As “beat up on vitamins” month continues, one of the current scares centers around the risk of prostate cancer and the use of vitamin E. Several years ago concern was raised over vitamin E increasing the risk of heart attacks, so it’s nice to see that “they” have shifted their focus. So, does vitamin E cause prostate cancer?
To answer, this, we first need some clarification. When most people talk about Vit E (physicians included) most are referring to the alpha tocopherol version of Vit E. However, Vit E actually has 8 forms (4 tocopherols and 4 tocotrienols). Alpha tocopherol is what is present in almost all low quality Vit E supplements, and yet the gamma form of tocopherol is more common in nature and is a more potent antioxidant.
The reason why the alpha form came to be used in all the supplements is that this was the compound that was found to allow rats to give live births (hence “tocos” meaning childbirth and “phero” meaning to bring). If rats were having more babies, alpha tocopherol must be…an aphrodisiac!!
Hence the dominate use of alpha tocopheral was born… Ironically, giving higher levels of the alpha form lowers levels of the gamma form in the bloodstream, making this the likely mechanism by which we saw the small increases in heart attacks in large Vit E supplementation trials. Physicians who are unaware of how Vit E works have mistakenly told their patients to stop taking Vit E. This is strongly incorrect. The other forms of Vit E are potent antioxidants, and in other studies have shown that the other forms of Vit E are very protective of the brain in the case of seizures and migraines as well as heart disease and cancer.
In this particular study, researchers found a small (17%) increased risk of prostate cancer with the use of vitamin E. However, there is quite a bit of sound research suggesting that gamma tocopherol protects against prostate cancer. So, with the supplementation of alpha tocopherol lowering blood levels of gamma tocopherol, this relationship between “vitamin E” supplementation and prostate cancer may actually make sense.
What the article should conclude is that vitamin E as alpha tocopherol, lowers blood levels of gamma tocopherol and lowers the protection to the prostate, increasing prostate cancer risk. Ok–so maybe that’ s a bit long for a title, but you get the point.
The bottom line is to not avoid Vit E, but this is definitely a vitamin worth spending the extra money on and make sure you’re buying a mixed tocopherol product.