Vitamin E is most commonly known as a fat-soluble antioxidant. It is often put in oils to extend the shelf life of the product and prevent the oil from becoming rancid. Sometimes, it is applied to meat in the grocery stores to prevent discoloration—very similar to vitamin C being applied to cut fruit to prevent discoloration. Vitamin E is also used in the cosmetics industry to preserve the skin.
Vitamin E is also similar to vitamin C in that it also plays a role in keeping the immune system healthy. Researchers are working hard to understand this role, but it appears that there are several mechanisms involved:
- Reduction of PGE2 production by the inhibition of COX-2 activity mediated through decreasing NO production
- Improvement of effective immune synapse formation in naive T cells and the initiation of T cell activation signals
- Modulation of Th1/Th2 balance. Higher natural killer cell activity and changes in dendritic function, such as lower IL-12 production and migration, were observed
In a review article published in Nutrients, the authors highlighted several studies that were done in people over age 60 years, and in smokers. The best results were in male smokers who experienced 69% lower incidence of pneumonia. This group smoked 5–19 cigarettes per day at baseline and exercised at leisure time. Also, elderly nursing home residents showed fewer upper respiratory infections and lower incidence of common cold.
More studies are needed to understand how vitamin E supplementation applies to school-aged children and healthy, well-nourished adults with optimal vitamin E levels. It is possible that these groups might not see a dramatic effect since a vitamin E deficiency would be less likely. Historically, it is usually people who have a vitamin deficiency that is then restored to normal who receive beneficial results from vitamin supplementation.
People who are at high risk for vitamin deficiencies are those who have chronic diarrhea for any reason, limited or poor diets, gastric bypass surgery, anorexia or poor appetite, and those who take medications long term. A vitamin E deficiency could potentially occur in people taking the drug orlistat for weight loss.
People who are exposed to other toxins, besides smoke, and those with specific infectious disease states should also be studied separately.
During the cold and flu season good nutrition and proper sleep is essential. Foods high in vitamin E are vegetable oils (especially wheat germ oil), nuts, kiwi, mango, spinach, broccoli, tomatoes, eggs, fish, and avocados.
Lee GY, Han SN. The Role of Vitamin E in Immunity. Nutrients. 2018;10(11):1614. Published 2018 Nov 1. doi:10.3390/nu10111614https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6266234/