Antioxidants are trendy. You’ve probably seen them advertised in everything from tea and energy bars to moisturizers and facial oils. Antioxidants are the reason everyone has been telling you to eat leafy greens and indulge in dark chocolate.
And while common antioxidants like vitamin C and beta-carotene may be familiar, there is one health-boosting, super antioxidant that should be on your radar. We’re talking about alpha lipoic acid (ALA).
What Is Alpha Lipoic Acid?
“ALA is a powerful fatty acid that plays a role in metabolism. It binds with proteins to help the body convert carbohydrates into energy,” says Dr. Pamela Reilly, a naturopathic doctor and certified nutrition consultant based in Indianapolis. “When excess ALA exists in the body, it stops binding to proteins and begins to work as a powerful antioxidant. Antioxidants help the body eliminate free radicals that can cause cell damage and even cell mutation.”
One property that makes ALA particularly distinct is that it is soluble in both fat and water, says Dr. Evan Chait, a certified nutritionist and president and co-founder of AcuWellness. Most antioxidants are either fat soluble or water soluble, but because ALA is both, it has the unique capability of entering into all parts of a cell within the body.
There are three forms of ALA: alpha R-lipoic acid, alpha S-lipoic acid, and alpha RS-lipoic acid. Alpha S-lipoic acid and alpha RS-lipoic acid are both synthetic versions and are often found in ALA supplements. According to Chait, R-lipoic acid is the natural form of lipoic acid and the only version that exists in nature. It is produced by plants, animals, and the human body. “R-alpha lipoic acid assists in mitochondrial energy production,” says Chait.
Because ALA is only produced in small amounts in humans, supplementation is often recommended if people want to boost their ALA levels and receive the health benefits and antioxidant properties of the fatty acid.
The medical community rarely tests for low ALA levels, says Reilly, but ALA deficiencies may result in a variety of health problems. “Low ALA levels could potentially result in fatigue, poor insulin sensitivity, higher than normal blood sugars, nerve pain, vision issues, accelerated aging, coronary issues, and even wrinkles,” she says.
Dietary Sources of Alpha Lipoic Acid
ALA is found naturally in a variety of foods including leafy vegetables and certain types of meat. Chait explains that the following foods are rich in ALA:
Although these foods contain natural ALA, people would have to consume large quantities to receive the full health benefits. “The levels from food are still far too low to be clinically relevant,” says Dr. Joseph Feuerstein, director of integrative medicine at Stamford Hospital and assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University. “For example, a gram of spinach might only have a few micrograms of ALA.”
Alpha Lipoic Acid Benefits
ALA has numerous benefits. In addition to facilitating energy production in the body, lowering ocular pressure, and reducing the likelihood of developing cataracts, ALA supplementation is commonly used to help treat patients with diabetic nerve pain. “ALA has a long history of being used to help the body restore insulin sensitivity, lower blood sugars, and improve the body’s ability to maintain nerve health in the presence of any form of diabetes,” says Reilly.
But assisting with insulin levels and diabetic nerve pain isn’t the only advantage of ALA. Studies have shown ALA to be effective in slowing down the aging process in the brain (1) and improving brain function in patients with Alzheimer’s disease, and in having small—yet significant—benefits in assisting with weight loss (2).
In addition, says Chait, ALA supports the liver and heart, promotes healthy skin, and assists with maintaining glucose levels. “ALA supplements also replenish vitamins C and E, which are so important for body function,” he adds.
When to Take an Alpha Lipoic Acid Supplement
Because the body only produces small amounts of ALA, supplementation is often necessary to experience the benefits of this multifaceted antioxidant. Supplements often come in capsule form that can be taken 1-2 times per day.
“Almost anyone can benefit from taking an ALA supplement, but I especially recommend them to anyone over the age of 50, anyone with known blood sugar imbalances, anyone with insulin resistance, and anyone with ocular issues,” says Chait.
Suggested dosages for ALA supplements vary, but often range from 300-600 milligrams per day. Doctors may recommend 600-1,800 milligrams for patients suffering from diabetic nerve pain, says Feuerstein, but dosages in this range should only be taken when recommended by a medical professional.
If you’re confused about where to start with ALA supplements, it’s a good idea to look for quality, clean products from respected manufacturers. Check for products with a USP or UL seal, says Feuerstein. Supplements containing these verifications show that the brands conduct regular testing to maintain quality standards.
If you feel overwhelmed, ask a medical professional for advice. “Check with your doctor,” says Reilly. “They may have a specific brand they prefer.”
Alpha Lipoic Acid Side Effects
Side effects from taking ALA supplements are rare, and they are usually associated with high dosages. But as with any supplement, consumers should pay close attention and watch for adverse reactions.
Alpha lipoic acid side effects may include:
“People with known blood sugar imbalances should check their blood glucose levels more frequently when they start taking ALA,” says Reilly. “Lower blood sugars may result and may create a need for reduced medication levels.”
Before taking ALA supplements, check with your doctor to make sure ALA supplementation is a good fit for your overall health and lifestyle.