Alpha-lipoic acid or ALA is a naturally occurring compound that's made in the body. It serves vital functions at the cellular level, such as energy production. As long as you're healthy, the body can produce all the ALA it needs for these purposes. Despite that fact, there has been a lot of recent interest in using ALA supplements. Advocates of ALA make claims that range from beneficial effects for treating conditions such as diabetes and HIV to enhancing weight loss.
Research on the effects of ALA supplementation is sparse. What there is, though, does suggest some possible benefits. Here is what's known about the potential health benefits of using alpha-lipoic acid supplements.
ALA, the Antioxidant
ALA is an antioxidant. Antioxidants protect against damage to the body's cells.
There are food sources of ALA such as yeast, organ meats like liver and heart, spinach, broccoli, and potatoes. However, ALA from food does not appear to produce a noticeable increase in the level of free ALA in the body.
Some people take ALA supplements with the intent to improve a variety of health conditions. Scientific evidence for the health benefit of supplemental ALA has been inconclusive.
Studies show that about 30% to 40% of the oral dose of an ALA supplement is absorbed. ALA may be better absorbed if it is taken on an empty stomach.
ALA and Diabetes
While studies are still sparse, there is some evidence that ALA may have at least two positive benefits for individuals with type 2 diabetes. A few studies have suggested that alpha-lipoic acid supplements may enhance the body's ability to use its own insulin to lower blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes. ALA may help reduce the symptoms of peripheral neuropathy -- nerve damage that can be caused by diabetes.
In Europe, ALA has been used for years to provide relief from the pain, burning, tingling, and numbing caused by diabetic neuropathy. In particular, one large study strongly suggested that large intravenous doses of ALA were effective at relieving symptoms. But the evidence for oral doses is not as strong. More research is needed to establish the effectiveness of oral ALA supplements for diabetic neuropathy.
ALA and Other Health Conditions
ALA has been suggested as a potential aid in stopping or slowing the damage done by a variety of other health conditions from HIV to liver disease. However, much of the research is still early and evidence isn't conclusive.
There has also been recent interest in supplemental ALA for weight loss. But again, there is no evidence that ALA has any effect on weight loss in humans, and more research needs to be done.
Side Effects and Precautions of ALA Supplement
Side effects from using ALA supplements appear to be rare and mild, such as skin rash. However, little is known about the possible effect of long-term use of ALA supplements. And there are no dosage recommendations and little data on the potential effect of large doses taken over time.
ALA should not be used without a recommendation from your doctor if you take insulin or other medications to lower blood sugar. It's possible that it can enhance the effect of these drugs, leading to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Discuss the use of supplemental ALA with your doctor first. Your doctor may recommend that you increase monitoring of blood sugar levels. The doctor may also want to make an adjustment in your medication.
Because no studies have been done on the effect of using ALA during pregnancy, you should not use it if pregnant. Also, there are no data about its use by children, so children should not take ALA supplements.