The discovery of alpha lipoic acid at the University Of Texas Chemistry Department in 1951 was not heralded with trumpets of joy at the revelation of such a powerful antioxidant, but was instead largely ignored. This is largely due to the biochemistry involved not being fully understood at that time, but by the 1980s it was a commonly used supplement, recommended for several medical conditions.
Chemically, the substance is a 5-membered cyclic disulphide with a carboxylic acid grouping. Biochemically, it's extremely powerful antioxidant properties are largely due to the fact that it one of those rare active molecules that are soluble in both water and fats, and in fact is the only such antioxidant currently know. One of the properties that this ability enables it to possess is to cross the blood-brain barrier, and apply antioxidant propertied to the brain.
Antioxidants are essential to human life in that they destroy free radicals. These are compounds with free unpaired electrons that destroy human body cells in their hunt for electrons to pair with. Electrons come in pairs in organic animal tissue, just as they do in organic compounds. However, under certain circumstances this pairing can become destroyed, leaving a molecule with one of its electrons without a partner.
The factors that lead to this situation are many and varied, and our own biochemistry can produce free radicals during the normal chemical processes of life. However, pollution can also lead to the oxidation processes that create free radicals, common such pollutants being cigarette smoke, vehicle exhaust fumes, pesticides and the like. Excessive exposure to the UV content of sunlight can also create free radicals as can eating barbecued and smoked foods, and exposure to carbon monoxide and peroxides. Even the biochemical conversion of glucose to energy in our bodies creates free radicals.
These free radicals can destroy body cells, including DNA, and can create conditions such as premature aging due to destruction of skin cells, destruction of brain cells, strokes, cancers, diabetes, atherosclerosis due to oxidation of LDL cholesterol that deposits in the main arteries of the body, stiffening of the joints and many other undesirable conditions.
Free radicals are destroyed rapidly by antioxidants: the reaction is very rapid and most are destroyed immediately they are formed before they can do harm. Fortunately, if your diet is well maintained, the body possesses many antioxidants such as vitamins A, C and E, and other substances such as Coenzyme Q10, flavanoids, xanthenes, polyphenols and carotenoids. Many of these are found in highly colored foods, and if your food is brightly colored, it should contain a good supply of antioxidants.
However, the problem with all of these is that they are either fat and oil soluble or water soluble, which means that they can either be freely carried round the body by the blood or have to be emulsified by the bile and transported via the lymphatic system that places restrictions on their effectiveness in certain organs of the body. The fact that alpha lipoic acid is soluble in both water and fats enables it to be carried to all parts of the body and to every organ, and can cross water/fat barriers that other antioxidants cannot do.
It can therefore be carried via the blood to the brain and carry out an essential antioxidant function within our brains. It took a long time for this property of ALA to be recognized and its consequent health benefits understood. It is, in fact, the ideal antioxidant. The substance provides many known benefits to the body due to its antioxidant properties and also helps the body to generate the maximum possible amount of energy from the blood glucose and thus improve the energy balance of your body.
However, it is with its antioxidant properties that we are most concerned here. One of the benefits of these properties is its effect in holding back the visible effects of aging on your body. Because it is both water and fat soluble, alpha lipoic acid can help destroy free radicals in every part of your skin; the areas served by the blood and the fatty and oily secretions are protected simultaneously by the same strong antioxidant. The end result is a reduction in the destruction of the cells through the dermis and epidermis and a reduction in the degree of wrinkling with age.
Its antioxidant effect in the brain renders ALA in great demand for reducing cognitive impairment with age. In fact studies have indicated that alpha lipoic acid can improve memory and brain function in the aging and the elderly. This effect appears to be increased by the synergistic combination of alpha lipoic acid and acetyl-L-carnitine that work together to prevent cognitive decline in the brain through the effect of free radicals.
There is evidence that during a stroke, ALA works synergistically with vitamin E to reduce the effect of free radical damage on the vulnerable brain cells, and so reduce the longer term effects of the stroke. Together with ALC, it also reduces oxidative stress on the mitochondria of cells and in so doing helps once again to reduce the effects of aging, and maintain the body's capacity to generate energy from blood glucose.
Cardiovascular disease is the main killer of the western world, largely due to our diets, and this is especially true of the USA. Although Americans appear unable to change their unhealthy diet, alpha lipoic acid and acetyl-L-carnitine can be used to offset much of the damage done. ALA reduces the development of atherosclerosis through its antioxidant properties and the reduction of the adhesion of monocytes to the artery walls.
LDL trapped in the wall of the artery can be oxidized and enable monocytes to also enter under the surface of the arterial wall, where it changes into macrophages and ingests the oxidised LDL, causing the plaque that forms atherosclerosis. As the plaque thickens, the artery becomes increasingly restricted until the blood flow is significantly reduced or even stopped, causing cardiac failure or a stroke.
Alpha lipoic acid can prevent this free radical oxidation from occurring by destroying them before they act on the low density lipoprotein (LDL). Acetyl-L-carnitine works with the ALA to achieve this, as does another substance known as carnosine. Between them, these three musketeers work to keep your arteries clear and your brain functioning as it should, though it is the ALA that is most powerful due to its oil and water solubility properties.
Although alpha lipoic acid is available as a supplement, either alone or in combination with acetyl-l-carnitine, it is also available from natural food sources. It is particularly rich in offal such as heart and kidney, and also in broccoli, spinach and brewer's yeast. It is also available in beef, and it is here that burgers can perhaps repay some of the damage that it causes. However, it is not a recommended source since burgers still cause more damage to your health than any of their constituent nutrients can allay.
Like any other supplement, you should seek medical advice before taking any substance if you have a health condition. Nevertheless, the benefits of alpha lipoic acid are such that it is difficult to see it doing anything but good. However, please consult your physician if are taking other drugs.
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