Double Trouble

Antioxidant lipoic acid comes in two forms, giving free radicals nowhere to hide.

By Lisa James

September 2009


Sometimes there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to individual nutrients. For example the substance we call “vitamin E” actually consists of two related chemical families, tocopherols and tocotrienols, each of which includes several slightly different compounds.

The same concept applies to lipoic acid (also called thioctic acid). The best-known form of this powerful antioxidant is alpha lipoic acid (ALA), long used to help fight diabetic nerve damage. But ALA has a lesser-known partner, racemic lipoic acid (R-lipoic). Together they provide potent protection against free radicals and play a key role in cellular energy generation.

Energy and Aging

Much of the body’s essential work is governed by enzymes, compounds that control the chemical reactions on which life is based. Lipoic acid serves as a cofactor, or a substance that an enzyme requires to function properly. Enzymatic reactions produce energy in cellular power plants known as mitochondria; a lack of lipoic acid causes this reaction to slow down.


Some cells need much more energy than others. Muscle (including the specialized muscle tissue found in the heart), liver and sperm cells, among the body’s biggest energy users, contain heavy concentrations of mitochondria; they also require more R-lipoic acid. Other cells, such as those found in the bloodstream and joints, have lower energy demands. These cells make better use of ALA.

Just as burning fossil fuel for energy produces pollutants, generating cellular energy produces harmful molecules called free radicals. As a universal antioxidant, lipoic acid provides blanket protection by hunting down free radicals in both water- and fat-based parts of the cell. What’s more, scientists believe that lipoic acid may help recycle other antioxidants, such as vitamin C.

Free-radical production is thought to be one of the factors that affect the rate at which the body ages. Levels of glutathione, the body’s own antioxidant, are lower in aged lab animals than in younger ones; lipoic acid has been found to increase glutathione production in older animals. In humans, ALA has reduced free-radical damage associated with exercise in addition to boosting glutathione levels (Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology 6/09).

Free-radical reduction may explain how calorie restriction lengthens lifespan. In one animal study, lipoic acid was able to mimic this effect (Mechanisms of Aging and Development 6/08).

Bodily Multi-Tasker

Lipoic acid also fights aging by helping to battle the chronic disorders that often accompany advancing years. Lipoic acid has been found to counteract the effects of high blood sugar and cholesterol on blood vessels; some scientists think it may be useful in dealing with metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions associated with heart disease (Expert Opinion on Investigational Drugs 3/07). Lipoic acid’s usefulness in counteracting diabetic nerve complications may rest as much on its ability to protect nerve cells as on its healthy effects on blood sugar. This has drawn the attention of researchers working on a variety of neurodegenerative diseases, including multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s.

While lipoic acid is found in nearly all foods, the amounts supplied are generally quite low and often not readily absorbed. (Many of the foods that provide somewhat greater amounts, such as kidneys and liver, aren’t significant components of the average American’s diet.) That makes supplementation with both forms the best way to get adequate amounts of lipoic acid.
Anti-aging support, antioxidant action, energy generation and much more: Lipoic acid provides the total health package.

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