The gastrointestinal tract absorbs ALA quickly. Interestingly, it dissolves in water and fat once it enters the tissues.
What are antioxidants?
An antioxidant is an umbrella term that includes any compound that can counteract free radicals or unstable molecules that can damage cell membranes, DNA, and other parts of the cells. Free radicals lack electrons. Hence, they steal electrons from other compounds or molecules and, in the process, damage these molecules.
By giving up their electrons, antioxidants neutralize free radicals. This sacrifice results in the switching off of the free radicals.
This process of giving off their electrons for the free radicals breaks a chain reaction that affects cells in the body. It is essential to recognize that antioxidants give off electrons to free radicals. Hence, it is a chemical property and not a nutritional property.
Free radicals are natural byproducts of cellular metabolism and normal cellular processes. Air pollution, ultraviolet rays, and tobacco smoke also produce these molecules.
When the body launches an immune response to infection, the oxygen used by the immune cells produces free radicals. In turn, these free radicals destroy bacteria and viruses and damage cellular cells in the body in an oxidative burst. Normal production of free radicals likewise happens during physical exercise, sensitizing the muscle cells to insulin.
Since the production of free radicals is so pervasive in the body, you need a sufficient supply of antioxidants to neutralize excess free radicals. One of the powerful antioxidants naturally produced in the body includes alpha lipoic acid.
Other antioxidants come from your food, such as fruits and vegetables that are high in vitamins E and C. Both vitamins are well-known antioxidants. Also, some plants contain phytochemicals that are antioxidants.
A potential benefit of alpha lipoic acid as an antiaging treatment
A group of researchers from Oregon State University  examined the effects of lipoic acid and determined how it may delay aging. Using animal model studies, the researchers found that lipoic acid can turn on basic cellular defences of the body, including some of those defences that decline naturally with age.
The study authors reported that “it tends to restore levels of glutathione, a protective antioxidant and detoxification compound, to those of a young animal. It is also a strong anti-inflammatory agent, relevant to many degenerative diseases.”
The study’s authors noted that a healthy lifespan, and not only longevity, require a healthy combination of exercise, diet, habits that lead to a healthy lifestyle, and micronutrients. Hence, no single intervention can promote a healthy lifespan and longevity.Despite all these habits, scientists are still discovering the secrets of lipoic acid and its role in promoting health.
One of the authors remarked, “Our studies have shown that mice supplemented with lipoic acid have a cognitive ability, behavior, and genetic expression of almost 100 detoxification and antioxidant genes comparable to that of young animals … They aren’t just living longer, they are living better – and that’s the goal we’re after.”
These researchers observed that lipoic acid does not only directly benefit the cells. Instead, lipoic acid restores the declining functions of older cells, functions that naturally and easily come into effect in younger animals.
Interestingly, the authors cited animal model studies that revealed how lipoic acid restored a signalling process in older blood vessels. Moreover, lipoic acid delays mitochondrial decay in cells and mitochondria degeneration leads to aging.
Notably, the production of glutathione declines with age. This makes older animals susceptible to environmental toxins and free radicals.
However, glutathione production was restored when older mice received lipoic acid supplementation. Importantly, investigators also found out that in older mice administered with lipoic acid, the function and expression of other genes seemed to be restored.
One of the authors remarked, “We never really expected such a surprising range of benefits from one compound … This is unprecedented, and we’re pretty excited about it.”
Other health benefits of alpha lipoic acid
A systematic review  revealed alpha lipoic acid might help lower blood glucose levels. However, the same study recognized that ALA might benefit patients with diabetic neuropathy the most.
Currently, different mechanisms have been implicated in the development of diabetic neuropathy. The ability of ALA to neutralize free radicals may be a factor in helping people with diabetic neuropathy ease their symptoms of the disease.
These symptoms include numbness in the legs and arms, tingling, itching, burning, and pain from nerve damage. Aside from improving symptoms, ALA also improves insulin sensitivity.
Studies that examined the effectiveness of ALA in treating diabetic neuropathy have used the intravenous form of this compound. Hence, it is unclear if ingesting ALA through the mouth will reduce symptoms of diabetic neuropathy.
To date, very few studies and clinical trials examine oral ALA’s effectiveness in treating diabetic neuropathy. Further, these studies could be more extensive and better designed.
Hence, no definitive conclusion can be reached from these small studies. Instead, there is a need to conduct more extensive clinical trials to confirm the results of these smaller studies.
Stroke and brain function
Since ALA has been shown to pass the blood-brain barrier easily, it is thought to protect nerve tissue and the brain from the onslaught of free radicals. Researchers are exploring whether ALA can help with brain damage and strokes.
Some of these brain problems associated with free radical damage include dementia. Dementia is an umbrella term for neurological conditions affecting cognition, memory, and physical functioning. Alzheimer’s disease is an example of dementia and affects millions worldwide.
So far, evidence of the effectiveness of ALA therapy on brain function and stroke is not yet available. Determining if ALA effectively treats brain disorders or other neurological disorders and strokes would be difficult. The effects of ALA on brain function and stroke will require large clinical trials in the future.
ALA and glaucoma
Glaucoma is an umbrella term referring to a group of eye diseases that cause blindness and vision loss due to damage to the eye’s optic nerve(s). Symptoms of this condition start slowly. Hence, individuals may not notice these symptoms over time.
A comprehensive dilated eye exam is necessary to diagnose glaucoma . An updated review  on how antioxidants such as ALA may potentially treat glaucoma revealed that in animal model studies, ALA was shown to protect retinal ganglion cells from ischemic damage.
ALA likewise increased the expression of proteins and antioxidant genes that protected retinal ganglion cells against oxidative damage. Support for the axons improved along with increased protection of the animals’ retinal ganglion cells.
To date, there are still no human clinical trials examining the effectiveness of ALA in treating glaucoma and protecting retinal ganglion cells against oxidative and ischemic damage. However, animal model studies suggest that ALA may treat glaucoma.
Other potential benefits
Preliminary studies suggest that ALA may help reduce fine lines in the face due to damage from sun exposure. Other conditions that ALA may treat can include cancer and erectile dysfunction.
However, there still needs to be human clinical trials examining the effectiveness of ALA in treating these conditions. Instead, only animal model studies have shown that ALA may potentially treat cancer and erectile dysfunction.
Food sources of ALA
Alpha lipoic acid is produced naturally in the body. However, you can also source ALA from your food, such as red meat, liver and other organ meats, and brewer’s yeast.
Alpha lipoic acid is available as supplements in capsule forms. Talk to your healthcare provider if you are planning to take these supplements.
Finally, alpha lipoic acid is a potent antioxidant naturally produced in the body. Supplementation with this antioxidant may yield numerous benefits, including delaying aging and promoting overall health and well-being.
However, most of the studies backing up these claims came from animal model studies or human studies with small sample sizes and poorly designed studies. The lack of large clinical trials to support these claims should be considered when taking these supplements.
Despite the lack of large clinical trials, ALA has not been shown to lead to toxic effects when taken at the recommended daily dosage. Hence, seeking medical advice from your healthcare provider would help you make healthy choices for your health.