Vitamins may be the most convoluted health story of the century. First we discover that without them, we die, slowly and painfully from deficiency diseases like scurvy and beriberi. Then we figure that, if a little is good, more is even better. And folks go haywire, popping more pills than Jimi Hendrix on a bad day. Before long we find out that you really can get too much of a good thing, as people succumb to the side effects of vitamin overdose-like liver damage from too much vitamin D. And now, nearly 100 years after we first heard about vitamins, we’re still searching for middle ground.

We know for certain that in the proper amounts vitamins and their sidekick minerals can dramatically improve our health. What we’re finally realizing is that vitamins and minerals alone are not the sole makings for good nutrition. We also need substances known as phytochemicals, such as the flavonoids in red wine that fight heart disease and the carotenoids like lycopene in tomatoes that fight prostate cancer. We need fiber, which keeps us regular, lowers cholesterol, and cuts our risk for colorectal cancer. And we likely need countless other compounds that scientists don’t even know about yet. The only way to get all that is from food.

The question then is: should we take supplements at all? The answer is yes, according to Katherine Tucker, Ph.D., associate professor of nutrition at Tufts University in Boston. For two reasons: First, we’re imperfect. Try though we may, most of us still don’t eat well enough to get the Daily Values of all the nutrients we need all of the time, especially as we get older, says Dr. Tucker. Second, there are a few nutrients that can provide us extra protection from conditions like heart disease if we take them in doses higher than what we can get from food. Today, most respected nutritionists and experts in the field recommend loading up on fruits and vegetables and taking a multivitamin/mineral supplement to pick up any slack. Obviously, for the best protection, you should take a multi that has enough of the nutrients you need.

E-normous Benefits

If you supplement nothing else, supplement vitamin E, advises Dr. Tucker. You’ve heard by now that vitamin E is an antioxidant. But you likely have no idea just how good this free-radical-fighting nutrient really is. Even researchers have just begun to scratch the surface.

For a quick review, free radicals are simply oxygen molecules just like the ones you’re breathing in right now, only they’ve been damaged-meaning that they lost an electron-by sunlight, pollution, or even your own metabolism. To repair themselves, they steal electrons from your body’s healthy molecules, which not only damage your cells but also create more free radicals. Antioxidants stop this molecular chain of destruction by stepping in and offering their own electrons instead.

Antioxidant action may be most helpful inside your arteries. Scientists have found that it’s free-radical damage to your unhealthy low-density lipoprotein cholesterol that makes the stuff stick to your artery walls and eventually clogs them up. Vitamin E is so effective in the fight against hardening of the arteries that when British researchers gave more than 2,000 people with partially blocked coronary arteries either 400 or 800 international units (IU) of vitamin E a day for 18 months, these coronary candidates (of either dose) lowered their risk for nonfatal heart attack by 75 percent.

“The benefits of vitamin E against heart disease are pretty well established,” says Dr. Ichiro Kawachi of the Harvard School of Public Health. The Daily Value for vitamin E is only 30 IU, a standard that leading health experts consider far below what you need for disease protection. The problem is that it’s practically impossible to get higher, protective amounts of vitamin E from food alone since it’s mostly found in fatty oils. You certainly don’t want to drink the eight cups of corn oil that it would take to get 400 IU, so Dr. Kawachi recommends taking a supplement of 200 to 400 IU a day instead.

As a bonus, it may make you better in bed. Vitamin E prevents testosterone from breaking down, which keeps your libido up. And it may keep your memory sharp to boot. Though researchers have used only astronomical doses so far (a lot more than anyone should take without a doctor’s supervision), vitamin E was able to delay the progression of severe dementia in a group of 341 people with moderately severe Alzheimer’s disease, according to a study from Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago.

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