Alpha Lipoic Acid
In 1999 we looked at a relatively new antioxidant supplement called
alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) and concluded that it might one day prove to be very
important, but that it was too early to recommend it. Since then more
studies on it have been done. Is the evidence today strong enough to support
Scientists first discovered the importance of ALA in the 1950s, and
recognized it as an antioxidant in 1988. It has been the subject of a
tremendous amount of basic research around the world, some being done at the
University of California, Berkeley by Dr. Lester Packer, a leading expert on
The body needs ALA to produce energy. It plays a crucial role in the
mitochondria, the energy-producing structures in cells. The body actually
makes enough ALA for these basic 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. But there is little free ALA circulating in your
body, unless you consume supplements or get it injected. Foods contain only
tiny amounts of it. What makes ALA special as an antioxidant is its
versatility.it helps deactivate an unusually wide array of cell-damaging
free radicals in many bodily systems.
In particular, ALA helps protect the mitochondria and the genetic material,
DNA. As we age, mitochondrial function is impaired, and it.s theorized that
this may be an important contributor to some of the adverse effects of
aging. ALA also works closely with vitamin C and E and some other
antioxidants, "recycling" them and thus making them much more effective.
ALA is being studied in animals and in humans as a preventive and/or
treatment for many age-related diseases. These range from heart disease and
stroke to diabetes and Parkinson.s and Alzheimer.s disease, as well as
declines in energy, muscle strength, brain function, and immunity. It is
also being studied for HIV disease and multiple sclerosis. In Germany, in
particular, it is already prescribed to treat long-term complications of
diabetes, such as nerve damage, thought to result in part from free-radical
damage; there is also evidence that it can help decrease insulin resistance
and thus help control blood sugar. Many studies have yielded promising
results; others are still underway.
Add some carnitine
One of the best-known proponents of ALA is Dr. Bruce Ames, professor of
molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley. He has
helped develop and study an ALA supplement called Juvenon, which has been
patented by UC Berkeley. Juvenon, in addition, contains another promising
compound, acetyl-L-carnitine, which is also involved in energy production in
the mitochondria. Ames and his colleagues have found that high doses of
these compounds, in combination, enable elderly rats to function like
younger ones. Of course, the same results may not occur in humans. Human
studies are just getting started.
Why it is still too soon to act
Though evidence has been accumulating, it is clear that the research on ALA
is still in its early stages. Large, long-term, well-controlled studies on
human are needed. No one knows what dose should be used for what ailment.
Most studies have used 100 to 600 milligrams a day, but higher doses have
also been studied.
Though ALA so far appears to be safe, the long-term effects of large
supplemental doses are unknown. If ALA is as powerful as it seems, there may
be a danger in too much of a good thing. In addition, while in Germany it is
sold only by prescription and (like other supplements) is monitored by the
government, in the U.S. you have no way of knowing what.s in the bottles.
Bottom line: We still advise waiting until more research has been done. If
you have diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson.s, or Alzheimer.s, you may be
unwilling to wait. In that case, talk to your doctor before taking ALA. The
supplement may, for instance, affect the dosage of your diabetes medication.
UC Berkeley Wellness Letter, August 2003