The brain-protecting nutrient you may not be getting enough of

Abstract human brainby Marc S. Micozzi, M.D., Ph. D.

In 2014, scientists who work for a leading vitamin supplier published an article calling for the U.S. to double its Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for vitamin E to 30 mg (20.1 IU) per day. But is that really enough, given the importance of vitamin E? Not to mention all the recent evidence linking low vitamin E to dementia? I’ll answer that question in a moment. But first, we have to back up and talk about vitamin E’s role in the body…

You probably know about the importance of omega-3 fatty acids. They’re the basic building blocks of good health. They help support your brain, your mood, your heart, and even your immune system. Indeed, they’re essential, by definition!

But when you don’t get enough vitamin E, essential fatty acids can’t do their job. In fact, when you eat the wild-caught salmon…and religiously take your fish oil supplements…you also need their vitamin E to protect the essential fatty acids in your cell membranes from oxidation. (Oxidation causes the cell membranes to degrade and become “clogged.” Oxidation also makes the membranes unable to absorb key biomolecules necessary for cellular metabolism.)

Unfortunately, most people in the U.S. don’t get enough vitamin E…

But don’t jump straight to supplementing. You should always strive to get most of your nutrition by following a healthy, balanced, and diverse diet. You find vitamin E specifically in healthy oils, nuts, seeds, and green leafy vegetables. As well as in eggs, fish and meats. Unbalanced diets—which exclude these foods or entire food categories—cannot provide adequate nutrition. And you’ll most certainly fall short when it comes to vitamin E.

Of course, even with a perfectly balanced diet, the nutrient content of the foods you eat has declined over the last 100+ years. This decline happened because of changes in agricultural practices and priorities. So getting enough vitamin E through diet alone is getting harder than ever in today’s world.

Vitamin E is actually a family of eight different molecules. These molecules fall into two groups: tocopherols and tocotrienols. They run the Greek gamut from alpha to gamma to epsilon, etc. The two most common forms of vitamin E are gamma-tocopherol and alpha-tocopherol. The latter is the most biologically active form.

You find alpha-tocopherol most abundantly in safflower oil, sunflower oil, and wheat germ. In fact, wheat germ oil has the highest amount of alpha-tocopherol per serving. Just one tablespoon contains 20.3 mg (13.6 IU) of vitamin E. So when you make whole wheat pancakes, try adding a few tablespoons of wheat germ. Stepping down from there, sunflower oil has 5.6 mg (3.8 IU) of alpha-tocopherol per serving.

Nuts and seeds also have the potent combination of essential fatty acids and vitamin E. Indeed, it’s a truly potent nutritional duo. The oils help the body absorb vitamin E from foods. In turn, vitamin E helps the essential fatty acids do their job in the cell membranes. As an antioxidant, vitamin E also protects the fatty acids from oxidation.

Almonds contain 6.8 mg (4.6 IU) in each 28 gram serving. Hazelnuts contain 4.3 mg (2.0 IU) per 8 gram serving. And even peanuts contain 2.2 mg (1.4 IU) per 28 gram serving. So, they’re all relatively plentiful sources of vitamin E.

Now, the RDA for vitamin E is just 15 mg (10 IU) a day for adults. So it’s easy to get your RDA from just a handful of these healthy snacks.

But you don’t want to stop at just RDA levels! They’re just not designed to help you achieve optimal health. They are designed to prevent outright 19th century nutritional deficiency diseases. Like scurvy, rickets, and beri beri.

But for decades, we’ve known that these RDA levels are NOT enough to promote optimal health. In fact, 12 years ago in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers presented compelling evidence to the medical community that RDAs are inadequate in case after case.

And the evidence continues to build that the optimal levels of vitamins are well above the lagging, outdated RDAs. Including when it comes to vitamin E.

But, as a citizen and taxpayer, you will want to reassure yourself that at least the government’s long, laborious, but ultimately limited RDA efforts have prevented outright vitamin deficiency, right?


Disturbing evidence continues to show large segments of the population (up to 80 percent for some) are actually insufficient and outright deficient in key vitamins like A, B, and D. Even by the government’s own shoddy standards.

Levels of these vitamins need to be higher, sometimes much higher, to promote optimal health. That’s why I generally recommend a daily, high-quality B complex.   And a daily vitamin D supplement of 5,000 IU.

Back to vitamin E. Is upping the RDA to 30 mg (20 IU), as the researchers proposed, really enough?

To support optimal health, you need more. You should strive to eat plenty of plant oils, wheat germ, nuts, and seeds throughout the week. This good habit can get you close to 30 mg (20 IU) per day, if you’re conscientious. But for optimal health, I also recommend taking a supplement that contains 50 IU of vitamin E. This dose is a safe place to start. Just be sure to look for a supplement that contains all eight forms of vitamin E.

And if you want to treat a specific disease, like Alzheimer’s disease, you will likely need a higher daily dose of vitamin E. One recent study showed men and women who took 2,000 IU of vitamin E helped reverse Alzheimer’s dementia. (Ironically, the drug given in the same study was ineffective. And it even counteracted the benefits of vitamin E.) But in that case, as with the management of any medical condition, a qualified doctor should closely supervise your regimen regarding benefits and possible side effects of any high-dose nutrient.


Marc S. Micozzi, M.D., Ph.D. was the founding editor-in-chief of the first US journal in Complementary and Alternative Medicine and organized and edited the first US textbook in the field, Fundamentals of Complementary & Integrative Medicine in 1996. He has published nearly 300 articles in medical literature and is the author or editor of over 25 books. Dr. Micozzi served as Senior Investigator of cancer prevention at the National Cancer Institute, where he published the original research on diet, nutrition, and chronic disease. He continued this line of research as the Associate Director of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology and Director of the National Museum of Health and Medicine.

In recent years, Dr. Micozzi has served as the Founding Director of the Policy Institute for Integrative Medicine in Bethesda, MD, working to educate policy makers, the health professions, and the general public about the opportunities for integrative medicine and the need for clean, clear science within our modern medical establishment. Dr. Micozzi writes a monthly newsletter called Insiders’ Cures as well as a free e-letter called The Daily Dispatch


“DSM leads charge to raise global vitamin E intake recommendations,” NutraIngredients ( 2/6/2014

“Vitamins for Chronic Disease Prevention in Adults: Scientific Review,” JAMA 2002; 287(23): 3,116-3,126 “Vitamins for Chronic Disease Prevention in Adults: Clinical Applications,” JAMA 2002; 287(23): 3,127-3,129