Experts are warning women not to take Vitamin E supplements during pregnancy because it may harm the unborn child.
Prof Stuart Campbell, the obstetrician who pioneered 3D scans of foetuses “walking in the womb”, called for the Government to place a health warning on the vitamin, after trials revealed that it doubled the rate of stillbirths, led to low birth weight and increased health complications in the newborn.
Another specialist, Prof Andy Shennan, of St Thomas’ Hospital in London, who carried out research into the role of vitamins E and C in pre-eclampsia, said pregnant women were “self-medicating” with high doses of the vitamin in the mistaken belief that it did them good.
Concern over vitamin E, particularly in large doses, comes as record numbers of Britons, including pregnant women, turn to vitamins thinking they will protect their health.
The vitamin market in Britain is worth an estimated £362 million a year and their use in pregnancy is soaring because of Goverment advice to take vitamin D for strong bones and folic acid (a B vitamin) to prevent spina bifida.
Research has previously suggested that vitamin E, an antioxidant, has a protective effect against miscarriage and pre-eclampsia (a serious complication of pregnancy), particularly when taken with high doses of vitamin C.
But two recent studies in London and Australia, published in The Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine, suggest that the reverse may be true.
Prof Campbell believes that vitamin E can interfere with the ability of the mother’s immune system to avoid attacking the baby as an “invader”. He also thinks that the vitamin could disrupt the functions of the placenta, depriving babies of nutrients, and argues that children born to women who have taken high doses of vitamin E may have an increased risk of asthma and eczema.
He said: “The evidence suggests vitamin E may be harmful in pregnancy and it’s therefore wise to avoid it.”
Concerns were raised when experts at St Thomas’ Hospital in London conducted a trial on 2,500 women at risk of pre-eclampsia.
The women took high doses of vitamins E and C from 14 weeks until they gave birth. Those who took 400 international units of vitamin E daily – about 250mg – and 1,000mg of vitamin C developed pre-eclampsia earlier and had a more severe form of the illness. The European Union’s recommended daily amount for vitamin E is 20mg but the official “safe” level is 540mg a day – about 800 international units.
A total of 19 babies were stillborn in the study, compared with just seven in women who took a placebo – a statistically significant rate of one per cent versus 0.5 per cent. On average, the birth-weight of babies whose mothers took the vitamins was 60g less than in the placebo group.
Prof Shennan said: “Vitamins are deemed to be innocent and good and there is no doubt that pregnant women are out there, self-medicating with these high doses. One women came to me and she was taking 5g of vitamin E a day. I told her to stop.
“Our trial was looking to see if there was a benefit for a specific condition, pre-eclampsia, and that turned out not to be the case.”
A Department of Health spokesman said its experts on the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition were not considering the safety of vitamin E in pregnancy.
“The only vitamin supplements recommended by the Department of Health during pregnancy are folic acid and vitamin D,” the spokesman said. “We advise against vitamin A supplements during pregnancy. We keep all evidence on other vitamin supplementation under review.”
Dr Anne Walker, from the Health Supplements Information Service, said: “A multivitamin specifically designed for pregnancy is a good idea, but high doses of vitamin E are not suitable. But, because of problems with insufficiency in pregnancy, particularly for folic acid, it would be wrong to put people off vitamins.”