Alpha Lipoic Acid (ALA)

"Other research on alpha-lipoic acid has shown that it might: ... inhibit the activation of "nuclear factor kappa-B," a protein complex involved in cancer and the progression of AIDS. (Suzuki YJ, et al., Biochemical & Biophysical Research Communications, 1992;189:1709-15). 'The therapeutic potential of alpha-lipoic acid is just beginning to be explored," observed Packer, "but this compound holds great promise.'" [ALA is generally used for diabetes.]



The Surprising Supplement: It's not yet a household name, but alpha-lipoic acid may be the ideal disease-fighting antioxidant

ONE OF THE MOST POWerful nutritional antioxidants may have been sitting unnoticed under the eyes of scientists for more than 40 years. Discovered in 1951, apha-lipoic acid (or lipoic acid) has long been recognized as a coenzyme needed to break down sugar for energy production. It wasn't until 1988 that researchers realized that it was also an effective antioxidant.

Judging from the rapidly accumulating research, this nutrient could be one of the most important of all antioxidants. Unlike some micronutrients touted as "super" antioxidants, alpha-lipoic acid plays fundamental and essential roles in health. In terms of how it works in your body, it belongs in the same class as other major and well-established antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E and coenzyme Q10. If recent findings are any indication, alpha-lipoic acid will also gain the marketplace "staying power" of these tried-and-true antioxidants.

One of the more powerful aspects of alpha-lipoic acid is that it has dual antioxidant capacities -- it is itself a powerful antioxidant and the body routinely converts some of it to dihydrolipoic acid, which possesses even greater antioxidant properties. For example, dihydrolipoic acid neutralizes both oxygen and nitrogen free radicals, which play major causative roles in cardiovascular diseases, cancer and arthritic inflammation. There's a catch, however. Although the body produces some alpha-lipoic acid, it doesn't make enough to get the benefits of the nutrient's full antioxidant capabilities. According to Lester Packer, PhD, a molecular and cellular biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, people tap the full antioxidant potential of alpha-lipoic acid only when they take it as a supplements.

Packer, one of the top antioxidant researchers in the world, is clearly excited about alpha-lipoic acid. In a recent interview, he politely sidestepped questions about the antioxidants he takes, but he unabashedly admitted that he does takes alpha-lipoic acid supplements.

The Unique Protector

As you might expect, alpha-lipoic acid provides many of the benefits common to all antioxidants. It appears to reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases trod cancer, and it helps in other conditions aggravated by free radicals. However, alpha-lipoic acid provides a number of benefits beyond those of most antioxidants.

"From a therapeutic viewpoint, few natural antioxidants are ideal," Packer recently explained. "An ideal therapeutic antioxidant would fulfill several criteria. These include absorption from the diet, conversion in cells and tissues into usable form, a variety of antioxidant actions (including interactions with other antioxidants) in both membrane and aqueous phases and low toxicity.

"Alpha-lipoic acid is unique among natural antioxidants in its ability to fulfill all of these requirements," he continued, "making it a potentially highly effective therapeutic agent in a number of conditions in which oxidative damage has been implicated."

Packer points out that, unlike most other antioxidants, alpha-lipoic acid functions in both the fatty and watery regions of cells. It quenches hydroxyl and single-oxygen free radicals, whereas its dihydrolipoic acid form neutralizes peroxyl and peroxynitrite free radicals, important because the particularly dangerous peroxynitrite consists of both oxygen and nitrogen free radicals.

Alpha-lipoic acid is unique for another reason. It's a major player in antioxidant synergism -- what Packer prefers to call the body's "antioxidant network." Alpha-lipoic acid helps the body recycle and renew vitamins C and E, coenzyme Q10, and glutathione -- in effect, this extends the metabolic lifetimes of both antioxidants.

The properties of alpha-lipoic acid are strikingly similar to other antioxidants, and it plays essential roles in cellular energy production along with CoQ10 and carnitine. What makes alpha-lipoic stand out, however, is its remarkable versatility. Packer has at various times described it as the "metabolic," "universal" and "ideal" antioxidant. Coming from a leading scientist, instead of an advertising copywriter, such words are particularly meaningful.

Although recognition of alpha-lipoic acid as a potent antioxidant is relatively recent, the pace of research on this nutrient has increased since the late 1980s. According to Packer, alpha-lipoic acid supplements are easily absorbed and may be preferable to the major dietary source of the nutrient, which is red meat. Plus, alpha-lipoic acid supplements have been approved and used for the treatment of diabetic neuropathy in Germany, and experience with it suggests that iris safe and only rarely poses side effects. "The therapeutic potential of alpha-lipoic acid is just beginning to be explored," observed Packer, "but this compound holds great promise."

Get Basic Benefits

Here's how researchers world-wide are currently using alpha-lipoic acid. It can help:

Treat Diabetes Although the generally recommended supplemental dose of alpha-lipoic acid is 50 mg daily, much higher doses have been medically approved to treat adult-onset diabetes and diabetic complications in Germany. This use dates back to 1970, when researchers at the University of Pennsylvania reported that alpha-lipoic acid increased the burning of glucose, or blood sugar.

More recently, doctors at the Rostock-Sudstadt Clinic in Germany have reported that 600 mg of alpha-lipoic acid daily significantly reduce symptoms of diabetic neuropathy, or nerve damage. Other experiments have shown that it increases the sugar-burning activity of insulin and reduces insulin-resistance. These findings are significant because insulin resistance is the underlying cause of adult-onset diabetes. It is also a major factor in coronary heart disease and obesity.
Increase Energy Most of the body's glucose is burned in muscle cells to produce energy. The role of alpha-lipoic acid in generating energy may have been best illustrated in the recent treatment of a 33-year-old Italian woman with a genetic defect interfering with her production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which stores energy in cells.

As a child, the woman had been thin, weak and intolerant of exercise. By her early 20s, she had developed eye-muscle disorders and droopy eyelids. In her early 30s, her arm and leg muscles had weakened. A biopsy and other tests confirmed that her muscle cells were producing inadequate levels of ATP.

Doctors at the University of Bologna, Italy, gave the woman 200 mg of alpha-lipoic acid three times daily for several months. She felt better, and tests showed an increase in her muscle-energy levels. Treatment with alpha-lipoic acid also resulted in higher energy, reserves in her brain, probably by increasing sugar metabolism and raising ATP production.

Aid Recovery From Strokes Just recently, Manas Panigrahi, PhD, of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, in India, described how alpha-lipoic acid prevented "reperfusion injury" after strokes were induced in a group of laboratory rats. Reperfusion injury is caused by the production of large numbers of free radicals when oxygenated blood is restored to deprived tissues. In the brain, it typically occurs after a stroke, cerebral hemorrhage or head injury. And in the heart, it occurs after a heart attack or coronary artery bypass surgery.
In an experiment, animals receiving alpha-lipoic acid before a stroke had one-third the death rate of animals who did not receive the supplements. The animals getting alpha-lipoic acid also fared substantially better than those receiving the antioxidant glutathione, according to an article by Panigrahi. An experiment on reperfusion injury to the heart found similar benefits from alpha-lipoic acid.

Protect Brain Cells Alpha-lipoic acid also seems to protect brain cells against some hazardous chemicals and may help treat neurological disorders. Only two years ago, researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center reported that the nutrient prevented the neuron-damaging effects of N-methyl-D-aspartate, or NMDA. This suggests a possible role for alpha-lipoic acid in the treatment such acute and chronic conditions as Parkinson's and Huntington diseases.
Improve Your Memory As You Age Alpha-lipoic acid might also improve memory in the elderly. Researchers at Germany's Central Institute for Mental Health, Mannheim, described how large doses of alpha-lipoic acid improved long-term memory in aged mice. It didn't do the same for young mice, though. "The lack of any treatment effect in young, treated mice suggests that alpha-lipoic acid compensates for age-related, long-term memory deficits rather than improving memory in general," the researchers wrote. Of course, there's no way of telling whether human studies will yield the same benefits.

Stop Cellular Changes Free radicals promote the activation of nuclear factor Kappa-B (NF-kB), a protein that appears to promote inflammation, gene changes leading to cancer and replication of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). A number of antioxidants block NF-kB. In a cell-culture study, Yuichiro J. Suzuki, PhD, of the University of California, Berkeley, found that cells bathed in alpha-lipoic acid could inhibit the activation of NF-kB and, subsequently, HIV replication.

Originally published in Nutrition Science News, New Hope Communications, Boulder, Colo. (C) 1996, 1997 by Jack Challem.
Article copyright Natural Way Publications, Inc.
By Jack Challem

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