This relatively recent addition to the supplement scene has shown great promise in treating nerve damage in people with diabetes. It may also protect the liver and brain cells, prevent cataracts and serve as a powerful general antioxidant.
What it is?
In the 1950s, scientists in the US discovered that versatile alpha-lipoic acid (also known as thioctic acid, or simply lipoic acid) worked with enzymes throughout the body to speed up the processes involved in energy production. More recently, in the late 1980s, researchers found that alpha-lipoic acid can be a powerful antioxidant as well, neutralizing the naturally occurring, highly reactive molecules called free radicals that can damage body cells. Although the body manufactures it in minute amounts, alpha-lipoic acid is mainly present in foods such as spinach, meats (especially liver) and brewer's yeast. It's difficult, however, to obtain therapeutic amounts of this vitamin-like substance through diet alone. Instead, many American experts recommend using supplements to get the full benefits of alpha-lipoic acid. (This supplement is available in New Zealand and may soon be approved for use in Australia.)
What it does?
Alpha-lipoic acid affects nearly every cell in the body. It assists all of the B vitamins – including thiamine, riboflavin, pantothenic acid and niacin – in converting carbohydrates, protein and fats found in foods into energy that the body can store for later use. Alpha-lipoic acid is a cell-protecting antioxidant that may help the body to recycle other antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E, boosting their potency. Thanks to its unique chemical properties, alpha-lipoic acid is easily absorbed by most tissues in the body, including the brain, nerves and liver, making it valuable for treating a wide range of ailments.
One of alpha-lipoic acid's primary uses is to treat nerve damage, including diabetic neuropathy, a dangerous long-term complication of diabetes that causes pain and loss of feeling in the limbs. This nerve condition may be partly due to free-radical damage to nerve cells caused by runaway levels of sugar (glucose) in the blood.
Alpha-lipoic acid may play a role in countering nerve damage through its antioxidant effects. In addition, it can help people with diabetes respond to insulin, the hormone that regulates glucose. In a study of 74 people with type 2 diabetes who were given 600 mg or more of alpha-lipoic acid daily, all benefited from lowered glucose levels. Studies in animals also show that alpha-lipoic acid increases blood flow to the nerves and enhances the condition of nerve impulses, these effects may make alpha-lipoic acid suitable for the treatment of numbness, tingling and other symptoms of nerve damage from any cause, not just diabetes.
Alpha-lipoic acid also assists the liver, protecting it against damage from free radicals and helping it to clear toxins from the body. It is therefore sometimes used to treat hepatitis, cirrhosis and other liver ailments, as well as in cases of poisoning – by lead or other heavy metals, or by hazardous industrial chemicals, such as carbon tetrachloride.
Alpha-lipoic acid may have other potential uses, although more research is needed. Some compelling studies of animals show that it can prevent cataracts from forming. Additional animal experiments suggest that it may improve memory (making it potentially beneficial against Alzheimer's disease, for example) and protect brain cells against damage caused by an insufficient blood supply to the brain (such as after surgery or a stroke).
There is some evidence that alpha-lipoic acid, through its antioxidant capacities, can suppress viral reproduction. In one study, alpha-lipoic acid supplements were shown to boost immune and liver function in a majority of patients infected with AIDS. It may also help in the fight against cancer, especially forms thought to be related to free-radical damage. As part of a high-potency antioxidant formula, it may prove effective against disorders ranging from fibromyalgia to psoriasis, which may be aggravated, in part, by free-radical damage.
- Helps to treat numbness, tingling and other symptoms of nerve damage in people with diabetes or other conditions.
- Protects the liver in hepatitis, alcohol abuse or exposure to poisons or toxic chemicals.
- Helps to prevent cataracts.
- May help to preserve memory in Alzheimer's disease.
- Serves as a high-potency antioxidant and possible immune booster, combating a wide range of disorders, including psoriasis, fibromyalgia and AIDS.
- For people with diabetes, using alpha-lipoic acid may require a change in insulin or other medications.
- Reminder: If you have a medical condition, talk to your doctor before taking supplements.
How to take it?
To treat specific disorders: Alpha-lipoic acid is usually taken in doses of 100-200 mg three times a day.
For general antioxidant support: Lower doses of 50-150 mg a day may be used.
Guidelines for use:
Alpha-lipoic acid can be taken with or without food. No major adverse effects have been reported.
Possible side effects
Alpha-lipoic acid seems to be very safe, and there have been no reports of serious side effects. Occasionally, it may produce mild gastrointestinal upset in some people, and in rare cases allergic skin rashes have occurred. If side effects appear, lower the dose or discontinue use.
- In a trial at multiple medical centres in US, 328 people with diabetes-induces nerve damage were given 100 mg, 600 mg or 1200 mg of alpha-lipoic acid a day over a thre-week period. Patients receiving 600 mg reported the most significant reduction in pain and numbness, compared with the other groups.
- Alpha-lipoic acid may also benefit the 25% of diabetes sufferers who are at risk of sudden death from nerve-related heart damage. After four months of taking 800 mg of alpha-lipoic acid a day, these patients showed a notable improvement in their heart function tests.
- A study of aged mice indicated that alpha-lipoic acid improved long-term memory, possibly by preventing free-radical damage to brain cells.
Did you know?
In some countries, doctors have used an injectable form of alpha-lipoic acid to save the lives of people who mistakenly ate poisonous amanita mushrooms picked in the wild.