All you need to know about alpha-lipoic acid
We all know antioxidants are good for us, but when faced with so many to choose from, deciding which one to supplement can be difficult. Alpha-lipoic acid is emerging as one of the most potentially beneficial and unique antioxidant supplements available.
The word “super” is applied to too many supplements these days, but alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) may actually warrant this overused superlative. It was discovered in 1937 and was originally thought of as a cellular growth factor, but subsequent research found it was also involved in cellular energy synthesis. Research in the 1980s found it’s also a potent antioxidant. It has the ability to quench many types of free radicals as well as aid in the recycling of other antioxidants such as vitamin C, vitamin E and glutathione.
Dietary sources of ALA include meat, liver and, to a lesser extent, fruits and vegetables. The highest non-animal sources of ALA are spinach, broccoli, tomatoes, Brussels sprouts and rice bran. It’s also synthesised by humans, though the ability to produce enough ALA may be reduced in some individuals and therefore make it necessary to increase the amount absorbed from dietary sources.
ALA has the unique property of being both fat- and water-soluble. So it functions as an antioxidant in both fat- and water-rich tissues of your body, including your brain and your blood.
Alpha-lipoic acid primarily functions as an antioxidant, but it also has a secondary effect of stabilising blood sugar levels, increasing the sensitivity of your cells to insulin and it may even help prevent the biochemical changes associated with ageing.
As an antioxidant, ALA reduces free radicals and protects your cells from the damage they can cause. Free radicals are highly reactive molecules that are formed in your body by biological reactions and immune functions and they also come from the air you breathe and the food you eat. The damage to cells caused by free radicals has been linked to many diseases including heart disease, vascular disease, dementia and cancer, and is believed to be a major factor driving the ageing process.
ALA at a glance
- Stabilises blood sugar
- Improves diabetic neuropathy
- Reduces fat tissue
- May improve Alzheimer’s symptoms
- Beneficial for cholesterol and blood pressure
There’s good evidence in the medical literature that ALA is an effective treatment for diabetic neuropathy, a painful condition associated with diabetes.
The Sydney 2 trial evaluated the effects of ALA on symptoms of neuropathy in diabetic patients. The authors concluded that supplementation with a daily oral dose of ALA for five weeks improved symptoms of pain and tingling in diabetic patients with neuropathies.
In a study examining the anti-obesity effects of ALA, researchers concluded that ALA reduces fat tissue and suppresses brain neurons involved with the regulation of food intake and energy expenditure.
Preliminary studies are showing positive effects of ALA supplementation on the treatment of Alzheimer’s-type dementia. In one small study, treatment with a daily oral dose of ALA led to a stabilisation of cognitive functions in the study group. The authors concluded this is the first indication that treatment with ALA might be a successful “neuro-protective” therapy option for Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.
A recent Cochrane review of the treatment of dementia with ALA concluded that, while studies on animals have shown promising results, based on the evidence currently available, ALA cannot be recommended for the treatment of dementia. The increase of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in recent decades combined with an ageing population is likely to lead to increased interest and research into the treatment of dementia using antioxidant therapies.
Other research has shown ALA may have a beneficial effect on cholesterol levels and blood pressure and therefore may help to protect against the development of heart disease and other vascular diseases.
Alpha-lipoic acid is found naturally as a mix of two types of this molecule, an R and an S form. There is some evidence that the R form may be more effective therapeutically, but based on the available evidence it’s not clear whether supplements containing only the R form are more effective than supplements containing a mix of the two.
Dosages of alpha-lipoic acid vary according to the condition being treated. In the prevention of cardiovascular disease and type-2 diabetes in people who have a strong family history or pre-existing risk factors for these diseases, 100mg-300mg daily is the recommended dose.
As food can affect the absorption of ALA, it’s best taken on an empty stomach 30 minutes before a meal.
If you are pregnant or lactating, you should avoid using supplements containing ALA unless advised by your healthcare practitioner. If you are diabetic or are on any medication that affects your blood sugar levels, you should talk to your doctor or healthcare practitioner before using supplements containing ALA.