Antioxidant Soothes Diabetic Neuropathy
Alpha Lipoic Acid Decreases Burning, Cutting Pain
Dyck, who conducted the study with Russian researchers, says that alpha lipoic acid offered several benefits to his patients with diabetes. "It is a very strong antioxidant and it is assumed that oxidation plays a role in the development of diabetes," he tells WebMD. This means the substance -- produced in very small amounts by the body and also found in foods such as potatoes and red meat -- protects against damage by cell-ravaging "free radicals." This oxidation process is implicated in various diseases, including heart disease, cancer, and neurologic conditions including Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
"Besides that, alpha lipoic acid also seems to promote better blood flow and oxygen to the nerves and may also promote the entry of glucose and the breakdown of it into cells," he says.
Passwater says this is because alpha lipoic acid improves the function of cell "transporters" that carry and distribute glucose. "This helps insulin do its role," he tells WebMD. "It also has a specific effect on nerves that we don't know too much about but have noted. Overall, it has universal benefits, affecting various body sites, and works with other antioxidants to help them protect the body."
Though hundreds of studies have been done on alpha lipoic acid -- including several that suggest a benefit in treating diabetic neuropathy in patients with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes -- few large trials have been conducted in the U.S. In several foreign studies on mice and people, dosages ranging from 60 mg to 800 mg seemed to produce improvements in blood sugar levels and insulin production and decrease diabetic neuropathy pain.
Diabetic neuropathy is currently treated with painkillers, including narcotics -- which can be habit-forming -- and antiepileptic drugs, which can cause sedation. Alpha lipoic acid, meanwhile, appears to be safe and has few side effects, says Dyck.
But he isn't suggesting that people with diabetes self-medicate themselves with alpha lipoic acid. "We're not quite at that stage; we first need to complete studies using the oral capsules. If you have diabetes, the first line of treatment is glucose control," Dyck tells WebMD. "But the reality is that some people cannot or will not get desired control of blood sugar. And if further research proves conclusive, it looks as though alpha lipoic acid might be one of the ways they can do it."