February 21, 2019
Alpha-Lipoic Acid

Alpha-Lipoic Acid

by Berkeley Wellness  

Scientists discovered the importance of alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) in the 1950s, and recognized it as an antioxidant in 1988. The body needs ALA to produce energy, since it plays a crucial role in mitochondria, the energy-producing structures in cells. The body actually makes enough alpha-lipoic acid for many important metabolic functions. This compound acts as an antioxidant, however, only when there is an excess of it and it is in the "free" state in the cells. There is little free alpha-lipoic acid circulating in your body, unless you consume supplements or get it injected.

What makes ALA special as an antioxidant is its versatility—it helps deactivate an unusually wide array of cell-damaging free radicals in many different parts of cells and tissues, including the mitochondria and the genetic material, DNA. As we age, mitochondrial function is impaired, and it’s theorized that this may contribute to some of the adverse effects of aging. Alpha-lipoic acid is said to prevent or treat many age-related diseases, from heart disease and diabetes to Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease and macular degeneration, as well as declines in energy, muscle strength, brain function and immunity. ALA is also being researched for its potential to treat HIV disease and multiple sclerosis. It has been used to treat diabetic neuropathy in Germany for more than 30 years.

ALA appears to be safe, though high doses may cause itching, and its long-term effects are unknown. High doses of powerful antioxidants can be risky.

What studies on ALA show

ALA has been the focus of much laboratory research around the world, which has yielded promising results. Most of the promising work has been done in animals. It is currently being studied in humans as a preventive and/or treatment for many age-related diseases. A 2012 study from New Zealand, in Nutrition, Metabolism & Cardiovascular Diseases, found that ALA, taken with or without vitamin E for a year, did not improve blood sugar or insulin levels in people with metabolic syndrome. A 2011 Brazilian study in Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice had similar negative results. In contrast, also in 2011, a small two-week Chinese study published in the journal Obesity found that ALA improved insulin sensitivity in obese people with impaired glucose tolerance.

A Dutch meta-analysis in 2012 found that ALA, given intravenously, improved pain from diabetic neuropathy. However, a German study that year found that oral ALA did not prevent macular degeneration in people with diabetes.

As an example of the unpredictable effects of antioxidants, a British study published in Lipids in Health and Disease in 2011 found that in obese people with impaired glucose tolerance (prediabetes), high doses of ALA reduced oxidation of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, making it less atherogenic—but only in those who also undertook a moderate exercise program five days a week for 12 weeks. In those who did not exercise, ALA increased LDL oxidation, suggesting increased coronary risk.

A 2011 Korean study of obese people, published in the American Journal of Medicine, found that high doses of ALA for 20 weeks led to slightly greater weight loss (two percent of body weight) compared to a placebo.

Bottom line: Evidence has been accumulating about this potent antioxidant. For now, not enough is known to recommend it. Large, longer-term, well-controlled studies on humans are needed. No one knows what dose and which form of ALA should be used for what ailment. If you have diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s and decide to take it, tell your doctor.

Originally published March 2008. Updated November 2012.