What is it about foods like broccoli and spinach that make them so healthy? There’s the fiber, vitamins and minerals, of course, but then there’s other important chemical compounds we call “antioxidants,” too — like alpha lipoic acid (ALA).
Chances are you’ve heard a lot about the many benefits of various antioxidants and high-antioxidant foods — fighting inflammation, helping beat cancer or heart disease, warding off depression and cognitive decline, and so much more — but have you ever wondered what exactly antioxidants are and how they work in the body?
Alpha lipoic acid — one kind of antioxidant — is a type of compound found in plant foods we commonly eat that scavenges free radicals, fights inflammation and slows the aging process. But perhaps its most famous use is in treating diabetes naturally.
Humans also make a small amount of ALA on their own, although the concentration in our bloodstreams goes up substantially when we eat a healthy diet. Naturally abundant in foods like green veggies, potatoes and certain types of yeast, lipoic acid is similar to a vitamin in that it can also be man-made in a lab so it can be taken as an anti-inflammatory supplement (which is then called alpha lipoic acid).
What Is Alpha Lipoic Acid?
Lipoic acid is found in the body and also synthesized by plants and animals. It’s present in every cell inside the body and helps turn glucose into “fuel” for the body to run off of. Is it “essential” that you consume a certain doseage of alpha lipoic acid every day? Not exactly.
Even though we can make some of it on our own without supplements or outside food sources (which is why it’s not considered an “essential nutrient”), eating an antioxidant-packed diet plus potentially using ALA supplements can increase the amount circulating in the body, with studies show has far-reaching benefits. (1)
ALA’s most valuable role in the body is fighting the effects of free radicals, which are dangerous chemical-reaction byproducts that form during the process of oxidation. Within our cells, ALA is converted into dihydrolipoic acid, which has protective effects over normal cellular reactions.
As oxidation takes place in the body over time — due to normal chemical reactions like eating or moving, but also from exposure to environmental pollutants and toxins — certain compounds can become very reactive and damage cells. At times, this causes abnormal cells to grow and multiply, or it can have other effects like slowing metabolic efficiency and changing neuron signaling.
Like other antioxidants, alpha lipoic acid can help slow down cellular damage that is one of the root causes of diseases like cancer, heart disease and diabetes. It also works in the body to restore essential vitamin levels, such as vitamin E and vitamin C, along with helping the body digest and utilize carbohydrate molecules while turning them into usable energy. (2)
In addition, alpha lipoic acid works like a synergist with B vitamins, which are needed for turning all macronutrients from food into energy. And it’s synthesized and bound to protein molecules, making it act as a cofactor for several important mitochondrial enzymes. (3)
Something that makes ALA unique is that it’s both water-soluble and fat-soluble, unlike other nutrients (like B vitamins or vitamin A, C, D or E), which can only be properly absorbed with either one or the other. (4)
There’s some evidence that ALA is acts as a “heavy metal chelator,” binding to metals (also called “toxins”) in the body, including mercury, arsenic, iron and other forms of free radicals that make their way into the bloodstream through water, air, chemical products and the food supply.
Finally (as if this wasn’t enough!), alpha lipoic acid can increase how the body uses a very important antioxidant known as glutathione, and it might increase energy metabolism too — which is why some athletes use ALA supplements for enhanced physical performance.
Because it acts like an antidote to oxidative stress and inflammation, alpha lipoic acid seems to fight damage done to the blood vessels, brain, neurons, and organs like the heart or liver. This mean it offers numerous benefits throughout the whole body, from naturally treating Alzheimer’s disease to controlling liver disease.
Because ALA isn’t an official essential nutrient, there hasn’t been an established daily recommendation needed to prevent a deficiency. However, being low in antioxidants in general can speed up in the aging process, resulting in symptoms like a weakened immune function, decreased muscle mass, cardiovascular problems and memory problems.
Here are five ways that including more alpha lipoic acid in your diet (and for some people taking supplements too) can help keep you feeling young and healthy:
1. Fights Diabetes and Diabetic Complications
Because alpha lipoic acid can protect cells and neurons involved in hormone production, one benefit is it offers protection against diabetes. ALA is considered an effective drug in the treatment of diabetic distal sensory-motor neuropathy, which affects about 50 percent of people with diabetes. (5)
In dietary supplement form, ALA seems to help improve insulin sensitivity and might also offer protection against metabolic syndrome — a term given to a cluster of conditions like high blood pressure, cholesterol and body weight. Some evidence also shows that it can help lower blood sugar levels.
ALA is used to help relieve complications and symptoms of diabetes caused by nerve damage, including numbness in the legs and arms, cardiovascular problems, eye-related disorders, pain, and swelling. That’s why it should be part of any diabetic diet plan to treat this common disorder. People who experience peripheral neuropathy as a side effect of diabetes can find relief from pain, burning, itching, tingling and numbness using ALA, although most studies show that high doses in IV form are most effective as opposed to eating ALA-rich foods.
A major benefit of alpha lipoic supplementation in diabetics is the lowered risk for neuropathic complications that affect the heart, since around 25 percent of people with diabetes develop cardiovascular autonomic neuropathy (CAN). CAN is characterized by reduced heart rate variability and is associated with an increased risk of mortality in people with diabetes.
Research suggests that supplementing with 600 milligrams a day of ALA (or “LA” as it is sometimes called) for three weeks significantly reduces the symptoms of diabetic peripheral neuropathy, although some doctors choose to use doses up to 1,800 milligrams a day safely in their patients under supervision.
2. Preserves Eye Health
Oxidative stress can damage nerves in the eyes and cause vision problems, especially in people with diabetes or older adults. Alpha lipoic acid has been used successfully to help control symptoms of eye-related disorders, including vision loss, macular degeneration, retina damage, cataracts, glaucoma and Wilson’s disease.
Results from certain studies demonstrate that long-term use of alphalipoic acid has beneficial effects on the development of retinopathy since it halts oxidative damage that can result in modified DNA in the retina. (6) As people age, their vision becomes much more compromised, which is why it’s important to eat a nutrient-dense diet well before old age to prevent degeneration of eye tissue or vision loss early on.
3. Prevents Memory Loss and Cognitive Decline
We know that a nutrient-dense diet filled with various colorful “brain foods” helps protect memory. Some health care professionals use alpha lipoic acid supplements to further help prevent their patients from experiencing neuron damage, memory loss, motor impairment and changes in cognitive functioning because of it antioxidant activity.
ALA seems to easily make its way into the brain by passing the blood-brain barrier, where it can protect delicate brain and nerve tissue. It’s also used to prevent strokes and other brain problems, including dementia in older adults.
Recent experiments using rats have shown that ALA can help reverse the damage in aging cells of the brain, improve performance in memory tasks, lower oxidative damage and improve mitochondrial function, although we still don’t know how well these benefits can apply to aging humans. (7)
4. Helps Boost Glutathione
Glutathione is considered the “master antioxidant” by many experts, since it’s crucial for immunity, cellular health and disease prevention. Some studies have found that 300–1,200 milligrams of alpha lipoic acid helps increase the ability of glutathione to regulate the body’s immune response and fight off diseases like diabetes/insulin resistance or even HIV/AIDS. (8)
In adults, supplementation with alpha lipoic acid seems to positively impact patients with immune deficiency syndromes and serious viruses by restoring blood total glutathione levels and improving functional reactivity of lymphocytes to T-cell mitogens.
5. Might Help Protect Skin from Damage
When it comes to battling physical signs of aging on the skin, certain studies have found that topical treatment creams containing 5 percent alpha lipoic acid can help reduce fine lines caused by exposure to sun ways. Skin damage is one side effect of high amounts of free radicals, which is why antioxidant-packed fruits and veggies are said to keep you looking young.
The best way to get any nutrients is ideally through real food sources, since this is how your body knows how to absorb and use various chemicals best. ALA is found in many different plant and animal sources, since it’s bound to protein molecules (especially lysine).
The concentration of ALA in different foods can vary widely depending on where they’re grown, the quality of the soil, how fresh they are and how they’re prepared, so it’s hard to quantify how much is in each type of food. There hasn’t been much research done to draw conclusions about how much ALA is found in particular foods, although we know vegetables and certain organ meats seem to be highest.
That being said, when you eat a whole food-based diet and vary the types of things you eat, chances are you consume a decent amount in addition to what your body already makes on its own.
Here are some of the best food sources of alpha lipoic acid (9):
- Red meat
- Organ meat (sch as liver, hearts, kidneys from beef or chicken)
- Brussel sprouts
- Brewer’s yeast
If you do choose to take ALA supplements, keep in mind that taking more won’t always offer better results. While side effects and risks of taking more seem to be very rare (considering it’s a natural chemical found in the body at all times), as little as 20–50 milligrams per day seems to be beneficial for general preventative health. Larger doses up to 600–800 milligrams per day are sometimes used in patients with diabetes or cognitive disorders but not recommended for the general public.
Dosage recommendations differ depending on who you ask, but below are some general guidelines that are within the safe range:
- 50–100 milligrams for antioxidant purposes in generally healthy adults
- 600–800 milligrams for patients with diabetes (divided into two doses, usually tablets are 30–50 milligrams each)
- 600–1,800 milligrams for patients with neuropathy and diabetic neuropathy (dosages this high should only be taken with supervision from a doctor)
According to researchers from Oregon State University, the amounts of lipoic acid available in dietary supplements (ranging in dosage from 200–600 milligrams) can be as much as 1,000 times greater than the amounts that could be obtained through someone’s diet alone! Taking ALA supplements with a meal is believed to decrease its bioavailability, so most experts recommend taking it on an empty stomach (or at least one hour before or after) for the best results.
Alpha lipoic acid supplements haven’t been studied in children or women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, so right now it’s intended for use in adults only.
Side effects of ALA in supplement form are generally rare but for some people can include: insomnia, fatigue, diarrhea, skin rash or low blood sugar levels (especially in people with diabetes or low blood sugar who are taking medications).
Some potential interactions, or circumstances where you want to speak to your doctor before taking extra alpha lipoic supplements, include:
- if you have a thiamine deficiency (vitamin B1), which is associated with liver disease/alcohol abuse
- if you’re taking any medications for diabetes for insulin control, since this can raise the risk for hypoglycemia and low blood sugar
- if you’re recovering from chemotherapy treatment or taking cancer medications
- if you have a history of a thyroid disorder