What Is Alpha Lipoic Acid?

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LA can benefit diabetics.

Among the various antioxidants, alpha lipoic acid stands out because of its ability to work in both water and fat. Alpha lipoic acid (ALA) also has some unique characteristics that make it vital for health, wellness, and weight maintenance.

A Vital Antioxidant

Discovered in the 1950's, alpha lipoic acid was classified as an antioxidant in the 1980's. It exists in every cell in the human body, and the body naturally makes some of it. What makes this particular antioxidant unique is that it can function in both water and fat. Other antioxidants are either/or, such as vitamin C which only works with water or vitamin E which only works with fat. Its function in the human body is to transform glucose into energy. It also recycles other antioxidants, including vitamin C. Like vitamin C, vitamin E and other antioxidants, it neutralizes free radicals, too.

Alpha lipoic is different from another substance also abbreviated as ALA, alpha linolenic acid. Alpha linolenic acid is the substance also called omega-3 fatty acid. Alpha lipoic is different and acts different in the human body. To distinguish between the two confusing and identical acronyms, the Linus Pauling Institute uses LA for this acid and ALA for alpha linolenic acid, a convention adopted by many publications.

Uses of Alpha Lipoic Acid

Your body naturally maintains just the right amount of alpha lipoic in each cell. You obtain this substance through foods such as green peas, spinach, Brussels sprout, rice bran, Brewer's yeast and organ meats. There's no need for the average person to supplement this antioxidant, but for the following health conditions, research shows that supplements of LA can improve symptoms.

  • Peripheral Neuropathy: Neuropathy is a painful tingling, burning or itching feeling in the extremities. It occurs in many people when nerve impulses misfire. It can cause intense pain or even uncontrollable muscle movements, such as shuffling feet or hand movements, and can be debilitating for patients. It's caused by injury, diseases such as Lyme disease, or a side effect of some medications. Studies on the use of LA with peripheral neuropathy sufferers are positive, but only a few small studies have been conducted to date. More are needed before doctors can recommend LA as a treatment for this problem.
  • Diabetes: The University of Maryland Medical Center reports that LA has been tested as a diabetic supplement. Since LA converts glucose to energy, the theory is that it might lower blood glucose levels naturally. It has also been tested on diabetic patients suffering from the aforementioned peripheral neuropathy, with good results.

You can obtain LA supplements over the counter through natural food stores, vitamin and supplement stores. Tablets usually range from 30 to 100 mg each. Follow label directions since potency of supplements can vary from brand to brand. The University of Maryland Medical Center's website recommends that for general antioxidant support, people should take no more than 50 mg per day. Diabetics using this supplement (under a doctor's guidance) for neuropathy should take no more than 800 mg. Always tell your doctor about supplements you are taking, especially if you have diabetes.

Safety, Cautions and Contraindications for this Supplement

LA seems to be tolerated by most people in low doses. However, diabetes should use extreme care and caution with this supplement especially if they are on medications to control insulin levels. LA can affect blood sugar levels, which can change how much insulin or other diabetic medications you need, so never use it without talking to your physician first. This supplement may also interact with thyroid medications, so talk to your doctor first before taking LA if you're taking a thyroid medication or thyroid replacement hormone. It should also not be used by pregnant or nursing women or children since effects on developing brains are unknown and LA passes directly into the brain.

Study of Alpha Lipoic Acid Continues

LA is an intriguing supplement. Although it was identified more than 50 years ago, researchers are only now beginning to understand its effects in the body, especially on glucose levels. It may eventually open up new avenues of treatment for patients with diabetes or nerve damage.

What Is Alpha Lipoic Acid?