Vitamin E and athletic performance
Some people say that vitamin E is E for "everything" or E for "excellence" and
this seems almost true. Vitamin E is not only absolutely essential for the
health of every living cell in the body; in fact, a long list of health benefits
and healing properties is attributed to this vitamin, which includes protection
from heart attack, stroke, coronary heart disease and cellular oxidation, prevention
of blood clotting and arteriosclerosis, reduction of oxidation in artery walls
and inflammatory processes. Generally strengthening the immune system, it is
even regarded as an anti-aging elixir and also exhibits healing properties
in many different diseases such as varicose veins, phlebitis, kidney disease,
damaged livers, diabetics, high cholesterol, skin problems of many kinds etc.
Vitamin E's value is however not restricted to therapeutic use but has nowadays
also attracted considerable attention as a sports supplement.
Surprisingly, many authorities seem not to support supplementation with vitamin
E (or any vitamin for that matter), although there is no doubt that vitamin
E is vital for good health and no evidence of vitamin E toxicity has been reported
even in people who have taken high, prolonged doses. Many backward scientists
still seem to be of the opinion that the amount of vitamin E as well as other
vitamins obtained through a balanced diet is sufficient. According to these
scientists, this applies even to athletes, whose increased energy intake should
provide the additional vitamins and minerals necessary for optimum performance,
if a wide variety of foods is included in their diet. The common, obviously
quite conservative medical viewpoint seems to be that there is no benefit or
necessity in supplementation with any vitamin, unless there is an acute deficiency
of that particular vitamin present in the athlete. According to different sources
there seems to be little scientific evidence to support the use of vitamin
supplements to improve athletic performance. In an article on "Nutritional
Ergogenic Aids and Athletic Performance", which appeared in the periodical "Nutrition
Today" in February 1989, the author Melvin H. Williams says: "A variety
of studies have been conducted over the past 40 years involving vitamin supplementation
and physical performance, particularly with vitamins C, E and B complex, and,
with a few exceptions, have not revealed any beneficial effects."
Although nobody disputes that the key to athletic nutrition is still a balanced
intake of natural wholesome foods that contain a proper blend of essential
nutrients, the practice of almost all performance oriented athletes nowadays
shows that they in addition to a good diet rely heavily on a variety of supplements
for optimum athletic performance, and do so for good and valid reasons. Among
these supplements, vitamin supplements have a prominent place, since almost
all of today's food is depleted in many ways.
Among the most interesting and
beneficial vitamin supplements for any athlete, who trains seriously, is without
doubt vitamin E. Although the benefits of this vitamin may not easily be observed
in the short term, since the major efforts of vitamin E are at cellular level,
its importance for the performance oriented athlete can nevertheless not be
emphasized enough: vitamin E is vital for good health and has a great deal
to do with many important functions of the body and thus contributes in various
ways to athletic performance, especially optimum recuperation. To promote these
effects, however, ingestion of much higher doses than the RDA suggests, are
required: the PDA for vitamin E ranges between 200 IU and 1000 IU; some high
level athletes however even take considerably more than that without experiencing
any undesirable side effects.
To athletes, vitamin E is primarily important because of its role as a powerful
antioxidant. It is generally well known that air pollution, environmental toxins,
smoking, sun exposure etc. are significant sources of so called free radicals.
By far the most free radicals, however, are generated as by-products of normal
metabolism (breathing and energy production). These free radicals, highly reactive,
renegade molecules are generated, when oxygen, which is delivered via the blood
to the cells in form of O2, escapes the controlled metabolic process as negatively
charged, highly reactive single oxygen ions. In order to become stable these
negatively charged single oxygen ions strive to combine with positively charged
hydrogen ions, which they attempt to usurp from the fatty acids in the cell
membranes. This permanent ongoing attack causes changes to the cells, weakens
and damages them, ruptures their membranes and leaves them open to further
injury including DNA damage.
The special relevance of all this to athletes is obvious: during vigorous
exercise athletes increase their rate of respiration (metabolism) considerably:
their body takes and uses oxygen up to 10 to 20 times as much as during normal
day-to-day activity, which means that proportionally more free radicals with
the consequently increased potential for cell damage are generated in their
systems. In the quest to pair with positive hydrogen ions, these free radicals
attack the important polyunsaturated fatty acids within the cells' membranes,
the cells' DNA and cellular tissues, like the mitochondria, endoplasmic reticulum,
various energy-making and repair enzymes, and muscle tissue. The result is
cellular damage; particularly dangerous is hereby damage to the DNA, which
can lead to mutations that cause cancer.
In regard to athletic performance, damage to the cell membranes is of major
concern, since it renders the athlete's cells unable to adapt normally to exercise
induced processes. For adequate recuperation and growth, the athletes' cell
membranes, must be in good health for attracting proper nutrients into the
cell interior and expelling waste matters; a damaged cell membrane may not
permit the passage of nutrients or the discharge of waste. While impaired nutrient
intake can lead to a cell's starvation and death, the inability to discharge
wastes can on the other hand poison the cell. All this makes it quite clear,
how free radical accumulation through exhaustive exercise can result in a reduction
in exercise induced processes in the cell such as repair and growth, decreasing
the athlete's ability to recover from training.
Fortunately the body is not left defenseless against this onslaught of damaging
free radicals, but has a defense system to keep free radical damage at bay
with vitamin E being its most prominent weapon. Vitamin E, which is contained
in the fats and lipids in the blood, in fat deposits and in healthy cell membranes,
counteracts the above described negative development by acting as cell membrane
stabilizor and as a free radical scavenger.
It prevents DNA and other cellular tissue damage by quenching free radicals,
particularly single oxygen and polyunsaturated fatty acid radicals, hereby
synergistically cooperating with other antioxidants, especially vit. A, C and
Selenium. Vitamin E protects cell membranes, by sacrificing itself, donating
the hydrogen ion, required by the attacking free radicals.
In this process of inactivating free radicals, vitamin E is used up and must
be sufficiently replenished in order to be able to further continuously exert
its protective properties, but as long as there is sufficient supply of vitamin
E along with other antioxidants, free radical damage is not a problem. Many
processes, which take place in the body, including recuperation and growth
of muscle cells, are dependent on healthy cell membranes, and since their health
is to such a major degree dependent on the ample presence of vitamin E, it
is quite obvious, what an important role the sufficient supply of this vitamin
plays in optimum athletic recovery.
Apart from the above explained role of vitamin E as the most prominent protective
antioxidant, vitamin E also contributes to optimum recovery in another respect.
Vitamin E's capacity to keep the blood thin enough to circulate well through
the cardio-vascular system also contributes to the optimum supply of all tissues
with nutrients and facilitates the elimination and transport of waste products
via the blood. Blood circulation is additionally improved through vitamin E's
effect of expanding blood vessels and encouraging the development of new capillaries.
The improved blood circulation throughout the athlete's body increases oxygen
supply to all tissues and facilitates the minerals' and amino acids' repair
work and cell building.
The described blood thinning and vasodilating effects of vitamin E do however
not only promote optimum athletic recovery and recuperation after training
sessions, but in sports such as bodybuilding they also contribute to faster
recovery between sets, which results in a faster training pace with higher
exercise intensity and correspondingly more benefit.
In this context it is also interesting that vitamin E does not only increase
oxygen supply to all tissues by improving the blood circulation, but also serves
as an oxygen conservator. This appears to be of great advantage especially
for the endurance athlete: vitamin E enables muscles and organs to do the same
amount of work, while using less oxygen. This is accomplished by increasing
the muscles' efficiency in oxygen uptake and by protecting the muscle cells
against harmful substances produced, when blood sugar is converted into energy
(see above); in short: with sufficient vitamin E supply the athlete's muscles
are able to perform more efficiently. This includes the heart, whose utilization
of oxygen is also improved by adequate vitamin E, keeping it from being impaired
even when arteries are narrowed; in fact vitamin E actually even strengthens
the heart muscles themselves and with enough vitamin E around, the heart does
not have to work as hard to convey blood to the cells. All these effects should
logically result in improved aerobic endurance performance.
A well designed German study on high altitude climbers has actually recently
found that vitamin E increases the anaerobic threshold, improves VO2max. (Ability
to use oxygen) and aerobic performance in high altitudes. There were also indications
of less cell membrane damage (lipid peroxidation) and lower levels of lactic
acid in the muscles of the climbers, who had been supplied with 400 IU vitamin
E per day, as compared to other climbers who didn't take vitamin E.
This leads up to another major benefit of vitamin E supplementation for increased
athletic performance: vitamin E apparently reduces muscle soreness and damage
from exercise and also reduces lactic acid formation in the muscles and surrounding
tissues: daily vitamin E supplementation of 800 IU was actually found to help
reduce inflammation of damaged muscle tissue after exhaustive exercise.
During exhaustive, muscle damaging exercise, the athlete's immune system usually
reacts with an inflammatory response similar to what happens during an infection:
it uses free radicals and enzymes, controlled by chemicals called cytokines,
to break down and clear away damaged muscles cells so that they can be replaced
with new tissue. With vitamin E supplementation, the secretion of the two cytokines,
which work together in the inflammatory process, has been found to be greatly
reduced, which leads to the conclusion that athletes supplemented with vitamin
E may have less muscle damage following strenuous exercise. This once again
translates into faster recuperation with the ultimate consequence of improved
Last not least, there is yet another important point to mention in connection
with vitamin E's above mentioned effect of strengthening the immune system.
Destroying free radicals is not the only way in which vitamin E accomplishes
this: in combination with Selenium, it also bolsters the production of antibodies.
After supplementation with only 200 IU of vitamin E daily for four month, a
test group showed a 65% stronger response of T-cells to infection with tuberculosis
or diphtheria as compared to an un-supplemented group.
Another group showed a six-fold increase in antibodies to hepatitis B after
they were given the hepatitis B vaccine.
Since vitamin E obviously helps to mount a stronger response to infections,
promoting the production of higher amounts of antibodies, the athlete is better
able to fight off infections, which would otherwise cause sickness, lost training
time and eventually result in decreased athletic performance.
Concluding it can be said that vitamin E supplementation may have some performance
enhancing effects, particularly in aerobic endurance sports. It is also definitely
involved in the maintenance of the athlete's general health, helping to fight
off infections by reinforcing the immune system. Since vitamin E is used up
in the process of exerting its protective properties, regular, adequate supplementation
with vitamin E is vital and provides the athlete with a powerful and inexpensive
insurance policy against infections as well as internal and external toxicity.
Vitamin E's major value in regard to athletic performance is however clearly
related to improving athletic recovery in the various ways, which have been
explained above. After all, recovery is the single most important factor in
achieving athletic training and competition goals and thus the key to superior
performance. So it has certainly proven to be true:
E means E for "excellence" !!!