We studied intestinal absorption of vitamin E in 26 adults with primary biliary cirrhosis (PBC) and 6 control subjects. Seven (27%) PBC patients were vitamin E-deficient based on the ratio of serum vitamin E to serum total lipid concentrations. An oral vitamin E tolerance test was performed in all patients and control subjects using a loading dose of 2000 IU alpha-tocopheryl acetate with measurement of serial serum vitamin E concentrations over 24 h. Vitamin E absorption was expressed as the maximal rise in serum vitamin E above baseline, the area under the oral tolerance test curve, and these two values divided by the fasting total serum lipid concentration. Absorption of vitamin E was significantly impaired in all PBC patients vs. control subjects (p less than 0.01), in vitamin E-deficient vs. vitamin E-sufficient PBC patients (p less than 0.05 to p less than 0.01), and in PBC patients with serum vitamin E levels below 10 micrograms/ml vs. those with serum vitamin E levels above 10 micrograms/ml (p less than 0.01). Vitamin E absorption was inversely related to stage of PBC, serum cholylglycine, total bilirubin, cholesterol, alkaline phosphatase, aspartate aminotransferase, and prothrombin time. Patients with serum vitamin E below 10 micrograms/ml, serum total bilirubin above 3 mg/dl, serum cholylglycine above 600 micrograms/dl, or serum alkaline phosphatase above 1000 IU/L had severe malabsorption of vitamin E and would be at high risk for the development of vitamin E deficiency. Therefore, vitamin E supplementation should be considered not only in patients in whom overt vitamin E deficiency is present, but also in PBC patients meeting these criteria.