Vitamin E is well-known as a powerful antioxidant, offering cells throughout the body protection against free radical damage and oxidative stress. As an antioxidant, Vitamin E may support a healthy immune system, protect against cancer and even enhance skin health—to name just a few of its studied applications.
Researchers believe that Vitamin E is also a vital nutrient for the body’s neurological system, promoting nerve health and safeguarding against symptoms of peripheral neuropathy. While research is on-going, early studies have shown important links between Vitamin E and peripheral neuropathy and Ataxia, two diseases that impact a person’s health and overall quality of life.
Here’s what you need to know about how Vitamin E may play a role in better nerve health—and what its antioxidative benefits may do for sufferers of specific degenerative nerve conditions.
The importance of tocopherol and tocotrienol for nerve health
Vitamin E is an essential nutrient for nerve function. While there are eight distinct Vitamin E isomers, the most common and beneficial for the body is tocopherol. When people refer to “Vitamin E” as a whole, what they’re typically referring to is the tocopherol form of the vitamin.
Tocopherol plays an important role when it comes to nerve health. It protects the integrity of cell membranes by inhibiting lipid peroxidation and supporting neurological structure and function. They are, however, only one half of the Vitamin E equation.
Tocotrienols are also believed to play a role in regulating neurological function. Tocotrienols are a group of four isomers that are more flexible in terms of movement throughout the body. A 2004 study found that tocotrienols possess powerful antioxidant properties, and that alpha-tocotrienol may be more potent than alpha-tocopherol in protecting neuronal cells.
Unfortunately, tocotrienols aren’t readily available in dietary sources, so supplementing is necessary for those who need to boost tocotrienol levels. Always speak with a doctor to determine whether supplementing may be an option to promote better nerve health.
The link between Vitamin E and peripheral neuropathy
Research shows that Vitamin E deficiency often goes hand-in-hand with symptoms of peripheral neuropathy. This knowledge isn’t brand-new. A groundbreaking 1987 study investigated whether Vitamin E deficiency had a link to peripheral neuropathy by measuring the alpha-tocopherol content in a selected study group.
Tissue from five participants with Vitamin E deficiencies were measured against a control group of 34 patients with neurologic diseases without the deficiency. The Vitamin E-deficient tissue had a significantly reduced tocopherol content. According to the study:
“Levels of tocopherol in adipose tissue were significantly correlated (P less than 0.001) with levels in peripheral nerves. The low tocopherol content of the nerves preceded histologic degeneration in three Vitamin E-deficient patients, suggesting that the nerve injury resulted from the low nerve tocopherol content.”
In short, the study suggests a direct link between tocopherol (Vitamin E) levels and a decline in nerve health. The study goes on to suggest that, for patients with neurologic damage, maintaining adequate Vitamin E consumption may improve symptoms.
Ataxia with Vitamin E deficiency
Peripheral neuropathy isn’t the only degenerative nerve condition to suggest Vitamin E plays a role in nerve health.
Ataxia is a serious degenerative disease that affects the nervous system. Symptoms include slurred speech, stumbling and general incoordination. Ataxia is caused by damage to the brain, specifically the cerebellum, which coordinates all movement.
In rare cases, Vitamin E deficiency is associated with Ataxia. This is usually an inherited neurodegenerative disorder with symptoms of traditional Ataxia, along with those of peripheral neuropathy. The link between this serious nerve issue and Vitamin E deficiency is a specific example of the nutrient’s role in the neurological system as a whole.
Can Vitamin E correct nerve degeneration?
Studies support the belief that sufficient Vitamin E levels in the body can work to preserve nerve damage and degeneration. As Vitamin E handles free radicals throughout the body’s tissues, it eliminates cell damage, helping them resist harmful oxidation.
Scientists have already begun to experiment with this theory. Clinical trials have included creating a strain of mice to mimic the effects of Ataxia. After creating a control group, scientists completely removed Vitamin E from their diet. Researchers saw that the mice began developing Ataxia. Upon reintroducing Vitamin E into their diet, the animals began to show no sign of nerve damage. Even small amounts of the nutrient resulted in marked improvement. According to clinical researchers, “this therapy almost completely corrects the abnormalities in a mouse model of human neurodegenerative disease.”
Researchers believe that treating patients with Vitamin E deficiency and getting them the nutrients they need may stop the progression of nerve degeneration, but not necessarily correct it entirely. Research is ongoing; however, it’s abundantly clear that Vitamin E plays a vital role in nerve health—in both preventive or restorative capacities.