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Take it easy with vitamin E, advises Harvard Women’s Health Watch

BOSTON, MA — Vitamin E is one of the most widely used supplements, taken regularly by nearly a quarter of adults ages 55 and over. But recent research suggests that it may not do as much good in preventing cancer and other diseases as once thought, and it might actually cause harm.

According to the Harvard Women’s Health Watch, this research confirms a trend in expert opinion. Until two years ago, for example, students in Harvard Medical School’s “Preventive Medicine and Nutrition” course were assigned to argue the wisdom of recommending vitamin E to patients. “But we dropped vitamin E as a debate topic,” says Harvard Women’s Health Watch advisory board member Dr. Helen Delichatsios, because recent data overwhelmingly show that vitamin E is not useful.

How did vitamin E fall from grace? Basically, although observational studies had linked the vitamin with decreased risk of heart disease and cancer, these expected benefits didn’t always pan out in placebo-controlled trials, which put vitamin E to the test against a dummy pill. In addition, a recently published analysis of clinical trials involving nearly 136,000 people who took vitamin E for one reason or another found that the overall risk of dying was greater in those who took higher doses, compared to those who took lower doses.

While we await the results of some ongoing trials that might clarify the role of lower doses of vitamin’s E role in preventing disease, Dr. Celeste Robb-Nicholson, editor in chief of Harvard Women’s Health Watch, says, “Try to get most of your vitamin E from food. There’s strong evidence that diets containing large amounts of vitamin E-rich foods are good for you. If you’re uncertain about how much you’re getting from your diet, consider taking a supplement containing no more than 150–200 IU per day. At that level, taking vitamin E still falls under the rubric of ‘shouldn’t hurt and might help.’”

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Harvard Health Publications publishes four monthly newsletters--Harvard Health Letter, Harvard Women's Health Watch, Harvard Men's Health Watch, and Harvard Heart Letter--as well as more than 50 special health reports and books drawing on the expertise of the 8,000 faculty physicians at Harvard Medical School and its world-famous affiliated hospitals.