I was interested in learning more about vitamin E supplementation to address oxidative stress.  Dr. Tan wrote a nice summary of Vitamin E in his book “The Truth about Vitamin E”.  Vitamin E is a family of eight separate but related molecules, and that includes four tocopherols (delta, gamma, alpha and beta) and four tocotrienols (also delta, gamma, alpha and beta).  For many years, the nutrition world focused on tocopherols because it was discovered first.  Only in the last decade did tocotrienols start to shine in its delta and gamma molecules and it was found that combined with a healthy lifestyle, it can lower lipids, reduce inflammation, protect the liver, promote bone health, facilitate in eradicating cancer cells and increase survival in cancer patients.  In fact, studies demonstrate that the “wrong” form of vitamin E (tocopherols) can actually hinder the body’s ability to absorb the “right form” (tocotrienols). 

A few interesting things about tocotrienols:

  • Delta tocotrienol help maintain the membrane integrity of the cell membrane to protect cellular functions. Phospholipids, cholesterol and a small amount of protein make up most of the cell membrane, creating a lipid bilayer which is important for water, oxygen and CO2 to cross the membrane while blocking out other larger potentially harmful substances
  • It can protect the cell from free radical damage
  • Antioxidants like vitamin E (C, A, and selenium and zinc) can give the free radical its own electron without destabilizing the cell.  Others include resveratrol, curcumin, astaxanthin, lutein, Coq10.  Tocotrienols are well suited to protect the cell membrane because their perfect fit into the lipid bilayer allows them to better protect the lipids within this bilayer from oxidation.

The delta- and gamma-tocotrienols spread out and attach themselves to a variety of cell membranes throughout your body and then start patrolling for free radicals. As soon as they sense one closing in (meaning the free radical attaches to a fatty acid in the cell wall), the tocotrienol molecule releases an electron which re-attaches to the free radical, making the damaged (oxidized) fatty acid in the cell wall whole again. The free radical is stable again and leaves the cell. Put simply, the tocotrienol removes the dysfunctional oxygen from the fatty acid.

What is the difference between tocotrienols and tocopherols? First, they are 40-60 times more potent. 

Here are some key differences:

  1. Tocotrienols have shorter tails that do not anchor deeply into the cell membrane- which allows them to move around the cell 50x faster to intercept free radicals more easily.  In contrasts to tocopherols that have a longer tail, anchor deeply into cell membranes, and move more slowly.  Because of this it is thought that tocotrienols are 40-60x better at giving one of their electrons to invading free radicals and repairing damage to lipids on membranes
  2. Tocotrienols have a smaller head and delta tocotrienols have the smallest- allowing them to squeeze in parts of the cell easier, giving them wider access to membranes and increasing their ability to capture more free radicals
  3. Tocotrienols have unsaturated tails where tocopherols have saturated tails- making them unique in that they have double bonds in their tails and can provide more lipid oxidation protection because of superior bioavailability to cell membranes. 

I also want to point out that tocotrienols are great for reducing chronic inflammation.  Studies demonstrate that alpha, gamma and delta tocotrienols strongly inhibit NFkB and TNF-a, along with other pro-inflammatory cytokines.  “Among the most notable biomarkers to be affected by a 250 mg tocotrienol daily dosage were C-reactive protein (CRP; a predictor for chronic inflammation), nitric oxide (NO), and malondialdehyde (MDA), with decreases of 40%, 40%, and 34%, respectively” (Barrie, nd).

Tocotrienols can increase total antioxidant status. Total antioxidant status also increased by 22%, suggesting that delta-tocotrienol can potentiate endogenous antioxidants. This is great news for the use of tocotrienols for reduce inflammation associated with high cholesterol, CV disease, metabolic syndrome, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, diabetes and pre-diabetes. It also can play a role in cancer, bone and brain health.

Tocotrienols area great for eye health. Interestingly, delta-tocotrienols may also delay the beginning of cataracts when applied to the eye due to reduced oxidative stress and nitrosative stress to the lenses which are exposed to environmental oxidants.  Tocotrienol had a beneficial effect on lens antioxidant enzymes, including superoxide dismutase and catalase, both of which returned to normal levels with the topical treatment. Furthermore, tocotrienol significantly decreased malondialdehyde, a lipid peroxidation end product found to be high in cataracts, and restored the lens soluble to insoluble protein ratio to normal levels. 

And finally, it has positive influence on the immune system. One study showed that annatto tocotrienol combined with antibiotics had the greatest efficacy in decreasing bacteria when compared with tocotrienol or antibiotic treatment alone (Tan, n.d). This may be due to an influence that tocotrienols have on T cells.


Tan, Barrie. The Truth about Vitamin E: The Secret to Thriving with Annatto Tocotrienols . Kindle Edition.