Other names for alpha lipoic acid include thioctic acid and ALA. Sometimes it is simply referred to as lipoic acid. It is a fatty acid found naturally inside every cell in the body. It helps to convert glucose (blood sugar) into energy. Alpha lipoic acid is also an antioxidant, protecting cells against potentially harmful chemicals called free radicals. What makes alpha lipoic acid unique is that it functions in both in water and in fat, unlike the more common antioxidants. Vitamin C, for example is only water soluble and vitamin E is fat soluble. Lipoic acid appears to be able to recycle antioxidants such as vitamin C and glutathione after they have been used up. Glutathione is an important antioxidant that helps the body eliminate potentially harmful substances. Alpha lipoic acid increases the formation of glutathione.
Alpha lipoic acid is made by the body and can be found in very small amounts in foods such as spinach, broccoli, peas, brewer’s yeast, Brussels sprouts, rice bran, and organ meats. Alpha lipoic acid supplements are available in capsule form at health food stores, some drugstores, and online. If you take it as a supplement, it should be taken on an empty stomach.It can lower blood sugar in diabetics, so people with diabetes should monitor their blood sugar when taking alpha lipoic acid.
Alpha lipoic acid is soluble in fatty tissue and in water, making it unique as an antioxidant and especially useful for protecting nerve tissue. It may even help protect the brain from free radicals and help to prevent dementia. Alpha lipoic acid supplementation has been researched to be of value to people with peripheral neuropathy. Peripheral neuropathy is a condition where the extremities (starting with the hands or feet) will become numb, tingle or burn. It is commonly experienced by diabetics, but can also be caused by alcoholism, kidney failure, shingles, Lyme disease or other health problems.
Side effects of alpha lipoic acid may include headache, tingling or a “pins and needles” sensation, skin rash, or muscle cramps. There have been a few reports in Japan of a rare condition called insulin autoimmune syndrome in people using alpha lipoic acid. The condition causes hypoglycemia and antibodies directed against the body’s own insulin without previous insulin therapy.
The safety of alpha lipoic acid in pregnant or nursing women, children, or people with kidney or liver disease is unknown. Alpha lipoic acid may improve blood sugar control, so people with diabetes who are taking medication to lower blood sugar, such as metformin (Glucophage), glyburide (DiaBeta, Glynase), should only take alpha lipoic acid under the supervision of a qualified health professional and have their blood sugar levels carefully monitored.
Animal studies indicate that alpha lipoic acid may alter thyroid hormone levels, so it could theoretically have the same effect in humans. People taking thyroid medications such as levothyroxine should be monitored by their healthcare provider.