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Vitamin E increases cancer risk?

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Andrew Whitfield-Cook ● 2 min read

In 2014, Volkan Sayin and other Swedish researchers claimed that vitamin E and N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC) supplements could increase lung cancer in smokers and others at high risk, showing that mice who were given supplements died twice as fast as untreated mice.[1] Like most media coverage, they sensationalise flawed research which is irrelevant to the proper practice of nutritional medicine.[2,3] 

What the media neglect to say is that the vitamin E used was the synthetic form, dl-alpha tocopheryl, not even the "natural" form, denoted d-alpha tocopherol.

More than this, the natural form of vitamin E includes not one but eight isomers. Tocotrienols (four isomers) and tocopherols (four isomers) which have vastly different effects on cells in contrast to the synthetic dl-alpha tocopherol and its derivatives.

The most important failure of this and other negative studies[4,5] is that sick subjects whether animal or human were usually administered low-dose, single antioxidants and/or synthetic vitamin E without adequate coverage of the other antioxidants.

To the rescue of sensible use of antioxidants, Russell Blaylock, a Neurosurgeon and Nutritionist who has treated cancer patients says, "Numerous studies have shown that certain antioxidants, such as curcumin, quercetin, resveratrol, and ellagic acid are powerful suppressors of cancer growth and invasion.”[6] So the work by Sayin and others need to heed the wisdom of those who actually know how antioxidants work as a team not as singular entities.

 "Numerous studies have shown that certain antioxidants, such as curcumin, quercetin, resveratrol, and ellagic acid are powerful suppressors of cancer growth and invasion.” - Russell Blaylock

Practice point

Practitioners need to be aware of what the term “vitamin E” means and of its original history of extraction (not synthesis) from wheat germ.

Historically, wheat germ extracts would have included all the natural isomers of vitamin E,[7] which includes the alpha, beta, gamma and delta isomers of both tocotrienols and tocopherols. Note also that they are not measured in International Units (IU) but milligrams (mg). Therapeutic doses appear to be above 200mg.

Vitamin E is not just one of the tocopherols and certainly not one of the synthetic forms used in many negative trials purporting to use vitamin E.


  1. Sayin VI,  Ibrahim MX, Larsson E, et al. Antioxidants accelerate lung cancer progression in mice. Sci Transl Med 2014;6(221):221ra15. [Abstract]
  2. Yong E. Antioxidants speed up lung cancer. The Scientist Magazine 2014. Viewed 8 September 2015, http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/39022/title/Antiox...
  3. Begley S. Antioxidants including vitamin E can promote lung cancer: study. Reuters 2014. Viewed 8 September 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/01/29/us-antioxidants-idUSBREA0S1QV2...
  4. The Heart Outcomes Prevention Evaluation Study Investigators. Vitamin E supplementation and cardiovascular events in high-risk patients. New Engl J Med 2000;342(3):154-160. [Full text]
  5. Heinonen OP, Albanes D, Virtamo J, et al. Prostate cancer and supplementation with a-tocopherol and b-carotene: incidence and mortality in a controlled trial. J Natl Cancer Inst 1998;90(6):440-446. [Full text]
  6. Hubbard SB. Antioxidant-bashing study is “nonsense,” says Top Doc. News Max Health 2014. Viewed 8 September 2015, http://www.newsmaxhealth.com/Headline/cancer-antioxidants-cancer-risk-fl...
  7. Watson EM. Clinical experiences with wheat germ oil (vitamin E). Can Med Assoc J 1936 Feb:134-140. [PDF]


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Andrew Whitfield-Cook

Andrew is a registered nurse of 32 years, with more than 20 years experience in the natural medicine industry. Andrew is curious about, well, everything! He delights in interviewing specialist clinicians and researchers about their work and how the practical use of nutritional and herbal medicines, and physical therapies, may improve patient health.
His interests include gastroenterology, immunology and oncology. Andrew has a deep responsibility to impart the efficacious use plus the relevant safety aspects of integrative medicine to natural medicine practitioners.