Alpha-lipoic acid (ALA; also known as thioctic acid) is a natural compound made in the liver and other tissues of the body. The body uses ALA to help metabolize carbohydrates and to make energy for the organs of the body.
Recently, ALA got a lot of attention because it looks like it might be able to protect cells against a type of oxidative damage believed to play a role in the aging process. But is all this news about ALA for real, and should you be taking it?
ALA and Aging
Mitochondria, the little power plants inside most cells that provide energy for the cell's movement, division, etc., decline and decay with age. When they do, free oxygen radicals begin to increase--and these known troublemakers damage cells and play a major role in cellular decline and aging.
Animal studies indicate that ALA might help reverse this aging process inside cells. In 2001, researchers gave ALA to rats and then detected an increase in the activities of mitochondrial enzymes, a finding that seemed to suggest ALA reverses the age-associated decline in mitochondrial enzymes.
ALA, Diabetes, and Neuropathy
The high blood-glucose levels seen in people with diabetes are also known to lead to the overproduction of free oxygen radicals inside the mitochondria, which in turn cause damage to brain cells and blood vessels. This damage might also be linked to damage to the insulin receptors. In fact, ALA has been associated with more efficient use of glucose by the body and improved blood-sugar control.
In experiments with animals that have diabetes, ALA supplements have been shown to improve blood flow to the nerves and to increase the ability of nerves to conduct electricity. Although human studies have had mixed results, some suggest that taking ALA supplements for at least three weeks will improve the burning, pain, and numbness in the legs and arms that's associated with diabetes.
ALA and Cancer
ALA also seems to keep cancer-causing cells from damaging DNA inside cells, suggesting that ALA might turn out to have anti-cancer attributes. Recently, researchers applied ALA to line of human breast-cancer cells, and found that these cancer cells' ability to spread was inhibited.
ALA Food Sources
ALA is found primarily in animal sources such as red meat, liver, heart, and kidney. The most abundant plant sources are spinach, broccoli, tomatoes, Brussels sprouts, potatoes, garden peas, and rice bran.
If your diet is low in alpha-lipoic acid, ALA supplements are available, but you'll have to take these capsules either 30 minutes before eating or 2 hours after meals, because the body's ability to absorb ALA in pill form is hampered by ingesting food.
Words of Caution
Thiamine deficiency. Individuals at risk for thiamine deficiency should not take ALA without also taking a thiamine supplement at the same time. This is because ALA steps up the body's ability to break down carbohydrates, a process that the body cannot carry out without thiamine.
Alcohol. If you drink alcohol, you might also need to take thiamine supplements.
Diabetes. Individuals with diabetes who take ALA must check their blood-sugar levels often and carefully, since ALA can significantly lower blood-glucose levels. If your blood-sugar levels become chronically low while you're taking ALA, your doctor might need to adjust your diabetes medications.
As with anything new that you want to add to your diet, first ask your doctor or health care professional if adding ALA to your regimen is a good idea.