Antioxidants help to bolster your immune system and work to keep you in your best health. Healthy individuals can usually produce many of the needed antioxidants naturally. Dietary sources and supplements can compliment the amount of needed antioxidants. Factors that we all deal with, such as stress, colds, illnesses and poor sleep quality, can take a toll and lead to depletion of these needed nutrients. This is where alpha-lipoic acid, (ALA) a.k.a. the “antioxidant of antioxidants,” stands apart from others.
ALA is found in every cell, and it can help to regenerate and replenish other antioxidants, although the mechanism for this is not fully understood. Fortunately, ALA can be obtained through both diet and supplements. While the goal is to get it through food first, a supplement can help fill in where diet is lacking.
What is alpha-lipoic acid?
ALA is associated with many health benefits including converting glucose to energy, improving diabetic neuropathy, reducing blood sugar and potentially lowering the risk of heart disease. “It is a naturally occurring antioxidant that plays an important role in the breakdown of nutrient enzymes in our body, which in other words means it helps our body turn nutrients into energy,” according to registered dietitian and certified nutrition support clinician Monica Kelly, MS, RD, CDN, CNSC. “It’s antioxidant effect also helps neutralize reactive oxygen species (ROS), also known as free radicals, which are negatively associated with inflammatory processes such as chronic diseases, such as diabetes, since they can damage the cells,” Kelly adds.
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Alpha-lipoic acid is unique in that it can function in both fat and water unlike most supplements that function either as fat soluble (such as vitamins D, E and K) or water-soluble (such as B vitamins, vitamin C, etc.). According to Kelly, “when you have a supplement or a vitamin that is water-soluble, it means that it can be dissolved in water and be utilized in our bodies easily, and you can take them any time; if they are fat soluble, they won’t dissolve in water so they will be stored in fat until your body utilizes them and you will need to take them with foods that contain fat so they can be better absorbed.” She adds, “when a nutrient is both water and fat soluble like ALA, it’s an added benefit because it means it can be more easily absorbed and utilized by our cells.”
Health benefits and uses of alpha-lipoic acid:
Among the many health benefits that ALA is linked to are weight management and the management of type II diabetes symptoms. Although in most cases, more research is needed, there is promising evidence for its use as a health promoting supplement.
- May help with weight loss. A comprehensive meta-analysis showed small, although significant, short-term weight loss in subjects supplemented with ALA when compared with a placebo. “There has also been research conducted with animals that shows how ALA can help with weight loss, by suppressing appetite which then reduces caloric intake and contributes to weight loss,” says Kelly. In addition, “studies have also indicated that ALA can activate some pathways that will increase energy expenditure (burn more calories), however studies have only been done in animals and more human based studies are needed,” she adds.
Editor’s note: Weight loss, health and body image are complex subjects — before deciding to start a supplement for weight loss, we invite you to gain a broader perspective by reading our exploration into the hazards of diet culture.
- May help with diabetic neuropathy. Supplementation with oral and intravenous ALA has been associated with reducing symptoms of diabetic neuropathy. According to Kelly, “diabetic peripheral neuropathy is a condition in which some of the nerves of the arms and legs are affected and people experience numbness, pain, burning or tingling, and it is believed that the antioxidant effect of ALA can help kill the free radicals that are damaging the nerves.” She adds, “I think this is where we have most of the evidence, the antioxidant properties of ALA can prevent or help repair the nerve damage associated with diabetic neuropathy and this can help improve the quality of life of patients living with diabetes. However, we still need larger studies to make recommendations,” Kelly explains.
- May help with glucose sensitivity. In addition to being used in the treatment of diabetic neuropathy, ALA has been studied for its use in the management of other insulin resistant related conditions such as metabolic syndrome and polycystic ovarian syndrome. According to Kelly, “research has shown that ALA can help lower blood glucose and increase insulin sensitivity and peripheral neuropathy.” Again more human based studies are needed.
- May improve cognitive function. ALA has been studied for its potential to improve cognitive function although, according to Kelly, “we don’t have enough research, at this time, to support the use of ALA for this purpose. However, since it can cross the brain barrier easily and since it may help protect brain cells from free radical cell damage because of its antioxidant properties, it is being studied as a potential treatment for patients with dementia or patients who have suffered a stroke,” she adds.
- May provide anti-inflammatory benefits. It is natural that people think of ALA having anti-inflammatory properties because of its antioxidant effect and ALA’s potential ability to reduce inflammatory cytokines (small proteins that are released as an inflammatory response to a host). In fact, a small study involving transplant patients found that ALA reduced inflammatory markers when given before surgery, however, Kelly adds that we still don’t have enough large studies to back up this claim.
- May help to reduce the risk of heart disease. Some research has shown that ALA can help lower triglycerides and inflammation. “A study from the American Heart Association (AHA) showed that ALA can inhibit the formation of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), therefore it could potentially be used for the prevention and treatment of atherosclerosis in combination with other treatments, but additional studies are still needed,” according to Kelly.
Food Sources of alpha-lipoic acid:
Food sources of ALA naturally contain smaller quantities of ALA than supplements. ALA food sources include:
- organ meats: kidney, heart, liver
- red meat
- Brussels sprouts
- brewer’s yeast
- rice bran
Are ALA supplements safe?
ALA supplements are generally considered safe, that said, when introducing any new supplement into your diet you should first consult with your health care provider. Additionally, while The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not approve supplements for safety and effectiveness, so we recommend choosing brands that have been third-party certified to ensure that the information on the label is accurate. Supplements carrying the USP or NSF seal have had their ingredient list verified, and have cleared tests for manufacturing contaminants like lead or other heavy metals. Other third party labs such as ConsumerLab.com provide their own testing and verification on a range of supplements.
Are there side effects to taking ALA supplements?
Very few side effects have been reported with ALA, although there have been cases of skin rash and gastrointestinal upset. Kelly points out, “if you are diabetic and taking medications or insulin to lower your blood glucose, it’s important to discuss with your medical provider because ALA may lower your blood glucose levels and may interact with medications.” Additionally, caution should be taken in people with vitamin B 1 (thiamine) deficiency, for example from alcohol abuse, because it can lower lower levels of thiamine even further. It may be contraindicated with certain thyroid medications as well. ALA has also not been studied in pregnant or breastfeeding women, and therefore it is not recommended.
The bottom line:
The need for sufficient antioxidants in the body to fight off inflammation, disease and premature aging is well known and documented. Luckily there are many food sources we can add to our diet to boost our overall antioxidant intake.
The first step should be a well-balanced diet, with additional supplementation as needed. As with all supplements, your best course of action is to check with your healthcare provider before adding them to your routine.
For more food and supplement ideas to boost your overall health and wellness goals, check out our guide to the best multi-vitamins, probiotics and magnesium, as well as the best superfoods of 2023. If you are looking for added daily motivation, our 8-week healthy habit guide can get you started on the right path.
Amy (she/her) is a registered dietitian with the Nutrition Lab at the Good Housekeeping Institute, covering nutrition- and health-related content and product testing. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Miami University of Ohio and a master’s degree in clinical nutrition from NYU. Prior to Good Housekeeping, she worked at one of the largest teaching hospitals in New York City as a cardiac transplant dietitian. She has authored numerous chapters in clinical nutrition textbooks and has also worked in PR and marketing for food company start-ups.
Nutrition Lab Deputy Director
Stefani (she/her) is a registered dietitian, a NASM-certified personal trainer and the deputy director of the Good Housekeeping Institute Nutrition Lab, where she handles all nutrition-related content, testing and evaluation. She holds a bachelor’s degree in nutritional sciences from Pennsylvania State University and a master’s degree in clinical nutrition from NYU. She is also Good Housekeeping’s on-staff fitness and exercise expert. Stefani is dedicated to providing readers with evidence-based content to encourage informed food choices and healthy living. She is an avid CrossFitter and a passionate home cook who loves spending time with her big fit Greek family.