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The Little-Known Benefits Of Tocotrienols

August 2014

By Thomas Rosenthal

Tocotrienols And Diabetes

Diabetes accelerates aging through a variety of mechanisms. In fact, 80% of diabetic patients will die of an atherosclerotic event such as a heart attack or a stroke, making it especially important to address the factors involved in diabetes.22 Fortunately, a number of animal studies demonstrate that tocotrienols offer hope for patients suffering from this disease.

Tocotrienols have been found to improve blood sugar and kidney function in diabetic animals.32 This effect has been attributed to their sugar- and lipid-lowering effects, and to their ability to modulate specific growth factors that prevent fibrous proteins from being deposited in kidney tissue.33

Other studies have shown that tocotrienols improve insulin sensitivity and whole-body sugar utilization in a similar way as some expensive diabetes drugs (through activation of the metabolic sensors known as peroxisome proliferator-activated receptors or PPARs).34

And a tocotrienol-rich diet reduced the attack of sugar on tissues (glycation), even in non-diabetic rats. In diabetic rats, it improved blood sugar control as well as glycation.35

Because diabetes also attacks the nerves, it eventually produces neuropathy, a potentially painful condition that has resisted many attempts to treat it with drugs. In diabetic rats with neuropathy, tocotrienol supplementation substantially reduced pain behaviors and biochemical changes seen in neuropathy.36

Tocotrienols And Liver Disease

Tocotrienols And Liver Disease  

In addition to growing indications that tocotrienols are effective against liver cancer,17 there is compelling evidence of their effectiveness in treating non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). In NAFLD, fat is deposited in the liver and can lead to hepatitis, liver failure, or even cancer.37

In a randomized clinical trial, 87 adults with high cholesterol and NAFLD received either mixed tocotrienols (200 mg twice daily) or placebo.38

After one year, supplemented patients had a significantly greater rate of normalization of their liver tissue on ultrasound than did control patients. The rate of remission was also significantly higher in treated patients than in control patients, while NAFLD worsened in two controls but didn’t worsen in any of the supplemented patients. This is the first clinical study ever to show liver protective effects in NAFLD patients using tocotrienols.38

Another study showed that oral tocotrienols delayed progression of end-stage liver disease in 50% of liver transplant patients, compared with just 20% in a group treated with alpha-tocopherol.39 The study also demonstrated good tissue penetration of oral tocotrienols in humans, countering previous reports of poor bioavailability.

Meet The Vitamin E Family

Vitamin E was first discovered in 1938 as a “fertility factor.”61 During the ensuing years, it was discovered that vitamin E was an antioxidant with value in many different body systems.

Vitamin E can be divided into two groups: tocopherols, which is the most well-known form of vitamin E, and the lesser-known tocotrienols.6,7

The tocopherol group has received the most attention since the vitamin’s discovery. This group contains members called alpha-, beta-, gamma-, and delta-tocopherol.7 They are all important nutrients.

The second group in the vitamin E family is the tocotrienols, which until recently received little scientific attention. Even today, less than 1% of the literature on vitamin E is devoted to tocotrienols. The family resemblance is still close: Tocotrienols exist in the same four configurations (alpha, beta, gamma, and delta), and differ from their respective tocopherol cousins only by a few chemical bonds.62 But those small differences make for differences in function.

Tocotrienols and tocopherols are both antioxidants, but the antioxidant activity of tocotrienols is several times more than tocopherol.62,63 Beyond that, tocotrienols modify gene expression, inhibit various enzymes, and carry out functions that tocopherols can’t perform.

Tocotrienols have potent anticancer and anti-diabetes abilities, as well as cardio-, neuro-, liver-, and bone-protective actions based on their unique functions in the body.

Tocotrienols For Neuroprotection

Oxidation, inflammation, and toxicity resulting from normal brain cell activity are all involved in the terrifying progression of cognitive decline. That’s why there has been so much interest in vitamin E in general, with its antioxidant effect, and more recently in tocotrienols, with their ability to regulate a wide variety of genes and signaling molecules.

Patients with Alzheimer’s disease and those with mild cognitive impairment are more likely than healthy people to have low blood tocopherol and tocotrienol levels.40 Conversely, very old people with higher levels of tocotrienols in their blood have a 64% reduced risk of having Alzheimer’s.41 Tocotrienols are incredibly effective at protecting vital brain circuitry in these conditions.

Animal studies demonstrate the remarkable neuroprotection offered by tocotrienols. A tocotrienol-rich fraction not only protected rats from free-radical-induced brain cell death, but it also reduced DNA damage in brain cells, and improved the animals’ performance on various cognitive tests such as mazes and swimming challenges.42

Alpha-tocotrienol is the most potent neuroprotective form of natural vitamin E.3 It is so incredibly potent that concentrations in the nanomole to attomole range (one-billionth to one-billion-billionth of a mole) block brain cell death caused by prolonged excitatory stimulation by the neurotransmitter glutamate.43-45 Oral supplementation in humans results in tocotrienol plasma concentrations of 3 micromolar; that’s billions of times higher than the concentrations needed in the lab.46

Tiny concentrations of tocotrienols, when administered before neurotoxins, led to a sharp reduction in brain cell damage, restoring their normal growth and viability in the laboratory.43,47 Most importantly, tocotrienol treatment of cultured brain cells under oxidative stress restores neurites, which are tiny projections off the cell that allow for normal cell-to-cell communication.48,49

How Tocotrienols Protect Your Heart
How Tocotrienols Protect Your Heart

Tocotrienols modulate many different cardioprotective mechanisms. They have been shown to:25

  1. Reduce plasma levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), which is both a marker of and a cause in the inflammatory response that damages heart and blood vessels.
  2. Reduce other inflammatory mediators such as cytokines.
  3. Reduce advanced glycation end products (AGEs) arising from elevated blood sugar that damage vessels and tissues.
  4. Reduce expression of adhesion molecules that cause platelets and white blood cells to stick to vessel walls, potentially blocking them.
  5. Suppress expression of matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) involved in the spread of certain cancers.
  6. Reduce risk factors for destabilizing atherosclerotic plaques (such plaques, when unstable, readily burst, often blocking the artery and producing heart attack or stroke).
  7. Reduce ischemia/perfusion injury to brain and heart muscle; this kind of injury subjects already vulnerable tissues to a blast of oxygen radicals, just when the tissue was beginning to heal.64
  8. Suppress, regress, and slow the progression of atherosclerosis.

Tocotrienols For Bone Health

Tocotrienols are rapidly emerging as major contributors to greater bone density and major inhibitors of bone loss.

Postmenopausal women are the leading sufferers of osteoporosis, though older men develop some degree of abnormal bone loss as well.50 Long-term anti-inflammatory corticosteroid treatment is an increasingly common cause of bone loss. In addition, research suggests bone loss may be triggered by elevated cortisol levels from stress or smoking.51,52

A host of studies has now established that tocotrienols can prevent, and even reverse, bone loss and promote fracture healing in animal models of osteoporosis from many different causes, including menopause and steroid treatment.53-55 The mechanisms are surprisingly well-understood.

Tocotrienols are potent antioxidants, which appear to reduce the oxidant-induced inflammation that contributes to bone loss.56-58 Tocotrienols also upregulate genes related to new bone formation, while suppressing inflammatory signaling that generates bone destruction; this activity is not shared by tocopherols.59

As we mentioned earlier, tocotrienols inhibit the enzyme HMG-CoA reductase, which is associated with cholesterol production.20 HMG-CoA reductase is also profoundly involved in osteoporosis, favoring bone-resorbing cells over bone-forming ones. By inhibiting HMG-CoA reductase, tocotrienols prevent excessive bone resorption (bone breakdown) and promote new bone formation.50,59,60

Since statins are also powerful HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors, combining statins with tocotrienols has been found to be especially beneficial for bone health. Animal studies have found that combining statins with tocotrienols potentially reduces the statin dose needed—therefore limiting the potential side effects of statins as well.50,60

Tocotrienols Delay Brain Aging
Tocotrienols Delay Brain Aging

Basic laboratory and animal studies have long supported a role for tocotrienols in protecting brain cells and tissue from the ravages of aging.66 In these studies, tocotrienols have been closely linked to neuroprotection through their potent antioxidant properties, as well as their ability to redirect the production of inflammatory molecules to non- or even anti-inflammatory actions.67,68

Now, for the first time, these pre-clinical studies have been compellingly validated in a human study of a pervasive form of brain aging known as leukoaraiosis, or white matter lesions.1 In this condition, damage to the endothelial lining of small arteries in the brain is thought to produce tiny areas of poor blood flow, resulting in the condition known as vascular cognitive impairment.69,70 If it progresses, stroke, cognitive impairment, gait disturbances, and other conditions may follow.69-71

In a study released in April of 2014, researchers randomly assigned a group of volunteers with known cardiovascular risk factors and confirmed white matter lesions in their brains to receive either placebo or a twice-daily dose of 200 mg mixed tocotrienols.66 The study lasted two years.

In the placebo group, as expected, the mean volume of the white matter lesions increased over the two-year study period. But in the tocotrienol group, the volume of lesions remained unchanged, and the differences between the groups was statistically significant.66 No adverse effects, including changes in blood chemistry, were observed.

This study is a “first-ever,” then, for two reasons. It is not only the first time that tocotrienol supplementation has been confirmed to be neuroprotective in living human patients, it is also the first demonstration that a simple nutritional therapy can slow progression of the white matter lesions, which many neurologists suspect lies at the root of the tragic and progressive loss of cognition suffered by so many aging adults.