There are some nutritional supplements that everybody knows about, but R alpha-
lipoic acid simply isn’t one of these.
However, a supplement can be important for health even if the media hasn’t really caught onto it.
This is certainly the case with R alpha lipoic acid and there is enough evidence for R alpha lipoic acid benefits for health that I would recommend it as a supplement.
However, like any supplement, the benefits of R alpha lipoic acid do vary between people and populations. As such, it is not a good choice for everyone.
What is R Alpha Lipoic Acid?
The term R alpha lipoic acid sounds a little bit confusing, but it isn’t actually as bad as it seems.
Lipoic acid is a chemical that is naturally present in a range of different foods.
However, the chemical formulation of the natural versions of lipoic acid is such that the chemical cannot be used readily (1).
Additionally, the amount of the compound that is actually obtained from the diet is low.
These two factors mean that the amount of health benefits that people get from lipoic acid in the diet is limited.
The chemical itself is also referred to as alpha lipoic acid, which is nothing more than a variation of the name based on the chemical structure.
The term R alpha lipoic acid is used specifically to refer to one of two variants of the compound.
Biologically, many compounds have a nature that is known as chiral, meaning that two forms of the compound exist, which are mirror images of one another.
Often, these mirror images, or enantiomers will have different biological functions.
For example, one may be associated with health benefits while the other variant of the compound may not.
Conventionally, the different enantiomers are referred to as R and S based on their orientation, which is where R alpha lipoic acid gets its name from.
Biologically, R alpha lipoic acid is very important, as it is a critical cofactor for complexes in the mitochondria, which is associated with the production of energy in the body (2).
R Alpha Lipoic Acid Benefits
As an Antioxidant
Like some other biological compounds, R alpha lipoic acid is an antioxidant.
Antioxidants play particularly significant biological roles, as they help to protect the body against the damaging effects of free radicals and oxidative stress.
Free radicals are very reactive species within the body that are able to cause significant damage to cells and tissues in the body.
Antioxidants work by reducing the overall level of oxidative stress and also stopping free radicals from being produced.
The impacts of oxidative stress and free radicals can be particularly significant in some medical conditions, such as diabetes, as high levels of glucose are associated with higher levels of oxidative stress.
As an antioxidant, R alpha lipoic acid is actually a little unusual, because it is soluble both in water and in fat.
This is actually a highly desirable function, because it means that the compound is active in all parts of the cell.
Most antioxidants don’t do this, and will only be active in the fat portion or the water portion of the cell, depending on their solubility.
R alpha lipoic acid is also significant as an antioxidant is that it is able to support the functions of other antioxidants in the body, particularly coenzyme Q10 (also known as CoQ10) – helping to produce significant improvements to health.
Additionally, R alpha lipoic acid appears to have the ability to recycle other antioxidants once they have been used in the body, helping to remove compounds that are potentially damaging to the body while replenishing their antioxidant properties.
In particular, alpha lipoic acid is associated with the promotion of glutathione synthesis.
Glutathione is an important antioxidant within the body that can help to detoxify the body and eliminate a significant number of toxins that can be present in the body (3).
Research has indicated that the antioxidant properties of alpha lipoic acid may be able to play a role in the treatment of hepatitis C, particularly as treatment with antioxidants is significantly less expensive than the alternative types of treatments frequently used for this condition (4).
There has been considerable emphasis on the potential to delay or even reverse the aging process in recent years, particularly as our understanding of aging and of degenerative disease is increasing.
Much of this discussion and research is focused on the mitochondrial theory of aging, which suggests that aging is driven by damage and inefficiencies within the mitochondria.
This theory also indicates that improving the function of the mitochondria has the potential to slow down or reverse some elements of aging. For example, some sites (like Life Extension) talk about specific ways to improve mitochondrial function and potentially decrease some symptoms of aging.
For those that don’t know, mitochondria are specific components of cells (known as organelles) that are responsible for the production of energy.
Including alpha lipoic acid in the diet has the potential to improve the function of the mitochondria, including decreases in oxidative stress and improvements in metabolic functions (5).
Specific Health Outcomes
Alzheimer’s disease is a concerning health problem, particularly as it is so uncontrollable and unpredictable.
However, researchers are growing in their understanding of the disease, and higher levels of inflammation, cholesterol and inflammation levels have all been associated with Alzheimer’s disease and are thought to play a role in the development of the disease.
One study examined the impact that supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids and alpha lipoic acid had for patients with Alzheimer’s disease.
There was no significant impact of supplementation with alpha lipoic acid on its own, but supplementation with both alpha lipoic acid and omega-3 fatty acids was associated with improved health outcomes (6).
This outcome suggests that the two compounds may support one another within the body, helping to provide health benefits that would not be possible by a single one of the compounds.
Oxidative stress plays a significant role in the complications that develop as the result of diabetes, and research suggests that decreasing the level of oxidative stress can reduce the likelihood of complications (7).
Because of this, alpha lipoic acid has been found to reduce the symptoms associated with diabetic complications (8).
There has been some indication that alpha lipoic acid may also result in long-term improvements in glycemic control (11), however, this is not an area that has been studied in detail, and additional research is needed.
In a similar way, there is also indications that orally taking alpha lipoic acid may help to improve the vascular functions of patients who have metabolic syndrome or diabetes (12).
Surgery for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Researchers have also investigated the role that supplementation with alpha lipoic acid had on patients who had carpal tunnel syndrome who were scheduled to undergo surgery for the condition.
In the study, there were three groups of participants. One of these groups was the control (Group A) and did not take any supplements.
The other two groups took different levels of supplements, with group B taking supplements twice a day for a total of six months (three prior to surgery, three afterwards), while group C took supplements only before surgery.
In this study, the supplements consisted of three components: curcumin, alpha lipoic acid and B-group vitamins.
The researchers found that participants in group B had the most desirable clinical outcomes, indicating that the supplementation was effective and safe for improving outcomes and the effectiveness of surgery (13).
While this study does support the health benefits of alpha lipoic acid, it is complicated by the fact that the study involved three supplements taken at the same time.
As with any type of supplement, no one fully understands R alpha lipoic acid benefits, and there is still a significant amount of research that needs to be undertaken into the supplement and its role in health.
For example, alpha lipoic acid is sometimes used in conjunction with low dose naltrexone for a range of serious health issues, including autoimmune disease, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
Patients undergoing this treatment find that it is effective for normalizing health, but limited research has been undertaken in the area (14).
The use of alpha lipoic acid has also been associated with improvements in insulin sensitivity (particularly important for people with metabolic syndrome or diabetes), improvements in T cell function and as a chelator of heavy metals (15).
The chelation of heavy metals is actually a particularly important role, as this is a process that binds metal ions. For example, the site Natural Society talks about foods that may have this effect.
This prevents the formation of free radicals and can act to improve health and may also provide a potential treatment for some chronic diseases (16).
The consumption of alpha lipoic acid has also been associated with decreases in LDL within the bloodstream (17).
Additionally, some research studies have found that supplementation with alpha lipoic acid is associated with decreases in the prevalence of pain, including chronic neck pain (18) and chronic lower back pain (19).
Despite the potential of alpha lipoic acid for health, research into the supplement has been limited (22).
This suggests that there is a significant need for greater research into this area in the future, particularly as the supplement does have the potential to improve health in the areas discussed above.
Additionally, the variety of research and studies mean that there are no recommendations for dosage and limited research has focused on the outcomes of taking large doses in the long-term (23).
The lack of recommended dose is also associated with the fact that dosage of this chemical is highly individual, meaning that what works for one person may be different for another. This is why supporters of alpha lipoic acid supplementation suggest that it will take people a bit of trial and error to work out the ideal dose for them (24).
Nevertheless, some recommendations do suggest a dose of between 300mg to 600mg of the supplement (25).
Despite this, the potential health benefits of the compound, particularly for people suffering from diabetes or metabolic syndrome, make it a highly desirable supplement.
After all, alpha lipoic acid is a particularly powerful antioxidant, and this alone is a significant advantage of taking the supplement.
When it comes to supplementing with alpha lipoic acid it is important to pay attention to whether you are getting the correct form.
As I mentioned before, it is R alpha lipoic acid that is associated with health benefits, not the S form of the compound.
Many low-quality supplements will contain a combination of both forms, which means that the health benefits of the supplements are much less.
One way around this is to look for supplements that are specifically labeled with R alpha lipoic acid and avoid any that simply say lipoic acid or alpha lipoic acid.