Vitamin E

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 athletic performance.

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" !!!