Are vitamin E pills and other antioxidant supplements safe?

Dwight L. McKee, MD
Hematology & Oncology
There is still a great deal to learn about vitamin E and other antioxidants and their role in protecting health. But there is good reason to believe that taking large doses of a single antioxidant, whether vitamin E or any other, is the wrong strategy and could even backfire. That’s especially true if you eat a typical American diet, that is, one that's low in fruit, vegetables and other nutritious foods. Here’s why: Antioxidants are team players. They are most effective and confer the greatest health benefits when they’re surrounded by a network of other antioxidants.

Consider vitamin E, for example. As an antioxidant, vitamin E fights dangerous free radicals, which damage healthy cells and increase the risk for cancer, heart disease and many other conditions. But after vitamin E neutralizes a free radical, it actually turns into the very thing it just destroyed -- a potentially destructive free radical. If you’re eating a well-balanced diet, that’s not a problem, since you're no doubt well-stocked with other antioxidants that will act on vitamin E and restore its health-promoting powers. But if you subsist on a lot of junky processed foods, then taking an antioxidant supplement is unlikely to do much good and might even cause some harm. 
When taken under a doctor's supervision and at safe doses, vitamin E pills and other antioxidant supplements may be helpful. Antioxidants are nutrients that can help protect your body against the effects of free radicals, which are volatile molecules that may cause damage to DNA or even cell death. Some antioxidant nutrients include vitamins A, C and E, selenium, beta-carotene, lutein and lycopene. Supplements of these nutrients may be especially helpful for people who can't absorb enough of these nutrients from the foods they eat.

Taken in too high doses or in combination with certain drugs, however, supplements of these nutrients may be risky. For example, vitamin E may increase the risk of excessive bleeding, especially if you take blood thinners. It may also interact with other medications, making them less effective. High doses of vitamin E during pregnancy may increase risks of birth defects. Consult your doctor before taking supplements of vitamin E or any dietary supplement.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.