Exciting new research links alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) to increasing our mitochondrial energy production and helping prevent diabetes.
Antioxidants are known to play a vital role in preventing many of the health disorders associated with aging, including degenerative diseases such as diabetes. Now, a vitamin-like substance known as alpha-lipoic acid is now at the forefront of antioxidant research.
Actions of Alpha-Lipoic Acid
Medical researchers initially classified alpha-lipoic acid as a new vitamin but then recognized it as an essential coenzyme. They found that it plays a vital role changing glucose into adenosine triphosphate (ATP) for cellular energy production.1
Then, they found that alpha-lipoic acid was a powerful biological antioxidant, quenching free radicals as well as coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) and vitamins C and E.2 Researchers also found that alpha-lipoic acid is unique in being the only antioxidant known to work in both fat and water-soluble tissues. (Vitamin C only works in watery tissues and vitamin E is restricted to fatty tissues.
This dual ability allows alpha-lipoic acid to easily neutralize free radicals in both interior and exterior cellular structures. Now, it is called the “universal antioxidant.” More importantly, ALA recycles vitamins C, E, CoQ10, and glutathione!
Nature Knows How to do Things!
Human aging is marked by a sharp decline in antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, CoQ10, and glutathione. This reduces the body’s ability to protect tissues from highly reactive free radicals. Left unchecked, free radical proliferation leads to increased oxidative damage to DNA strands, cell membranes, mitochondria, and organs. Over time, the cumulative effects of free radical damage can result in impaired immune function and increased incidence of cancers and degenerative diseases.
In recent years, one of the leading breakthroughs in antioxidant research is an understanding of how alpha-lipoic acid recycles vitamins E and C to help control free radical damage. Vitamin C and E work together to eliminate antioxidants but are limited by the availability of glutathione.
Glutathione plays a central role in quenching free radicals and protects against cataracts, enhances immune function, slows liver damage and cancers, and aids in removing heavy metals. Wow – a pretty busy fellow! Glutathione can be quickly depleted, especially with diabetes!
Glutathione is produced in the body and researchers ran into a problem when they tried to add it orally: glutathione is largely broken down in the stomach, resulting in almost no changes in intracellular levels of glutathione. Alpha-lipoic acid to the rescue!
Alpha-lipoic acid was found to regenerate and elevate intracellular glutathione levels – as well as vitamin C, E and CoQ10.3,4 This makes all these nutrients more effective, especially again free radicals.
Alpha-Lipoic Acid and Diabetes
Alpha-lipoic acid is particularly helpful for conditions arising from diabetes. It has been used in Europe for over 30 years for diabetic complications.5 Alpha-lipoic acid has also been shown to aid in increasing glucose uptake in skeletal muscles, as well as in enhancing insulin-stimulated glucose disposal.6,7
Alpha-lipoic acid has proven especially effective in treating diabetes-related neuropathy, including pain, tingling, or sensory abnormalities. A German study noted significant improvements in neuropathy, leading them to conclude that alpha-lipoic acid was effective in reducing late diabetic complications.8
In a second study, 328 non-insulin-dependent diabetic patients diagnosed with symptomatic peripheral neuropathy (causing pain, burning, or numbness) were treated either with alpha-lipoic acid or placebo. At the study’s end, pain scores had declined significantly in the group treated with alpha-lipoic acid, leading researchers to conclude that alpha-lipoic acid was effective in reducing symptoms of diabetic peripheral neuropathy, without side effects.9
ALA is more potent antioxidant than vitamins C and E, and CoQ10, and may, in fact, be the most important antioxidant ever discovered. The therapeutic potential of alpha-lipoic acid is just beginning to be explored.
ALA also is important in cell metabolism and is required for the production of energy inside cells. Without ALA, cells could not metabolize sugars for energy and would just shut down. This makes alpha-lipoic acid a metabolic antioxidant, able to draw on the cell’s own metabolism to magnify its protective effects and that of other antioxidants.
Alpha-lipoic acid could have far-reaching consequences in the search for prevention and therapy of diabetes. And, because it’s the only antioxidant that can easily get into the brain, it could be useful in preventing damage from a stroke!
Just 10 years ago, scientists had a simplistic view of free radicals and antioxidants. Today, knowledge of a global antioxidant network has emerged that is leading to an explosion of basic research and therapeutic studies.
- Reed LJ, DeBusk BG, Gunsalus IC, Hornberger CS Jr. Crystalline alpha-lipoic acid; a catalytic agent associated with pyruvate dehydrogenase. Science. 1951 Aug 27;114(2952):93-4.
- Bast A, Haenen GR. Interplay between lipoic acid and glutathione in the protection against microsomal lipid peroxidation. Biochim Biophys Acta. 1988 16;963(3):558-61.
- Packer L, Witt EH, Tritschler HJ. Alpha-lipoic acid as a biological antioxidant. Free Radic Biol Med. 1995 Sep;19(2):227-50.
- Packer L, Tritschler HJ, Wessel K. Neuroprotection by the metabolic antioxidant alpha-lipoic acid. Free Radic Biol Med. 1997;22(1-2):359-78.
- Packer L, Kraemer K, Rimbach G. Molecular aspects of lipoic acid in the prevention of diabetes complications. Nutrition. 2001 Nov;17(10):888-95.
- Evans JL, Goldfine ID. Alpha-lipoic acid: a multifunctional antioxidant that improves insulin sensitivity in patients with type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Technol Ther. 2000 Autumn;2(3):401-13.
- Jacob S, Henriksen EJ, Tritschler HJ, Augustin HJ, Dietze GJ. Improvement of insulin-stimulated glucose-disposal in type 2 diabetes after repeated parenteral administration of thioctic acid. Exp Clin Endocrinol Diabetes. 1996;104(3):284-8.
- Kahler W, Kuklinski B, Ruhlmann C, Plotz C. Diabetes mellitus — a free radical-associated disease. Results of adjuvant antioxidant supplementation. Z Gesamte Inn Med. 1993 Jun;48(5):223-32.