You’re likely aware of the antioxidant properties of vitamin E. But did you know that vitamin E actually has two different subcategories?
Tocopherols and tocotrienols are two forms of vitamin E, and while both exhibit antioxidant activity, the effects of tocotrienols are much different than tocopherols.
So what is this vitamin E compound, and does it have any side effects you should be aware of?
Tocotrienols are a part of the vitamin E family.
Vitamin E, a fat soluble vitamin, has two types of chemical analogs: tocotrienols and tocopherols.
What are analogs, you ask?
Analogs are two chemical compounds that are almost identical in structure, with one component that’s different.
Difference Between Tocopherols and Tocotrienols
Without getting too sciency — the main difference between tocopherols and tocotrienols is that while tocopherols are saturated (more hydrogen), tocotrienols are unsaturated (less hydrogens).
This difference can show up as double bonds or side chains, but we won’t get into that here.
Both of these analogs come in four different forms: alpha, beta, gamma, and delta[*].
Each form of vitamin E has its own unique functions in your body. Small and subtle differences in structure can translate into profound changes in the activity in your body.
Tocopherols are much more abundant in our food and supplement supply, while tocotrienols may hold some essential functions that your body is missing out on.
While the structure and function of these varying forms of vitamin E may differ, the common thread among all of them is their antioxidant activity.
Antioxidants perform a wide range of functions in your body, but most importantly — they combat the behavior of reactive oxygen species (ROS). ROS (also called free radicals) can cause a significant amount of damage when left unchecked.
As a natural part of living, your body goes through the process of oxidation (caused by ROS). Antioxidants hang around to make sure that this process doesn’t get out of control, leading to oxidative stress[*].
Every antioxidant compound in your body performs its own special role. For vitamin E, its claim to fame is protecting the integrity of your cell membranes (the outside barrier of the cell).
This essential role helps keep your cells strong and healthy, and combats their potential destruction by ROS[*].
Research on Tocotrienols
There’s a good amount of research that’s already been done on tocotrienols, uncovering the potential health benefits of this form of vitamin E.
Below we’ll dive deeper into some of the specifics of what’s already been revealed about this vitamin E compound. Then we’ll and discuss how you can get more tocotrienols from natural sources.
Neurodegenerative diseases are marked by the loss of structure and function of your brain cells. Several factors can contribute to neurodegenerative disease, but inflammation, toxicity, and oxidation are chief among them.
Tocotrienols not only act as an antioxidant, saving your brain cells from oxidative damage, but they may also have an effect on toxic build-up in your brain.
One potential neurotoxin in particular, glutamate, has been indicated as a culprit for damaging brain cells in both Alzheimers and Parkinson’s disease.
In an in vitro study, tocotrienols antioxidant capacity was put to the test. Researchers assessed the effect of tocotrienols against neurons (brain cells) that had been damaged by the amino acid glutamate.
The study found that the vitamin E compound had potent antioxidant activity, relieving the brain cells of potential oxidative damage[*].
Other studies have also uncovered tocotrienols anti-toxicity capacity, with the ability to protect brain cells from not only glutamate, but other toxins as well.
This protection against toxins is not fully understood yet but was identified as antioxidant-independent. In other words, it was not only the antioxidant capacity of tocotrienol that had an effect, but some other unknown mechanism as well[*].
#2 Heart Disease
Heart disease is associated with several different risk factors and pre-existing conditions in your body. Inflammation, oxidative stress, blood pressure, and blood lipid profiles, are just a few of the factors that come into play in the progression of cardiovascular conditions.
Tocotrienols have wide-ranging benefits when it comes to the health of your heart.
Research shows that administration of tocotrienols can lower markers for inflammation like C-reactive protein and AGEs (advanced glycation end-products). They can also positively affect cholesterol levels — reducing total cholesterol and decreasing LDL (low-density lipoprotein).
And if that wasn’t enough — they can slow and even repress the progression of atherosclerotic plaques[*]. These effects are likely due to the antioxidant capacity of tocotrienols.
However, it’s not the antioxidant capacity alone that benefits your heart health. In a less well-understood mechanism, tocotrienols also seem to have a preconditioning effect on your heart.
Through this preconditioning effect, they’re able to reduce the damage that would occur when your heart tissue is deprived of oxygen. Ischemia (restriction of blood supply to tissues), can cause severe damage to your cardiovascular tissue[*].
Tocotrienols have unique and potent anticancer activity.
Cancer is a disease where abnormal cells in your body divide and grow uncontrollably. This rapid and unorganized division results in cells spreading into surrounding tissues, often resulting in tumors.
The key to controlling and preventing cancer, therefore, is to inhibit the growth and spread of these cells.
When researchers tried to treat cancer cells with the tocopherol form of vitamin E, they came up short. There was reason to believe that vitamin E would be beneficial for fighting cancer, but the studies didn’t support this hypothesis.
When they switched gears and decided to test out tocotrienols effect on cancer, fascinating evidence emerged.
In vitro and animal research shows that tocotrienols have a range of anti-cancer effects starting at the initial stages of the cell cycle.
In the process of cell division, a DNA molecule needs to be replicated. Tocotrienols not only inhibit the replication of DNA, but they inhibit the stage before the DNA is even created.
What’s more, tocotrienols also have the ability to induce something called apoptosis — programmed cell death. In other words, even if the cancer cell makes it to full maturation, the tocotrienol can still wipe it out[*].
In addition to tocotrienols direct effect on cancer cell growth and division, it also has an inhibitory effect on the growth of new blood vessels. Without blood vessels to supply nutrients to the cells, they can’t grow and reproduce, halting the progression of tumors[*].
It should be noted that delta-tocotrienol had a more significant effect on treating cancer cells than alpha or gamma-tocotrienol.
This evidence may pave the way for more human studies in the future.
#4 Bone Health
Your bones are constantly breaking down and rebuilding themselves. As with most structures in your body, this is a natural process that occurs throughout your lifetime. Issues arise, however, when the breaking down of your bones outpaces the rebuilding.
Several conditions can lead to the loss of bone health, for example; cigarette smoking, menopause, high stress, and long term corticosteroid treatment.
Osteoporosis is a disease in which the density of your bones is reduced, creating more fragile and porous bones. This loss of density often results in fractured bones[*].
Nutrition is an essential component to bone health; without the proper nutrients your bones simply can’t grow and maintain strength.
Tocotrienols may be a key component of bone health, with the capacity to not only prevent breakdown but also assist in rebuilding.
One factor that can lead to bone loss is inflammation caused by oxidation in your body.
As a potent antioxidant, tocotrienols have been found in animal studies to inhibit the inflammatory chemicals caused by oxidation in your body. By inhibiting the breakdown caused by oxidation, tocotrienols allow your bones to grow and maintain their strength[*].
Tocotrienols not only inhibit breakdown, but they also enhance your pathways for bone growth. They do this by inhibiting the enzyme HMG-CoA reductase, whose job is to assist in the breakdown of your bones.
Statin drugs act similarly to tocotrienols, inhibiting the same compound as it also has the ability to lower cholesterol production.
When HMG-CoA is inhibited, it allows the pathway for growth to remain turned on, resulting in stronger, healthier bones[*].
#5 Hair And Skin
It’s not uncommon to pick up a skin cream or hair conditioner and see that it’s been fortified with vitamin E. That’s because vitamin E is a fantastic antioxidant, and its benefits work both orally and topically.
One of the proposed mechanisms for hair loss is increased oxidative stress on the scalp, accompanied by lower levels of antioxidants.
In one study, researchers divided a group of participants with hair loss into two cohorts; one receiving a tocotrienol supplement, and the other a placebo.
The researchers monitored the volunteers for hair growth at four months, and then again at eight months. While the weight of the hair didn’t increase for either group, the tocotrienol group had a significant increase in the number of hairs by the end of the trial.
The researchers concluded that the tocotrienols were able to combat the oxidative stress on the scalp, resulting in enhanced hair growth[*].
Tocotrienols may also protect your skin against UV light induced oxidative stress. UV light is present in sunlight and can result in an oxidative reaction on your skin that could possibly lead to skin cancer.
In a mouse model, when the mice received either tocotrienols or a placebo topically, the tocotrienol group showed greater UV protection. [*]
The CDC (center for disease control) reported in 2017 that over 100 million people in the United States currently have either diabetes or prediabetes. This staggering number earns diabetes the title of the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S.[*].
Diabetes is characterized by your body’s inability to handle glucose (sugar) due to dysfunction with the hormone insulin. When you eat food, your pancreas releases insulin to help shuttle glucose out of your bloodstream and into your cells. Once in your cells, the glucose can be used for fuel, or stored as an energy source for later.
Issues with insulin can be due to either your pancreas not secreting enough insulin, or your cells inability to react to insulin’s messages.
Insulin dysfunction leads to your blood glucose remaining too high. Over time, high blood glucose can cause a wide range of issues in your body. Some conditions associated with diabetes include; heart disease, stroke, eye problems, nerve damage, kidney disease, and dental disease[*].
While most research has only been done on animals at this point, there’s compelling evidence that tocotrienols may have significant benefits for diabetic patients.
One of the consequences of high blood glucose is a condition called diabetic nephropathy (DN), also known as diabetic kidney disease. In one study, researchers administered tocotrienols to a group of diabetic rats with DN to assess the effect on blood glucose and kidney disease.
Compared to the placebo group, the rats given tocotrienols showed lowered blood glucose, as well as improvements in kidney function. Researchers concluded that it was both the blood sugar-regulating and antioxidant activity of tocotrienol that resulted in these effects[*].
But how does tocotrienol help lower blood sugar?
Research shows that it may work in a similar way to diabetic drugs. By enhancing your cells’ sensitivity to insulin, tocotrienols may allow more blood glucose into your cells for use as fuel or as a storage form of energy.
A mice model revealed that tocotrienols ability to enhance insulin sensitivity in cells allowed the mice to use glucose more efficiently throughout their entire body[*].
#7 Liver Disease (NAFLD)
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is a condition where your liver stores excess fat.
There are two types of NAFLD: simple fatty liver and NASH (nonalcoholic steatohepatitis). While simple fatty liver is relatively harmless, NASH is characterized by increased inflammation (hepatitis) and may progress into more serious conditions like cirrhosis or liver cancer[*].
Obesity, insulin resistance, and oxidative stress are some of the leading causes identified with NAFLD. Along with these conditions, there’s a positive correlation of vitamin E deficiency among sufferers of NAFLD.
In one study, researchers aimed to identify if the tocotrienol form of vitamin E would benefit those with NAFLD. They divided a group of 89 volunteers with NAFLD into two cohorts, giving one group a tocotrienol supplement, and the other a placebo.
The study went on for a year, with the tocotrienol group supplementing twice daily with 200 mg.
At the end of the year, the tocotrienols group experienced significantly more healing of liver tissue than the placebo group. What’s more, the rate of remission from NAFLD was also higher for those taking the tocotrienols.
Although the exact mechanism is uncertain, the antioxidant activity of tocotrienol likely hda something to do with its liver healing effects[*].
Natural vitamin E can be found in a variety of foods.
While the majority of vitamin E is found in the form of tocopherols, tocotrienols are a little harder to come by. Some food sources of tocotrienols are :
- Palm oil
- Rice bran oil
- Wheat germ
- Grapefruit seed oil
- Olive oil
- Buckthorn berry
- Flaxseed oil
- Poppyseed oil
- Sunflower oil
The most concentrated sources, however, are the oils from rice bran and palm oil[*].
Are Tocotrienols Keto?
Depending on the food source that you get your tocotrienols from, they may or may not be keto.
For instance, if you’re eating oats in hopes of getting you tocotrienols, you may find yourself kicked right out of ketosis. The same goes for sources like barley and wheat germ.
However, most food sources of tocotrienols are higher in fat (like the various oils listed above).
Moreover, due to the low concentration of tocotrienols in most foods, it would likely be more effective to get this type of vitamin E in supplement form. But always make sure to read your supplement labels, as most vitamin E supplements currently on the shelf favor the alpha-tocopherol version.
Also, the FDA (food and drug administration) doesn’t monitor supplements, so make sure you’re buying from a brand you trust.
While most of the current research comes from animal models, there’s good reason to expect more clinical trials in the future to validate what’s already understood about tocotrienols.
From the evidence we have, tocotrienol supplementation may have a significant impact on a variety of chronic diseases. From halting the growth of breast cancer cells to inhibiting cholesterol production, this vitamin E compound has wide-ranging benefits.
Most studies report little to no adverse effects, but always check with your doctor before starting a new supplement regimen.