic vitamin E. Premature babies are usually low in vitamin E. Neonatologists often put these babies on lung machines and respirators to help them breathe. Sometimes, too much oxygen can cause oxidative stress, which is why oxygen is sometimes referred to as a "dangerous friend." Oxygen can produce free radical damage when it's administered through respirators. Studies have shown that vitamin E helps premature babies fight off oxidative stress damage to the heart, lungs and eyes, and defend against destruction of red blood cells that can lead to anemia. "We know that vitamin E can help red blood cells survive in premature infants," Dr. Acuff said. "So if we know that the natural type of vitamin E is best absorbed by the mother and transported to the fetus, then we should try to provide as much protection as possible if we have even an inkling that it might be what is best for the fetus. "If I were in neonatology, I'd be very concerned about putting premature babies in respirators or an oxygen tent without antioxidant protection," he said.

"Prenatal vitamins are being made with the wrong vitamin E," Dr. Acuff said, referring to the majority of prenatal supplements made with synthetic vitamin E. "Pregnant women, or women thinking about getting pregnant, should ask their physicians to prescribe a prenatal supplement with the natural form of vitamin E. It might be harder to find, and the physician might not understand the difference, but based on our study, it's well worth the extra effort for the well-being of their babies," he said.

Dr. Acuff also is examining the implications of natural vitamin E for fetal alcohol syndrome, in which babies suffer from oxidative stress. Vitamin E could play an important antioxidant role in helping these babies. Plans for follow-up studies are underway.

Most dietary sources of vitamin E are rich in oils and, therefore, are high in fat and calories. To get the vitamin E contained in a typical 400 IU supplement capsule, a person would have to eat one pound of sunflower seeds, more than five pounds of wheat germ or two quarts of corn oil. This is equivalent to as much as 8,000 Calories a day. Because such high caloric intake is generally undesirable, supplementation offers a healthier means of elevating vitamin E intake.