Alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) occurs naturally in the body and plays a crucial role in the energy-producing structures of cells. At the molecular level, it binds to protein and functions as a cofactor for several important mitochondrial enzymes. Although the majority of alpha-lipoic acid produced by the body is used almost entirely to generate energy, researchers have found that ALA may act as an antioxidant when incorporated into the diet.
Taken in supplement form, alpha-lipoic acid may defend the body against free radicals and single action molecules which can damage cells and lead to degenerative disorders associated with diminished health and aging. Other common and scientific names for alpha-lipoic acid include ALA, biletan, lipoic acid, lipoicin, thioctacid, thioctan and thioctic acid.
Sources of alpha-lipoic acid
Alpha-lipoic acid is synthesized in both animals and humans. But because little “free” alpha-lipoic acid is left circulating in the body after cells use it for energy, external sources of ALA are needed to produce an antioxidant effect. These include meats and select vegetables (such as spinach) and dietary supplements that contain alpha-lipoic acid.
How ALA works in the body
Alpha-lipoic acid, recognized for its antioxidant potential in the late 1980s, is said to function in both reduced and oxidized forms. It may neutralize free radicals in both the watery and fatty regions of cells and fortify the antioxidant power of vitamins C (water soluble) and E (fat soluble). It’s also been said to extend the metabolic lifespan of glutathione (a tripeptide essential to the metabolism of nutrients in cells and one that plays a major role in dissolving toxic substances in the liver) and coenzyme Q10 (a vitamin-like enzymatic cofactor needed for cells to produce energy). Supplemental forms of alpha-lipoic acid are easily absorbed into the bloodstream and may cross the blood-brain barrier.
Alpha-lipoic acid benefits; claims
Research indicates that ALA supplementation may slow age-related heart problems and brain degeneration, and help boost the physiological strength and cognitive function of older persons – hence its reference as an anti-aging nutrient. ALA may also stave off age-related macular degeneration and, when added to cosmetic creams and face masks, alpha-lipoic acid may enhance the elasticity and youthful appearance of skin.
Benefits of ALA supplementation may include:
o A reduction of oxidative stress and circulating free radicals in the body
o Improved heart and artery health
o Enhanced immune system strength and brain function
o Blood glucose regulation and balanced cholesterol
o Detoxification of the liver
o A healthy neural system
Alpha-lipoic acid side effects, safety and toxicity
Alpha-lipoic acid is said to be safe in doses ranging from 100 mg to 400 mg daily.* It may also be toxic, and even fatal, in doses as high as 1,800 mg a day.* Excessive doses of alpha-lipoic acid have been known to cause stomach upset and nausea and may lead to dangerously low blood glucose levels. The frequency and strength of ALA supplementation is typically based on the reason for treatment.
It is advisable to consult a physician prior to ALA supplementation if you’re:
o Taking any type of prescription medicine
o Allergic to any prescription or over-the-counter medicine or dietary supplement
o Pregnant or plan to become pregnant
o Suffering from any type of cardiovascular, heart, blood or arterial disorder
Though alpha-lipoic acid appears to be safe, the effects of long-term use have yet to be fully explored. Contraindications may exist, as might adverse reactions with certain medications or supplement regimens.
Research shows that the potency of alpha-lipoic acid may be diminished if mixed with certain compounds such as thiamine.
*Statement not evaluated by FDA
Clinical studies and alpha-lipoic acid research
The majority of current research available focuses on the impact of alpha-lipoic acid on rodents in the laboratory. ALA research has found that alpha-lipoic acid supplementation may aid inflammation in rats and reduce oxidative stress. It may also help to metabolize glucose and regulate blood sugar in mice.
Because oxidative damage is shown to be a major factor in the decline of physiological function in older persons, ALA’s potential in fighting immune disorders may be far reaching, as ALA has been found to protect cells from oxidative damage in older rats. It’s also been shown to suppress collagen-induced arthritis in mice and to slow retinal degeneration. Rodent studies suggest that ALA may improve epidermal blood flow and aid nerve damage caused by high blood glucose.
As a result of aggressive testing in the lab, alpha-lipoic acid is being studied for its potential in fighting human disorders as the cellular level. Alpha-lipoic acid research, however, is in the nascent stage, and the long-term potential of ALA supplementation in human health is relatively unknown.
Alpha-lipoic acid efficacy and the FDA
ALA is considered a dietary supplement in the U.S. and is neither regulated nor inspected by the FDA. As a result, there’s no guarantee to the purity, safety or strength of alpha-lipoic acid supplements. Research has revealed ALA benefits in rodents, but effective human clinical studies remain in the distance.
Laboratory tests in 2007 found that certain ALA supplements contained less alpha-lipoic acid than indicated on the label.
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