Tocopherols vs. Tocotrienols: What's the Difference?

Vitamin E is an essential nutrient that acts as a powerful antioxidant in the body. It can protect cell membranes, improve skin health and is even believed to be effective in aiding the body in its fight against a variety of degenerative diseases.

While most people receive an adequate amount of Vitamin E from a diet rich in foods like pressed oils, nuts, fruits and leafy green vegetables, there are some situations where a Vitamin E supplement can be helpful. While rare, Vitamin E deficiency is associated with impaired fertility in both sexes, muscle disease and the degeneration of the central nervous system and peripheral nerves.

If you’re concerned about your daily intake of Vitamin E, or you have a preexisting condition that impairs your body’s absorption of the vitamin, read on to learn about the two common types of Vitamin E—tocopherols and tocotrienols—and how they work similarly but separately to support growth, development and wellness.

First, a look at the similarities

There are two key forms of Vitamin E: tocopherol and tocotrienol. While these two compounds are very similar in terms of molecular makeup, there are some slight differences that affect their ability to function within the body.

What unites both tocopherol and tocotrienol is their ability to act as a first line of defense to protect cells from oxidation. They both donate electrons to free radicals, protecting cell lipids and preventing premature aging of cells. Although much of the research regarding Vitamin E is dedicated to the tocopherol family, tocotrienols are gaining interest due to their perceived ability to address oxidative stress and the concerns that come with it.

Ultimately, tocopherol and tocotrienol are both grouped into the Vitamin E family, and their roles are relatively similar in offering protective benefits as antioxidants.

Differences in molecular structure

While there are similarities between tocopherols and tocotrienols, they function differently due to their unique molecular structure.

Both of these Vitamin E groups have a shape resembling a tadpole with a head that contains the vitamin’s antioxidant features, as well as a tail that’s known as a sidechain. The tail region of the molecule is where these two groups differ the most, with tocotrienol having an unsaturated side chain with double bonds, compared to tocopherol’s unsaturated side chain without double bonds.

Essentially, the double bonds in tocotrienol’s tail region make the molecule shorter, giving it enhanced flexibility to move 40 to 60 times faster in cell membranes when compared to tocopherol. It follows, then, that tocotrienols are generally thought to work more efficiently as antioxidants. Tissues like the liver and brain, which have saturated, fatty layers, receive benefits more readily from tocotrienols than tocopherols.

Research is ongoing, but there are very promising results when it comes to using tocotrienols as a complementary treatment for cardiovascular diseases and cancers.

Organic vs. “synthetic” origins

If you’re interested in taking a Vitamin E supplement and your doctor has given you approval, keep in mind that there are major differences between organic and synthetic forms of the supplement. When you read the label on a natural, or organic form of Vitamin E, the vitamin listed should either be d-alpha tocopherol, d-alpha tocopheryl acetate or d-alpha tocopheryl succinate. If it’s a synthetic Vitamin E, the vitamin will be designated with a dl- prefix.

Since alpha-tocopherol is the most biologically active form of Vitamin E, and you can only find it in organic supplements, if you have a choice between an organic or synthetic option, always choose organic. Alpha-tocopherol only contains one isomer, which means it can be absorbed through the body far more efficiently than synthetic options, which have 8 isomers.

Tocotrienols are not readily available in food sources like tocopherol is. Palm and rice bran oils have traditionally been supplemental sources of tocotrienol, but they do contain alpha-tocopherol, which inhibits the benefits of tocotrienol. Pure, natural tocotrienol supplements can be purchased as capsules or pills.

Again, the organic option for tocotrienol is the smarter choice, since they only contain the tocotrienol and none of the other isomers.

Always consult with a physician

If you’re interested in discovering whether a Vitamin E supplement could benefit your health, be sure to talk with your healthcare provider before making any decisions. Only a doctor who understands your specific health concerns, as well as your family history, can make a recommendation regarding medications and supplements. If a Vitamin E supplement is suggested, choose an all-natural, organic option for optimal results.

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