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Atherosclerosis, Heart Disease

Vitamin E: A Good Insurance Policy?

 By Dr. Gifford Jones

Am I wasting money taking Vitamin E? I receive dozens of letters every year from readers asking this question. Is it the latest version of the old-fashioned snake-oil? Or are there bonefide medical reasons for spending money on E?

For years controversy has surrounded this vitamin. Some researchers claim it’s beneficial for heart disease, diabetes, skin ulcers, frostbite, phlebitis and improves athletic performance. But what should medical consumers really expect to get for their money in 1997?

Recent research now suggests that E plays a role in preventing heart disease. Finnish and U.S. investigators reported a 65 percent decreased risk of heart disease in people using vitamin E.

A British study of 2,000 men and women with partially clogged coronary arteries was carried out for 18 months. One group was given 400 to 800 IU of vitamin E. The other given dummy pills. Those who took vitamin E had a 77 percent decrease in nonfatal heart attack.

Even critics of vitamin E agree that it is beneficial to those suffering from intermittent claudication. This problem results when arterial rust (atherosclerosis) decreases the flow of oxygenated blood to the legs.

One of my patients, an elderly man in his 70’s with this condition, could only walk a few feet because of leg cramps. After a few months on vitamin E he was back playing tennis.

There’s also evidence that vitamin E decreases the risk of cataracts. For instance, the Harvard Nurses Health Study, showed that 400 IU of Vitamin E reduced the risk of cataracts by 56 percent.

And growing evidence indicates that vitamin E can help fight the epidemic of Type 2 diabetes. The type that’s best called, “lifestyle diabetes”, since 90 percent of cases are due to obesity.

Finnish researchers studied the blood levels of vitamin E in 944 males. Men with low blood levels of E had four times the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.

Dr. Linus Pauling, the two time Noble Prize winner, preached for years that high doses of Vitamin C helped prevent the common cold. Now Czech investigators report that nursing home residents taking 1,000 milligrams of C and 450 IU of E, had fewer viral infections. They were also less likely to succumb to influenza.

Does vitamin E help to slow the aging process? There’s no good evidence on this. But since it fights Type 2 diabetes and heart disease it’s reasonable to assume one might live longer.

There’s no sound evidence that E provides protection from cancer. But some scientists argue that E may protect DNA which controls normal cell division. If so E may decrease the risk of cells dividing in an uncontrolled way.

Nevertheless it’s logical to ask this question. How can vitamin E be beneficial for so many diverse diseases? Is this where the snake-oil hype comes into play telling you to hold onto your money?

The best answer to that question is, there’s Scottish blood in my veins, and I buy vitamin E. Why?

Years ago I discovered that the great racehorse Northern Dancer, Pope Pius XII and U.S astronauts have all been given this vitamin. My first reaction was, “If it’s good enough for them it’s good enough for me.”

But there are also several reasons why it makes sense to buy E and why it fights what appear to be unrelated diseases.

Vitamin E is an anticoagulant so there’s less chance of a blood clot forming in coronary arteries of either the heart, pancreas or other parts of the body.

Vitamin E also increases the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood. That’s good news for the heart and other organs.

Possibly E’s major benefit is its antioxidant properties. Every minute of the day our cells burn oxygen, the fuel that gives us energy.

During this oxidative process free radicals are generated. Scientists believe these particles ricochet wildly, damage cells and accelerate the aging process.

Vitamin E helps to gobble up these free radicals, possibly adding years to life. And since the formation of cataracts is part of the aging process it helps to fight this condition.

Many nutritionists say if you eat a healthy, balanced, diet you don’t vitamins. Maybe they’re right. But how many people eat a balanced diet? And how many vitamins, including E, are destroyed in the preparation of food?

I’ve talked to many of the world’s authorities on vitamin E. I’m left with this message. They’re all taking E. They realize the last word hasn’t been said about this vitamin. But until that time taking vitamin E is a good insurance policy in the maintenance of good health. Time will tell who is right.

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Dr. Gifford Jones  Bio
Dr. Gifford Jones Most recent columns

W. Gifford-Jones M.D is the pen name of Dr. Ken Walker graduate of The Harvard Medical School. He’s been a ship’s surgeon, hotel physician and family doctor and later trained in surgery at McGill in Montreal, University of Rochester N.Y. and Harvard. His medical column is published by 60 Canadian newspapers and several in the U.S. He is the author of seven books. Dr. Walker has a medical practice in Toronto. His Web site is: http://www.mydoctor.ca/gifford-jones

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