Asthma is a chronic syndrome in which the lungs and airways are easily inflamed when exposed to certain triggers. Symptoms can range from a nagging, lingering cough to scary breathing emergencies. The condition can be so severe that it stands in the way of daily activities. This condition is difficult for children as well as their caretakers and parents.
Inhaled steroids and albuterol are current treatment options administered to limit chronic inflammation for people with asthma, but both of these medications come with side effects, some of them long term.
How Vitamin E May Help
On the bright side, one small study sheds some light on a new way to potentially control the chronic symptoms of asthma: vitamin E. Early research results from the UNC School of Medicine reveal that a particular type of vitamin E, known as gamma tocopherol, may help to reduce a type of airway inflammation common in asthma patients known as eosinophilic inflammation. Eosinophils are the primary type of cell that most asthma treatments focus on.
According to Michelle Hernandez, professor of pediatrics at the UNC School of Medicine as well as senior author of the study, the researchers began looking into vitamin E because epidemiologic data implied that individuals who consumed high amounts of vitamin E in their diets were less prone to allergic disease and asthma.
Vitamin E exists in several different isoforms. Alpha tocopherol is the type most commonly found in vitamin supplements. This isoform has been previously studied, but the results found the supplement not to be particularly effective in reducing inflammation. In fact, the alpha isoform has been linked with an increased risk for hemorrhagic stroke. Because of this, researchers at the UNC School of Medicine opted to look into a different isoform. This is where gamma tocopherol comes into play.
The gamma isoform has properties that the alpha does not have, including antioxidant and unique anti-inflammatory actions. These effects are what make the gamma isoform of vitamin E a more effective prospect.
During the study, 10 participants were randomized into two groups. One group received gamma tocopherol supplement while the other group was administered a placebo for two weeks. Once the two weeks had passed, participants were asked to cough up sputum (a mixture of mucus and saliva from the respiratory tract). Participants were then asked to undergo a lipopolysaccharide (LPS) challenge, where they were asked to inhale a substance in that encourages inflammation in the lungs, then cough up more sputum so the researchers could measure how participants responded to the vitamin E used in the challenge.
The study continued on. After three weeks where the participants took nothing in order to clear the substance from their systems, subjects in each group were switched to the other group. Subjects who took the placebo were then switched and given vitamin E supplements and vice versa. According to Allison Burbank, the study’s first author, “The advantage of a cross-over design like this is that we are able to compare the subjects to themselves.”
The results were promising. The study determined that when people were taking the vitamin E supplement, they did have less eosinophilic inflammation. Furthermore, participants who took the vitamin E supplement were found to have decreased levels of proteins called mucins, which are known to affect the stickiness of mucus. Asthma patients typically have elevated levels of mucins.
The results of this study provide hope that there may be another solution for the prevention of airway inflammation associated with asthma without the accompanying side effects of standard asthma treatment. According to senior study officer Professor Michelle Hernandez, the next step is to expand the scope of the study.
Where to Find Gamma Tocopherol
Changing one’s diet may help to control asthmatic inflammation. Gamma tocopherol can be added to one’s diet through the consumption of nuts like pecans and walnuts as well as the legume peanut, where this form of vitamin E is abundant. It is also found in seed oils like corn, sesame and soybean.
Vitamin E supplements that contain gamma tocopherol are another option for individuals interested in adding it to their diet. Be sure to read the label to ensure the supplement contains gamma and not alpha tocopherol.