A team of scientists from Oregon State University in the United States has managed to explain why lack of vitamin E may cause neurological damage to the developing fetus, and why it increases the risk of spontaneous miscarriage. Their study is published in the science journal Free Radical Biology and Medicine and here, the scientists underline how important it is for both women who are pregnant and those plan pregnancy to get enough vitamin E.
The researchers estimate that 96 percent of American women get too little vitamin E (the same is bound to be the case in other countries) because modern diets consist of highly refined and processed raw materials that are stripped of vitamin E and other nutrients. Our fear of fat has certainly also contributed to the reduced intake of vitamin E, which is a lipid-soluble nutrient that binds to fats in the diet.
The fetus is vulnerable during the first weeks
During the first weeks of pregnancy, the fetus is particularly vulnerable. It is during this first stage of pregnancy that vitamin E plays a vital role by protecting the nerve cells and brain cells of the fetus. Using zebra fish fetuses, the Oregon State University researchers managed to demonstrate that severe vitamin E deficiency harms the essential omega-3 fatty acids, namely DHA that contributes to the development of the brain and nervous system.
When cells lack DHA, they are forced to use glucose to prevent or reduce the damage. However, this may result in too little glucose for the energy turnover, which may have physiological and neurological consequences, as cells divide rapidly in the developing fetus. One of the problems may be that the brain does not develop properly, and this may cause the fetus to die at an early stage.
Zebra fish fetuses are highly useful for this type of study, as it only takes five days for a fetus to develop into a fish that can swim. The study revealed that severe vitamin E deficiency caused 70-80 percent of the fetuses to die.
Vitamin E protects the brain and nervous system against free radicals
According to Professor Maret Traber, vitamin E has many functions. One is to serve as an antioxidant that protects cells against oxidative stress caused by free radicals. Free radicals are a byproduct of cellular energy turnover, and the free radical load increases as a result of stress, ageing processes, poisoning, tobacco, and radiation.
Because the brain is virtually a large lump of fat with a very high content of polyunsaturated fatty acids such as omega-3 and omega-6, the brain is particularly vulnerable towards free radical damage. The brain of the human fetus is even more vulnerable, which is because the growing cells have increased metabolism. That in itself increases the production of free radicals.
During the fetal development, vitamin E has a crucial role and that is to protect the omega-3 fatty acid, DHA, which is found in all cell membranes, especially in brain cells. If free radicals attack DHA, chain reactions may happen involving glucose that steals energy from the cells and reduces the effects of other negatively affected antioxidants such as selenium and vitamin C. The many chain reactions caused by free radicals may eventually lead to cell death and miscarriage.
If the body’s vitamin E levels are too low, the brain of the fetus gets too little energy, and it is unable to utilize DHA, choline, and other important nutrients.
Zebra fish are similar to humans
Although it sounds peculiar, zebra fish are very similar to humans, and their organs are pretty much the same. Because zebra fish develop very quickly, they have become popular animals for research purposes. According to Traber, the neurological development of zebra fish is very similar to that of humans, and the study clearly shows what an important role vitamin E plays in the early stage of the fetal development.
All pregnant women and those planning a pregnancy should get enough vitamin E from an early stage
Researchers today have learned a lot more about vitamin E and its importance for pregnancy. A study from Bangladesh showed that pregnant women with low levels of vitamin E had double the risk of miscarriage as women with sufficient levels of this vitamin.
As mentioned, vitamin E deficiencies are also common in our part of the world, and it is particularly problematic that young women avoid dietary fat and healthy plant oils, nuts, kernels, and seeds because they are all good sources of vitamin E.
Traber recommends that women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant take a multivitamin with the recommended dose of vitamin E, folic acid, selenium, and other nutrients that are important for fetal development. Specific pregnancy supplements are even available on the market.
Metabolic syndrome (an early stage of type-2 diabetes) increases the need for vitamin E
Many people suffer from metabolic syndrome without knowing it. The condition is characterized by fluctuating blood sugar levels, insulin resistance, too much of the dangerous abdominal fat, an apple-shaped body, hypertension, and elevated blood lipids (cholesterol and triglycerides). Metabolic syndrome is an early stage of type-2 diabetes, and both conditions are known to cause problems with fertility and pregnancy.
People with metabolic syndrome have difficulty with utilizing dietary vitamin E. According to another study, Maret Traber has shown that people suffering from metabolic syndrome require around 30-50 percent more vitamin E than healthy people do. Women suffering from metabolic syndrome must pay careful attention to getting more vitamin E than the levels normally recommended for pregnancy.
Vitamin E sources
Vitamin E is lipid-soluble and is found in dietary fats, especially vegetable sources like plant oils, nuts, kernels, seeds, avocado, and whole-grain such as rye and oats. You also get vitamin E from cod liver oil, cod roe, eggs, and dairy products with a high fat content.
Did you know that vitamin E is destroyed by light and deep-freezing – and that oils must be stored in a dark and cool place?
OSU, Oregon State University. Vitamin E deficiency linked to embryo damage, death. 2017
Scott W Leonard et al. Metabolic syndrome increases dietary α-tocopherol requirements as assessed using urinary and plasma vitamin E catabolites: a double-blind, crossover clinical trial. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2017