As he walks on a treadmill at the Family Y of Downtown Augusta, Gordon Baker, 62, might be tearing cell walls in his muscles as he exercises. Fortunately, the 400 milligrams of vitamin E he takes every day are probably helping to repair them, according to research at Georgia Health Sciences University.
“I feel like it makes a difference,” Baker said.
Vitamin E appears to help overtaxed muscles by repairing torn cell membranes, which might one day have implications for devastating diseases, according to the research.
In a study published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications, the lead author, Dr. Amber Howard, and her colleagues, working on muscle cells in the lab, found vitamin E aided the repair of cell membranes that had been compromised.
“When a skeletal muscle cell suffers a tear in its outermost surface, it will die if it doesn’t repair that tear very quickly,” said Dr. Paul McNeil, the senior author on the study. “Vitamin E – by a mechanism we don’t
understand yet at the molecular level, certainly – is promoting that repair process.”
Unlike other common vitamins, how vitamin E functions in the body is not very well understood, he said.
Another difference from most other vitamins is that vitamin E is not water-soluble, McNeil said.
“It’s present in your body dissolved in fats, including the fats that compose that outermost boundary or membrane barrier,” McNeil said.
The researchers were able to show that the vitamin’s antioxidant activity might be aiding repair mechanisms by subjecting the cells to a deluge of oxidants that impeded the repair of torn cells but could be prevented if the cells were pretreated with an antioxidant such as vitamin E.
The findings point to important implications for muscles, whose cells are often damaged by “eccentric contractions, when (the muscle) is lengthening and contracting simultaneously, like running downhill will do,” McNeil said.
“They are quite common,” he said. “I don’t think most people realize that but they have probably felt the consequences.”
More important, it could have implications for genetic muscle-wasting diseases such as muscular dystrophies or even amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, he said.
“One factor that has been shown in human populations to prevent or delay the onset of (ALS) is high levels of vitamin E,” McNeil said.
Focusing on that antioxidant repair mechanism “could be potentially beneficial to people suffering from genetic muscular dystrophies and other muscle-wasting diseases. That is way in the future, of course, but it is a possibility.”