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Alpha Lipoic Acid

What is Alpha Lipoic Acid?


The body produces many fatty acids or lipids.

Alpha Lipoic Acid (also known as lipoic acid, thioctic acid, or ALA) is one of the good fatty acids produced in every one of our cells.

One of its main functions is to help convert glucose (blood sugar) into energy. About forty years ago, biologists discovered that alpha lipoic acid is also an antioxidant--a powerful substance that combats potentially harmful chemicals called free radicals which may cause heart and liver disease, cancer, cell aging, and many other conditions.

There are other very effective antioxidants, including vitamins C and E. But what's special about alpha lipoic acid is that it is both water and fat soluble. This means it can work throughout the entire body, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Scientists believe that ALA operates in conjunction with vitamins C and E, recycling them when they're used up. In fact, ALA was first recognized as an antioxidant when it was found to prevent vitamins C and E deficiencies in people. ALA also aids in forming and restoring another antioxidant called glutathione which helps your body rid itself of harmful substances.

Where can you find alpha lipoic acid?

Alpha lipoic acid is manufactured by the body and is found in small amounts in several foods. These include spinach, broccoli, peas, Brewer's yeast, Brussels sprouts, rice bran, potatoes and organ meats (kidney, heart and liver). The effectiveness of the low levels of ALA obtained by eating these foods hasn't been proven. Concentrated amounts of ALA are available--without a prescription--in capsule form from health food stores and online sites.

General Safety Issues of Alpha Lipoic Acid

Studies on rats have shown that alpha lipoic acid has not caused cancer or toxicity in the organs targeted for treatment such as the liver. However, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not take alpha lipoic acid because there is insufficient data on whether alpha lipoic acid is safe for the fetus or nursing child.

Why Take Alpha Lipoic Acid?

Besides taking lipoic acid for its general benefits as an antioxidant, you may be interested in using lipoic acid if you have any of the following conditions:

Hypertension (Elevated Blood Pressure); Coronary Heart Disease or Metabolic Syndrome (high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol): If you have hypertension or a build-up of plaque in your arteries from elevated cholesterol, you may benefit from alpha lipoic acid. The Boston University School of Medicine found that a combination of lipoic acid with another nutrient - acetyl-L-carnitine -helps lower blood pressure by increasing the width of arteries that had been constricted due to the build-up of plaque. Lipoic acid also improves the function of the mitochondria-a crucial part of the cell--involved in proper coronary vascular function.

Peripheral Neuropathy: If you suffer from burning, pain, numbness or itching in your legs and feet caused by peripheral neuropathy, alpha lipoic acid may ease your symptoms. This condition can be caused by diabetes and other conditions, such as Lyme disease, alcoholism, shingles, thyroid disease and kidney failure. Certain injuries can also cause the above symptoms, as well as nutritional deficiencies and chemotherapy.

In 2003, researchers at the Mayo Clinic discovered that patients with diabetic neuropathy who received high doses of intravenous alpha lipoic acid had a threefold improvement in pain, numbness and other symptoms, compared with those treated with a placebo. Lipoic acid also seemed to increase blood flow and oxygen to the nerves, actually improving their condition. Used in Europe for over 30 years in treating diabetes, lipoic acid may also help cells better metabolize glucose. Many more studies are now being conducted in the U.S. and around the world to determine the role of ALA in helping diabetics utilize insulin.

Liver Disease: Alpha lipoic acid was first used in the 1970s as a treatment for various forms of hepatitis by Burton M. Berkson, MD, MS, PhD, from the National Institutes of Health. The researchers administered alpha lipoic intravenously to 79 people with acute and severe liver damage at medical centers across the United States, and 75 recovered full liver function. In 2006, Dr. Berkson also reported using lipoic acid to increase the long-term survival of a patient suffering from metastatic pancreatic cancer.

Before 1977, if you suffered from severe liver disease - often caused by ingesting a toxin (mushroom poisoning, for example) - your only hope for recovery was a liver transplant. But in 1977, Dr. Berkson administered alpha lipoic acid intravenously to a patient dying from liver disease. The patient surprised doctors and not only recovered, but was free of liver disease 30 years later.

Brain Function: Able to pass easily through the brain, alpha lipoic acid helps protect the brain and nerve tissue. It is currently being investigated as a treatment for stroke and other brain disorders involving free radical damage, including Alzheimer's disease. Preliminary research shows that animals treated with lipoic acid suffered less brain damage and had four-times greater survival rate after a stroke than animals who didn't receive this supplement. More research is needed to understand whether this benefit applies to people as well.

Anti-Aging Compound: In May, 2007, Science Daily reported that alpha lipoic acid seemed to slow down the process of aging in animals by improving blood flow and enhancing immune function, as well as positively affecting several other factors involved in aging. Research findings were presented at Oregon State University (OSU) in a conference on Diet and Optimum Health. "The evidence suggests that lipoic acid is actually a low-level stressor that turns on the basic cellular defenses of the body, including some of those that naturally decline with age," said Tory Hagen, an LPI researcher and associate professor of biochemistry and biophysics at OSU. "In particular, it tends to restore levels of glutathione, a protective antioxidant and detoxification compound, to those of a young animal. It also acts as a strong anti-inflammatory agent, which is relevant to many degenerative diseases."

How to Take Alpha Lipoic Acid

Alpha lipoic acid can be purchased in doses of 30 - 100 mg tablets, as of this writing, but there are no established recommended doses. As always, first consult your health practitioner before taking a new medication or supplement, especially before taking more than the generalized recommendations.

For general antioxidant support - Take 20 - 50 mg per day. Alpha lipoic acid can be taken on an empty stomach or with food.

For diabetes and diabetic neuropathy - Take 800 mg per day in divided doses or according to your physician's instructions.

There are two types of alpha lipoic acid on the market. Ray Sahelian, M.D. , ALA diabetes research and author of Mind Boosters: A Guide to Natural Supplements that Enhance Your Mind, Memory, and Mood (St. Martin's Press, 2000), recommends the natural form ALA called R-Lipoic acid, which about twice as potent than the commonly sold synthetic lipoic acid.


Side effects of alpha lipoic acid are generally rare. According to Dr. Sahelian, low doses of lipoic acid, such as 5 to 20 mg, show no side effects. But higher doses could cause skin rash, nausea or stomach upset, along with nervousness, fatigue and insomnia.

If you're deficient in thiamine (vitamin B1), a condition often associated with alcoholism, you shouldn't take alpha lipoic acid.

Possible Interactions

If you're currently being treated with any of the following medications, you shouldn't use alpha lipoic acid without first talking to your health-care provider:

Insulin and drugs that lower blood sugar - Alpha lipoic acid can combine with these drugs to further reduce blood sugar levels, resulting in hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Tell your doctor before taking lipoic acid, and monitor your blood sugar levels closely; your doctor may need to adjust your medication doses.

Thyroid-regulating medications, Levothyroxine - Alpha-lipoic acid may lower levels of thyroid hormone. Blood hormone levels and thyroid function tests should be monitored.

References and Other Resources: