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by Nissa Simon
Updated August 12, 2022
Research has shown that diets rich in vitamin E are associated with a lower risk of cognitive decline. "Vitamin E protects the brain's nerve cells from damage," says Jeffrey Blumberg, professor of nutrition science and policy at Tufts University. "Research shows that vitamin E levels in the blood are lower in people with memory, language and thinking problems," he explains. Unfortunately, most people don't get enough vitamin E from their diet. These six foods will help top up your levels.
Almonds are a concentrated source of vitamin E. Just ¼ cup of shelled almonds provides 40 percent of your daily requirement in 130 calories. In addition, almond skins contain a unique combination of plant compounds called flavonoids, which promote E's antioxidant effects, according to research published by Blumberg in the Journal of Nutrition.
Bonus points: Vitamin E oil is sometimes used to soothe a sunburn, but eating almonds can help protect against getting a burn in the first place. Almonds are also a rich source of quercetin, a flavonoid that protects against wrinkles.
2. Swiss chard
Swiss chard doesn't get as much press as its more famous leafy-green rivals spinach and kale, but it's rich in vitamin E, mixes well with other foods and has tender leaves. Given that 60 percent of American adults fall woefully short of getting their recommended daily E supply from food, Swiss chard is a shoo-in for a place in your shopping cart.
Bonus points: Swiss chard is also an excellent source of vitamin K. High blood levels of this vitamin are associated with the ability to remember things such as where you parked your car or where you had dinner last week, notes a study published in the journal Neurobiology of Aging.
3. Whole-wheat bread
Whole grains, such as those found in whole wheat bread, are one of the better sources of vitamin E. (Once grain is milled, it loses its E content.) A study of 140 older adults with no memory or language problems found that after eight years, those with the highest blood levels of vitamin E had the lowest risk of impaired thinking. Those in the middle had about a 70 percent lower risk as those with the lowest levels. The results were published in the journal Experimental Gerontology. Not a fan of whole wheat? Try a bread or cereal made with other grains, such as oats, rye or corn. Just make sure the first ingredient on the label says “100 percent whole grain.”
Bonus Points: Whole grains are also rich in vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid). This vital vitamin helps produce energy that fires up chemical messengers to carry information from one nerve cell to another.
4. Sunflower seeds
Sunflower seeds are far and away one of the best food sources of vitamin E, so if you like to snack on these tasty seeds, you're doing both your heart and your brain a favor. Vitamin E reduces the risk of plaque buildup on blood vessel walls, which cuts your chances of a heart attack or stroke and permits free blood flow to both your heart and brain. This snack is a tasty way to fire up brainpower, too.
Bonus points: Sunflower seeds are also a good source of magnesium, a mineral that regulates serotonin. In the brain, serotonin, which relays signals between nerve cells, plays a key role in regulating mood.
If your blood pressure and cholesterol are under control, it benefits your heart and your brain. A review in Medscape General Medicine concludes that diets that decrease the risk of heart disease also hold promise for reducing the likelihood of developing Alzheimer's disease. Here's where avocados come in. They're loaded with vitamins that help keep cholesterol in check, including vitamin E.
Bonus points: Avocados may help protect your lungs from damage caused by air pollution. Researchers in England found a link among blood levels of vitamin E, breathing difficulties and exposure to polluted air. Men and women exposed to higher levels of pollutants had lower levels of vitamin E in their blood.
6. Sunflower oil
Salad oils are rich in alpha tocopherols, a form of vitamin E that "can help prevent a dramatic loss of a critically important molecule in the brain," says nutritionist Maret Traber of Oregon State University in Corvallis. The brain can't manufacture this molecule — docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA — and depends on diet for its supply. Just as you can't build a house without the right construction materials, you can't maintain a healthy brain without adequate vitamin E, Traber emphasizes. Also try olive and canola oils, which have similar benefits.
Bonus points: These salad oils are high in oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat. According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, oleic acid may improve mood, decrease anger and increase energy.
Should you take vitamin E in a pill?
Research studies so far have not found that taking vitamin E supplements can prevent deteriorating memory or worsening thinking skills, notes nutritional epidemiologist Martha Clare Morris of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, who is also a member of the Global Council on Brain Health. "However, study after study has shown that diets rich in foods that contain vitamin E are associated with a lower risk of both Alzheimer's disease and a decline in thinking abilities among cognitively healthy individuals," she says. Compared with pills, foods contain thousands of micronutrients, many of which haven't yet been identified. That’s why popping a pill won't give you the same protection as a forkful of food.
• "Effects of Vitamin E on Cognitive Performance During Ageing and in Alzheimer’s Disease," Nutrients, November 2014. This scientific paper explores the research behind vitamin E's role in preventing or treating cognitive decline. Read the full study.
• "Flavonoids From Almond Skins Are Bioavailable and Act Synergistically With Vitamins C and E to Enhance Hamster and Human LDL Resistance to Oxidation," The Journal of Nutrition, June 2005. This in vitro and hamster study explored the antioxidant activity of almond skin flavonoids. Read the full study.
• “Vitamin K status and cognitive function in healthy older adults,” Neurobiology of Aging, December 2013. In this cross-sectional study, researchers examined data from 320 men and women ages 70 to 85 years who were part of the Québec Longitudinal Study on Nutrition and Successful Aging (NuAge). The researchers found that higher vitamin K levels in the blood were associated with better performance on verbal episodic memory tests, although there was no effect on tests for nonverbal episodic memory, executive functions and speed of processing. Read a summary of the study. (A fee is required to access the full study.)
• "Serum levels of vitamin E forms and risk of cognitive impairment in a Finnish cohort of older adults," Experimental Gerontology, December 2013. As a population study, it shows a correlation but does not prove cause and effect. Read a summary of the study. (A fee is required to access the full study.)
• "Diet and Alzheimer's Disease: What the Evidence Shows," Medscape General Medicine, January 2004. This scientific paper explores the research behind whether diet or nutritional supplements can help prevent Alzheimer's Disease. Read the full article.
• "Circulating Levels of Antioxidant Vitamins Correlate With Better Lung Function and Reduced Exposure to Ambient Pollution," American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, May 2015. This study analyzed data from more than 5,000 adults who were part of the TwinsUK cohort. Researchers found that participants who were exposed to higher levels of pollutants had lower levels of vitamin E in their blood. As a population study, it shows a correlation but does not prove cause and effect. Read the full study.
• "Substituting dietary monounsaturated fat for saturated fat is associated with increased daily physical activity and resting energy expenditure and with changes in mood," The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, February 2013. In this study, two cohorts consisting of 32 young adults total were randomly assigned to receive either a Western-style diet or a Mediterranean-style diet. Researchers found that the Mediterranean-style diet, which is rich in oleic acid, was associated with less anger and more physical activity. Limitations of the study include its small sample size. Read the full study.
• "Vitamin E for Alzheimer's dementia and mild cognitive impairment," Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, April 2017. This review of double-blind randomized trials found no evidence that vitamin E supplements slow the progression of mild cognitive impairment, nor that they improve cognitive function in people with dementia. Read the full study.