Concerned about stroke? A two-year study finds that vitamin E from Malaysian palm oil helps to protect brain's white matter

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Posted: Thursday, May 29, 2014 1:00 am | Updated: 3:33 am, Thu Sep 25, 2014.

(BPT) - While you may know about your brain’s gray matter, did you also know that about 50 percent of your brain is made of white matter? The health of your brain’s white matter affects how well it learns and functions. This is also the area of the brain most often affected by stroke. Now results of a two-year human clinical study published in the American Heart Association journal, Stroke, show that vitamin E tocotrienols derived from Malaysian palm oil supports white matter health by weakening the progression of white matter lesions.

This human study is exciting because it is the first that provides solid evidence of tocotrienols’ neuroprotective benefits in humans. It complements previous research in cell cultures and animal models funded by the National Institutes of Health that has shown that alpha tocotrienols may lessen stroke damage, and may help to accelerate recovery of functional loss. 

Why health professionals are concerned about white matter lesions

White matter lesions (WMLs) are abnormal regions in the brain that can be detected by MRIs. They are often found more pronounced in elderly people, and are associated with atherosclerosis in the small blood vessels of the brain, hypertension and diabetes mellitus. If the condition worsens, WMLs may result in cognitive impairment and dementia. “Injury to the brain’s white matter has been reported to be the major cause of functional disability in cerebrovascular disease,” confirmed Yuen Kah Hay, PhD, the research leader at the University Science, Malaysia.

Previous animal studies originating from the National Institutes of Neurological Disorders and Stroke-funded laboratory of Professor Chandan K. Sen have reported that vitamin E tocotrienols derived from palm oil are capable of preventing damage during a stroke, and improved circulation to the damaged part of the brain after a stroke. In 2000, their work first recognized tocotrienol as a potent neuroprotective agent.

“This new study is a very significant,” agrees Kalyana Sundram, PhD, a member of the research team. “Many compounds have been shown to display neuroprotective effects in animal models of stroke. But they failed in human clinical trials. This may be because the human brain has so much more white matter (about 50 percent) than rats (about 10 percent), for example.”

Human clinical study shows promise for preserving brain health

In this randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, leading tocotrienol researchers at the University Science Malaysia, Penang, Malaysia, followed 121 volunteers for two years. Each volunteer underwent MRIs to confirm the presence of WMLs. One group received 200 mg. of Tocovid Suprabio (mixed tocotrienols) twice daily for two years, while the others received a placebo. All volunteers were instructed to maintain their regular diets and physical activity levels. MRIs were performed at entry into the study (baseline), and then repeated after one year and again after two years.

There was no statistical difference after the first year; however, results after year two were exciting. At two years of supplementation, the mean WML volume of the placebo group increased whereas those who received palm tocotrienols remained unchanged. The principal researcher, Yuen, concluded that supplementation with palm tocotrienols (Tocomin SupraBio) attenuates the progression of white matter lesions.

Brain white matter lesions are not only linked to increased stroke risk, but they are also known to be linked to development of other neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. “Regular supplementation with palm tocotrienols could prove beneficial in the overall maintenance of good health,” said Yuen.

Tocotrienols are nature’s neuro-protectors

Stroke affects 15 million people each year. About 40 percent of those who survive will be left with moderate to severe impairments that require special care. When the brain is attacked by a stroke, cardiovascular disease or trauma, dangerously toxic substances can build up around the nerve cells. They can damage those cells or cause them to die.

Previous research led by Sen of The Ohio State University and funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has identified tocotrienol as a potent neuroprotective agent. “Over the last 10 years a series of work published by our laboratory recognized the many properties of tocotrienol by which it may fight stroke damage to the brain. Both in small and large animal studies, it was clear that tocotrienol may protect the brain against stroke. This work is an important extension providing first data from human brain lesion,” explained Sen, tenured professor and associate dean for research at The Ohio State University Medical Center. “Our previous human work has shown that tocotrienol is safe for humans and reaches the brain when taken orally. We have reported five different mechanisms by which tocotrienol may fight stroke. From our first report in 2000 to now, there has been substantial development in the field. A Phase III stroke trial is now warranted.”

Where can you find tocotrienols?

“These studies show that taking palm-derived tocotrienols daily may be an easy way to be proactive about your brain health, especially if you are at high risk for stroke,” comments emergency room physician Joseph Keenan, who is also considered one of the leading national experts in the field of nutritional supplement research and cardiovascular disease. “However it’s unlikely that most Americans currently get this benefit even if they take vitamin E supplements because most of those supplements available do not contain alpha tocotrienol.”

Keenan explains and agrees with Yuen that, “Natural vitamin E comes in eight different forms. Four are called tocopherols, which are the forms typically found in the synthetic or natural vitamin E supplements. The other four are called tocotrienols, nutrients which function completely differently than tocopherols.

If you are hoping get the benefits discovered in the research – and this applies to any nutritional supplement – it is wise to use the same product and brand that was used by the researchers. That way you are assured that you are getting the proper purity and dosage.”  

Researchers insist on using responsibly produced palm oil for their studies  

These studies were conducted using tocotrienols sourced from responsibly produced Malaysian palm fruit oil. “The world’s health supports our human health. More than 56 percent of Malaysia is still maintained under forest and green cover, including large tracts of permanent pristine rainforests,” says Sundram. “That percentage is dictated by Malaysia's bold commitment at the United Nations Rio Earth Summit 1992 and remains unchanged for more than a decade. In fact, the majority of the nation’s orangutans now make their homes within such protected areas.”

He confirms that contrary to what some are saying about the Malaysian palm oil industry of destroying natural habitats, the Malaysian palm industry is intensely devoted to making a positive impact on conservation, and co-existing with nature in a sustainable manner. “In 2007, the Malaysian Palm Oil Council launched the Malaysian Palm Oil Wildlife Conservation Fund, which supports numerous studies and conservation measures. As a result of this close relationship with wildlife conservationists, the orangutan population in Malaysia has been declared a fully protected species and its long-term survival is better guaranteed.”

Concludes Sen: “Tocotrienol levels in regular Western diet are very low. The only way we may get enough of it is through nutritional supplementation.”

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