Types of Vitamin E Consumed by Children are Linked to Better or Worse Lung Function

April 27, 2020

What we feed our young children—including certain baby formulas—could be interfering with the healthy development of their lungs.

A collaborative study led by Indiana University School of Medicine Professor of Pediatrics Joan Cook-Mills, PhD, and Rajesh Kumar MD, MS, from the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, examined the effects of different forms of vitamin E on lung development during early childhood. They found that too much of one form could be detrimental to growing children.

“There are many different forms of vitamin E and these different forms can have different functions, with different effects on the developing lung,” said Cook-Mills. 

The group analyzed plasma samples from more than 600 pregnant mothers and their children to measure levels of two forms of vitamin E, called alpha- and gamma-tocopherol, and lung function from early to mid-childhood.

Both forms of the vitamin are highly prevalent in food—from breast milk and baby formula to cooking oils and vitamin supplements. Naturally, children are exposed to both forms well before they are born and throughout their lives.

“Our previous collaborative study found opposing effects of alpha-tocopherol, which associated with better lung function, and gamma-tocopherol, which associated with lower lung function in young adults,” said Kumar, pediatric specialist in Allergy and Immunology at Lurie Children’s and Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “The goal of this study was to see if these opposing functions of vitamin E sub-types held true for young children as they grow.”

It turns out that it does.

Their study, published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, showed that early life alpha-tocopherol levels associated with better lung function if gamma-tocopherol levels were low. This suggests that the diets of young children could impact a healthy balance of forms of vitamin E that support lung development, depending on the type of vitamin E in the foods, cooking oils, and supplements that they consume.

Cook-Mills also noted that their studies have found that alpha-tocopherol reduces development of allergic lung inflammation in neonatal mice and that gamma-tocopherol elevated allergic lung inflammation in neonatal mice—an important finding as instances of respiratory disease, such as asthma, continue to climb.

Cook-Mills and Kumar said that their study offers important insight on possible ways to combat the issue. Next, the group will explore possible interventions, including alpha-tocopherol supplements and limited gamma-tocopherol intake, to see if these are useful to promote lung development and function.

The study, Associations of alpha and gamma-tocopherol during early life with lung function in childhood, is supported by the National Institutes of Health. Clinical data was provided by the Project Viva cohort.

The collaborative team included scientists and medical professionals representing Herman B Wells Center for Pediatric Research at Indiana University School of Medicine, Lurie Children’s Hospital, Northwestern University, Harvard Medical School, University of Massachusetts, and the University of Rochester Medical Center.

Research at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago is conducted through the Stanley Manne Children’s Research Institute. The Manne Research Institute is focused on improving child health, transforming pediatric medicine and ensuring healthier futures through the relentless pursuit of knowledge. Lurie Children’s is ranked as one of the nation’s top children’s hospitals by U.S. News & World Report. It is the pediatric training ground for Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Last year, the hospital served more than 220,000 children from 48 states and 49 countries.