If you’re the type of person who makes smalltalk about antioxidants with your friends (and the fact that you’re reading this blog suggests that you might be) sooner or later someone will mention to you that there were studies showing that Vitamin E and vitamin A were harmful in high doses, that they exacerbated the effects of smoking and so on. This is used as an argument against taking large doses of these important antioxidants.
Unfortunately, there were some problems with these studies which we should keep in mind when evaluating them.
Most importantly, the vitamins used in these studies were artificial and not derived from natural sources. Natural vitamin E and vitamin A are chemically different than artificial vitamin E and vitamin A.
This best way to understand the difference between the natural and artificial forms is to think about baseball gloves. Imagine that you have a left-handed baseball glove and a right handed baseball glove. They both have the same number of fingers and a thumb. They’re connected the same way. But if you put a left handed glove on your right hand, you’d immediately know the difference.
Natural vitamin E is like a pile of right handed gloves only. Artificial vitamin E is like a mixture of right and left handed gloves. This issue – where natural nutrients are left handed or right handed only, while artificial nutrients are contain both left and right handed varieties – is a problem that comes up again and again with vitamin supplements.
The artificial mixes create a number of problems. If your body needs a right handed form of a nutrient and a high-dose supplement contain both left handed and right handed forms, the left handed versions tend to crowd out the right handed versions that already existed in your body. Also, in the same way that you can’t use your left hand to give a handshake to someone else’s right hand, ‘left’ and ‘right’ forms of a nutrient can have tremendously different effects in a biological system.
You can tell if your vitamin E is natural or artificial by looking on the bottle. Natural vitamin E will either say “derived from natural sources” or will have a small “D” somewhere in front of its name. Artificial vitamin E will have a DL in front of its name. These letters stand for ‘dextrorotary’ and ‘levorotary’ referring to the direction that these chemicals rotate polarized light. Amino acids, on the other hand, should all have an “L” in front of their names. (As an aside, Vitamin E actually refers to 16 molecules 4 d-tocopherols, 4 l-tocopherols, 4 d-Tocotrienols and 4 l- Tocotrienols. The labels alpha, beta, gamma and delta are used to distinguish these different forms. If a supplement advertises “Mixed tocopherols and Tocotrienols” this means that it has more than one good of the good varieties of Vitamin E. Synthetic Vitamin E is almost always dl-alpha tocopherol.)
Fortunately, you don’t have to worry with certain supplements. Some nutrients, like zinc or calcium, don’t have left or right handed forms so it doesn’t matter as much if they are natural or artificial as long as they’re not contaminated. It’s mainly the complex organic molecules that have to be natural.
And there are even some organic molecules where it’s hard to go wrong. While vitamin C technically has a left and right handed form, all vitamin C supplements are made from natural sugar (D-glucose.) Because of the way that they sugar is turned into vitamin C industrially via the Reichstein-Grussner process, the result is vitamin C which is identical to that found in foods. The vitamin C in food is typically not acidic, however. The technical term for vitamin C is ‘ascorbate.’ And if you’re going to mega-dose with vitamin C it’s good to find a mix of potassium ascorbate, magnesium ascorbate, calcium ascorbate and zinc ascorbate since each of these is non-acidic.
Note: The technical term for a molecule that is has an l-form or d-form is “Chiral.” The word for the L-form or D-form is “enantiomer.” For instance; “The d-enantiomer of vitamin E is good for you.” A molecule which cannot have a D-form or an L-form is “achiral.” Any object with a unique top, bottom, left and right side is chiral.