The aim of this study was to clarify the contribution of cytochrome P450 (CYP)-dependent metabolism of vitamin E isoforms to their tissue concentrations. We studied the effect of ketoconazole, a potent inhibitor of CYP-dependent vitamin E metabolism in cultured cells, on vitamin E concentration in rats. Vitamin E-deficient rats fed a vitamin E-free diet for 4 weeks were administered by oral gavage a vitamin E-free emulsion, an emulsion containing alpha-tocopherol, gamma-tocopherol or a tocotrienol mixture with or without ketoconazole. Alpha-tocopherol was detected in the serum and various tissues of the vitamin E-deficient rats, but gamma-tocopherol, alpha- and gamma-tocotrienol were not detected. Ketoconazole decreased urinary excretion of 2,5,7,8-tetramethyl-2(2′-carboxyethyl)-6-hydroxychroman after alpha-tocopherol or a tocotrienol mixture administration, and that of 2,7,8-trimethyl-2(2′-carboxyethyl)-6-hydroxychroman (gamma-CEHC) after gamma-tocopherol or a tocotrienol mixture administration. The gamma-tocopherol, alpha- and gamma-tocotrienol concentrations in the serum and various tissues at 24 h after their administration were elevated by ketoconazole, while the alpha-tocopherol concentration was not affected. The gamma-tocopherol or gamma-tocotrienol concentration in the jejunum at 3 h after each administration was also elevated by ketoconazole. In addition, significant amount of gamma-CEHC was in the jejunum at 3 h after gamma-tocopherol or gamma-tocotrienol administration, and ketoconazole inhibited gamma-tocopherol metabolism to gamma-CEHC in the jejunum. These results showed that CYP-dependent metabolism of gamma-tocopherol and tocotrienol is a critical determinant of their concentrations in the serum and tissues. The data also suggest that some amount of dietary vitamin E isoform is metabolized by a CYP-mediated pathway in the intestine during absorption.

Natural vitamin E includes eight chemically distinct molecules: alpha-, beta-, gamma-, and delta-tocopherols and alpha-, beta-, gamma-, and delta-tocotrienols. More than 95% of all studies on vitamin E are directed toward the specific study of alpha-tocopherol. The other forms of natural vitamin E remain poorly understood. The abundance of alpha-tocopherol in the human body and the comparable efficiency of all vitamin E molecules as antioxidants led biologists to neglect the non-tocopherol vitamin E molecules as topics for basic and clinical research. Recent developments warrant a serious reconsideration of this conventional wisdom. The tocotrienol subfamily of natural vitamin E possesses powerful neuroprotective, anticancer, and cholesterol-lowering properties that are often not exhibited by tocopherols. Current developments in vitamin E research clearly indicate that members of the vitamin E family are not redundant with respect to their biological functions. alpha-Tocotrienol, gamma-tocopherol, and delta-tocotrienol have emerged as vitamin E molecules with functions in health and disease that are clearly distinct from that of alpha-tocopherol. At nanomolar concentration, alpha-tocotrienol, not alpha-tocopherol, prevents neurodegeneration. On a concentration basis, this finding represents the most potent of all biological functions exhibited by any natural vitamin E molecule. Recently, it has been suggested that the safe dose of various tocotrienols for human consumption is 200-1000/day. A rapidly expanding body of evidence supports that members of the vitamin E family are functionally unique. In recognition of this fact, title claims in publications should be limited to the specific form of vitamin E studied. For example, evidence for toxicity of a specific form of tocopherol in excess may not be used to conclude that high-dosage “vitamin E” supplementation may increase all-cause mortality. Such conclusion incorrectly implies that tocotrienols are toxic as well under conditions where tocotrienols were not even considered. The current state of knowledge warrants strategic investment into the lesser known forms of vitamin E. This will enable prudent selection of the appropriate vitamin E molecule for studies addressing a specific health need.