Asthma patients taking a kind of vitamin E called gamma tocopherol had less inflammation of the airways, research finds. The study points to a new way to control asthma’s chronic symptoms.
The shortness of breath that the nearly 26 million Americans who suffer from asthma experience is usually the result of inflammation of the airways. People with asthma typically use albuterol for acute attacks and inhaled steroids to limit chronic inflammation. Both medications come with side effects.
Preliminary research results from the UNC School of Medicine indicate that a type of vitamin E known as gamma tocopherol may reduce eosinophilic inflammation—a kind of airway inflammation common in asthma patients. The results appear in the Journal of Allergy & Clinical Immunology.
“The fact that the supplement targeted the eosinophils—the main cells we worry most about in asthma treatment—was really telling.”
“We started looking into vitamin E because epidemiologic data suggested that people with high amounts of vitamin E in their diet were less prone to asthma and allergic disease,” says Michelle Hernandez, professor of pediatrics at the UNC School of Medicine and senior author of the study.
There are several different isoforms of vitamin E. The type commonly found in vitamin supplements—alpha tocopherol—has been studied previously, but the results suggested that alpha tocopherol was not particularly effective. Even worse, the alpha isoform seemed to be associated with an increased risk for hemorrhagic stroke.
So the researchers took a different tack and asked whether the kind of vitamin E being used might have an effect on the outcome. They began looking more closely at gamma tocopherol, the type of vitamin E commonly found in a diet rich in nuts and nut oil. According to study first author Allison Burbank, assistant professor of pediatrics, the gamma isoform has properties that the alpha doesn’t.
“While the alpha isoform does have antioxidant activities, gamma tocopherol has both an antioxidant and a very unique anti-inflammatory action as well,” she says. “That anti-inflammatory effect is what we think made the difference in this study.”
Participants in the study were randomized into two groups that received either gamma tocopherol supplement or a placebo for two weeks. At the end of that period, they were asked to cough up sputum. They also underwent an LPS challenge—inhaling a substance that causes inflammation in the lung and then coughing up more sputum, allowing researchers to measure how they responded to the substance used in the challenge.