What is ALA?
Alpha-lipoic acid's chemical structure is similar in nature to the B vitamin family, but is not to be confused as a vitamin. So ALA is a vitamin-like antioxidant that can be produced from within the body, as well as being consumed from nutritive sources such as yeast, spinach, broccoli, potatoes and meat. The bodies ability to synthesise ALA means it’s not an essential nutrient as such, but offers several benefits to the body none the less.
ALA’s role as an antioxidant
The antioxidant properties of ALA means it contributes to the neutralisation and buffering of damaging free radicals, a by- product of metabolism. ALA is unique from other antioxidants because it’s both water and fat soluble, this means its protective potential is universal to any region of the body. Conversely vitamin C is only soluble in water, whereas vitamin E is fat soluble meaning they only offer antioxidant properties in their respective compartments.
ALA’s role in weight management
The role of ALA in weight management stems from its role in the regulation of blood glucose, however its exact mechanism is not fully understood. It is thought that ALA increases insulin sensitivity, and improved insulin sensitivity means blood sugar levels are better controlled and the delivery of energy is improved. One of its main mechanisms of action is an increased level of insulin receptor protein content in skeletal muscle. Improved insulin response means the nutrients consumed via the diet are partitioned more desirably i.e. fat and carbs are channelled to the muscle meaning less is stored as adiposity… A.K.A. fat!
ALA is a key intermediate in the citric acid cycle (Krebs cycle) which is responsible for the conversion of protein, carbs and fat into ATP, your bodies main energy source for cells. The improved breakdown of protein, carbs and fat into usable energy is another mechanism by which ALA may minimise fat stores.
A little chemistry lesson
Llewellyn (2009) explains the enantiomer existence of ALA i.e. the two different forms of ALA that include R isomer (R-ALA) and S isomer (S-ALA) and are mirror images of one another. When looking at what supplement to consume you will come across pure R-ALA, and a mixture of both R-ALA and S-ALA, usually in 50/50 quantities. Most studies seem to suggest that R-ALA is absorbed better by the body, and is more biologically active, in fact S-ALA may do the opposite i.e. induce insulin resistance! So in short, if you want to consume ALA then opt for the R-ALA form.
Due care a diligence… Don’t overdo it!
Be careful not to overdo it, improved insulin sensitivity might also expose you to low blood sugar levels because of the hyper efficient uptake of glucose into the cell. Side effects of ALA are minimal, but a few isolated incidents have seen some skin irritation such as rashes and itchiness, and some gastrointestinal distress including looses stools, diarrhoea and vomiting. Side effects are subjective and it is advised to start on a low dose and increase it gradually according to tolerance. When consuming ALA it is also prudent to ensure a consistent intake of starchy carbohydrates, this should help to maintain a drip flow of glucose into the muscle and minimise the risk of hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar levels).
NOTE : Diabetics MUST discuss the use of ALA with their Dietitian and Diabetes Specialist Nurse before even contemplating the use of such a supplement. ALA should not be used in conjunction with Diabetic medication.
Llewellyn, W. (2009). Sport Supplement Reference Guide. Alpha-Lipoic Acid (ALA). FL : Molecular Nutrition LLC.