How do Antioxidants Actually Work
“Antioxidants” is one of those buzzwords that come up frequently in discussions about living healthy and preventing diseases. Well, it is not in vain that food experts advise us to consume plenty of them- they protect our body cells from oxidative damage by free radicals. (1) You may be wondering how that oxidative damage occurs- don’t body cells rely on oxygen to survive?
The answer lies in the pairing of oxygen atoms. Oxygen in the body splits into single molecules (which are the free radicals) with unpaired electrons. Since electrons like to be in pairs, they roam in the body seeking to pair with other electrons. In the process of roaming, they cause damage to cells and DNA. (2) Antioxidants safely interact with these free radicals to terminate the chain of oxidative reactions before the cells are damaged. (3)
Alpha Lipoic Acid, also simply known as Lipoic Acid or thioctic acid, is one kind of an antioxidant. It is a vitamin-like organosulfur compound that our bodies can produce but in minimal amounts. Plants are also able to produce alpha lipoic acid, broccoli, spinach, potatoes, beets, and tomatoes being one of the best sources. Alpha Lipoic Acid can also manufactured as a dietary supplement. Again, in some countries like Germany, it is licensed as a pharmaceutical drug for treating diabetic neuropathy. (4)
What are the benefits of Alpha Lipoic Acid?
Alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet, with a value of 1. In social language, alpha is also a term designated for the highest ranked individual who acquires the status by superior strength and aggression. Alpha Lipoic Acid is one of those supplements with that superior status. Why so? Here is the explanation as to why it deserves that status.
1. Fights free radicals
Alpha Lipoic Acid’s most valuable role in the body is in fighting the effects of free radicals. It provides its antioxidant properties in two ways; either by directly inactivating the free radicals or indirectly by enhancing the function of other antioxidants. First, Alpha Lipoic Acid takes part in cell metabolism in the mitochondria to produce energy. It plays a critical role in transporting electrons involved in converting glucose to energy. Without it, cells could shut down due to lack of energy. (5) This makes Alpha Lipoic Acid a metabolic antioxidant that can use the cells’ metabolism to transduce its protective effects. (6)
For an athlete, a constant supply of energy is required for endurance. First, Alpha Lipoic Acid helps to produce this energy. When exercising, a lot of oxygen is pumped to burn glucose and more oxidative damage by the free radicals. That is where again Alpha Lipoic Acid comes in to neutralize these free radicals. (7)
Alpha Lipoic acid also can interact and regenerate the action of vitamins C and E, glutathione and coenzyme Q-10, some of the most potent antioxidants. (8). In fact, glutathione is considered a master antioxidant for the role that it plays in disease prevention and recovery especially in diabetes, HIV/AIDS, and cancer. The result is an amplification of neutralization of a wide variety of free radicals providing protective effects throughout the body.
Free radicals are associated with aging, and the damage they cause to the cells increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases, macular degeneration (a leading cause of vision loss), cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s and many other inflammatory diseases. (9) Therefore, taking Alpha Lipoic Acid protects you from premature aging and these chronic illnesses.
One of the unique properties of Alpha Lipoic Acid is that its antioxidant properties benefit all body cells including the brain cells. This is because Alpha Lipoic Acid is both water and fat soluble, meaning that it can reach and accumulate in many of the body tissues ready for use when required. This is unlike other vitamin nutrients which are either fat or water soluble. (10)
2. Increases Cognition
The ability of Alpha Lipoic Acid to cross the brain barrier to exert its effects is the reason why experts use it to prevent or slow down brain damage in people with neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer. Other than avoiding brain cell damage by free radicals, Alpha Lipoic Acid also boosts the levels of acetylcholine to improve cognition and memory. It also promotes glucose uptake in the brain, stimulating mental focus and concentration. (11) Acetylcholine is one of the brain’s neurotransmitters that take part in the transmission of nerve impulses. Think of it as a messenger that passes information between nerves.
When studied in animal experiments, Alpha Lipoic Acid has shown beneficial effects in improving memory and cognitive function associated with aging and disease progression. When we age, there is continued degeneration of brain cells, which is partly due to the physiology of aging and partly free radical damage. This is what makes one susceptible to diseases such as Parkinson’s Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s. Brain damage due to aging or the diseases above results in dementia, memory loss, depression, and reasoning deficits. Supplementation with Alpha Lipoic Acid along with other medical treatments prevents or reduces the severity of these symptoms. (12) When combined with exercise, the cognitive effects are even better.
3. Preserves Eye Health and Skin Health
The powerful antioxidant property of Alpha Lipoic Acid is the driving force behind keeping the eyes and skin healthy. Free radicals damage the nerve endings in the eyes, especially for adults, people with diabetes, smoking, and overexposure to sunlight. All these factors encourage oxidative stress to the lens and nerves of the eyes.
The damage then causes proteins and connective tissue to build up on the lens leading to the formation of cataracts, destruction of photoreceptors that are responsible for vision, or modification of DNA of the eye cells. (13) Alpha Lipoic Acid neutralizes free radicals, preventing the accumulation of these proteins and in the long run giving a long span of healthy eyesight. It also improves vision in people with glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration.
When it comes to the skin, alpha lipoic acid has numerous benefits whether applied topically or taken orally. The skin is the largest organ that is exposed to ultraviolet light damage. Exposure to ultraviolet t light plays a significant part in premature skin aging and wrinkling. These destructive rays contribute by inducing inflammation, cell DNA damage and loss of skin elasticity. (14) Alpha Lipoic Acid helps reverse this damage by improving blood flow to the skin, promoting repair of damaged skin cells, and providing protection from free radicals.
Alpha Lipoic Acid has the ability to penetrate deep into the skin and in every cell, to deliver its effects at a deeper level. For this reason, Alpha Lipoic Acid is much better as a skin rejuvenating agent than Vitamins C and E combined.
Suggested Dosage, Synergies and Administration of Alpha Lipoic Acid
The best source of any nutrient is ideally the diet since this is the safest and the best way the body knows how to absorb and utilize nutrients. For Alpha Lipoic Acid, the food sources are minimal, and if you find any, the concentration is dependent on the quality of the soil that it was grown in and how it was prepared. The little amount that the body synthesizes is used for energy production and metabolism. For Alpha Lipoic Acid to provide its antioxidant properties, it has to be in surplus in the body, which is why supplementation is necessary.
For general antioxidant protection, standard doses between 200 and 600mg have been proven to be the most effective. (15) Strengths as little as 100mg once or twice per day are also beneficial. Doses above 600mg for up to three weeks are used at times for conditions such as diabetic neuropathy. Most of the oral tablets and capsule doses come in the following strengths: 50mg, 100mg, 200mg, 300mg, and 600mg. This gives you the option of starting from the lowest dose as you scale upwards.
Remember that a higher dose does not always mean better. In fact, at times the higher dose, the worse the side effects. If you are being treated for a medical condition or taking any other drug, it is best to always consult your doctor before not only taking Alpha Lipoic Acid but also any other supplement.
Alpha Lipoic Acid can be taken on an empty stomach, and it is best taken an hour before or after a meal. Food reduces its bioavailability, meaning less of it will be utilized in the body cells. For athletes, Alpha Lipoic Acid should be taken long after or before your workout. If taken too close to a workout period, it may be counterproductive to the thermogenic effects that a workout gives. (16) Moreover, Alpha Lipoic Acid increases the uptake of creatinine, and so, the two are best taken together. (17)
History and Origin of Alpha Lipoic Acid
Alpha Lipoic Acid was first discovered in the 1930s by a scientist known as Snell, who realized that certain bacteria needed a particular compound from potato extract for them to thrive. It is not until 1951 that a team of scientists led by Reed were able to isolate that specific potato extract. These scientists also discovered that the compound takes part in Krebs cycle, a series of reactions in metabolism that releases energy from carbs, fats, and proteins. Lester Reed and his team officially named the compound Alpha Lipoic Acid the same year.
For the next 30 years, Alpha Lipoic Acid was thought to be a vitamin. It was in the 1980s that it was recognized as a powerful water and fat-soluble antioxidant. (18) Since then, Alpha Lipoic Acid has gained extensive usage and science continues to prove that it has immense health benefits.
Final Thoughts on Alpha Lipoic Acid
In summary, here is a quick list of facts about Alpha Lipoic Acid;
- Is also commonly known as Lipoic acid, thioctic acid or simply ALA.
- Is synthesized in small amounts in our body cells, animals, and plants.
- Food sources include spinach, broccoli, brewer’s yeast, potatoes, tomatoes, and organ meat (liver, kidney and heart tissue).
- The small amount synthesized by the body cells is wholly used for energy production, and a surplus is needed for other benefits. Thus the need for supplementation.
- The key benefit of Alpha Lipoic Acid is in free radical damage.
- Also helps in boosting metabolism, eye and skin health, lowering cholesterol levels, improving blood sugar control, treating diabetic neuropathy and much more.
- The recommended dosage for general antioxidant protection is from 100mg and no more than 600mg. Higher doses may be prescribed for other purposes.
- The route of administration of choice is by mouth, though the intravenous method is used for treating diabetic neuropathy. Tablet and capsule formulation are the best and most readily available.
- Commonest side effects are body rash, itching, nausea, vomiting, and dizziness. The side effects may increase with an increase in dosage.
- Best taken on an empty stomach and long before or after a workout.
- Increases the absorption of creatinine.