Alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) is a vital coenzyme in the mitochondria's Krebs cycle for the production of cellular energy. In the late 1980s, researchers first identified alpha-lipoic acid's powerful antioxidant role. Of special interest was the unique effect of alpha lipoic acid on other anti-oxidants.
It directly recycles and extends the metabolic lifespans of vitamin C, glutathione, vitamin E and Coenzyme Q10 - of particular value in older adults who frequently are deficient in them.
CoQ10 is an important component of the mitochondrial electron transport chain and its enhancement by ALA is particularly beneficial as well as unique.
Only ALA meets the established criteria of an an ideal anti-oxidant. These include ready absorption in the diet, conversion in cells and tissues into usable form, possession of a variety of antioxidant actions (including interactions with other antioxidants) in both membrane and aqueous phases, and possession of a low toxicity.
Fredrick C. Bartter, Burton M. Berkson, and associates from the National Institutes of Health carried out the first human clinical studies of the use of alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) in the United States in the 1970's.
Of 79 people with acute and severe liver damage, 75 recovered full liver function following their administration of intravenous ALA. Drs. Bartter and Berkson were appointed by the FDA as principal investigators for this therapeutic agent as an investigational drug and subsequently Dr. Berkson went on to use it successfully for the treatment of chronic liver disease of both infectious and autoimmune origins.
In addition, because of ALA's unique ability to stabilize NF kappa B transcription factor, Dr. Berkson began to investigate the treatment of various untreatable cancers using ALA. In 2006, he and co-authors presented a case of long term survival of a patient with metastatic pancreatic cancer using ALA combined with antioxidants and the use of low dose naltrexone. In 2007 he described the complete reversal of the signs and symptoms of a B-cell lymphoma using essentially the same program.
Nuclear factor kappa B is a transcriptase vital to the immune system and the probable mechanism by which statin drugs exert their powerful anti-inflammatory action thereby benefiting the process of atherosclerosis.
Alpha-lipoic acid is described as the only antioxidant that is both fat and water soluble, enabling the supplement to readily cross the blood brain barrier, accessing all parts of a cell. This is of particular importance in the elderly who are at high risk for ischemic and oxidative change. Its powerful role in maintaining effective levels of glutathione is of major importance.
Several studies suggest that treatment with ALA may help reduce pain, burning, itching, tingling, and numbness in people who have nerve damage (called peripheral neuropathy) caused by diabetes. Alpha-lipoic acid has been used for years for this purpose in Europe.
Because alpha-lipoic acid can pass easily into the brain, it has protective effects on brain and nerve tissue and is under study for brain disorders involving free radical damage.
Although Alpha-lipoic acid is manufactured in the body, consumption of this substance from foods has not yet been found to result in detectable increases of free LA in human plasma or cells. In contrast, high oral doses of free ALA result in significant but transient increases in free ALA in plasma and cells. Plasma ALA concentrations generally peak in one hour or less and decline rapidly.
Duane Graveline MD MPH
Former USAF Flight Surgeon
Former NASA Astronaut
Retired Family Doctor
Updated December 2015