How many types of antioxidants are there? Thousands. It would be impossible to pinpoint an exact number, since researches are discovering new ones constantly. Take flavonoids, which are polyphenolic plant compounds. To date there are more than 6,000 types of flavonoids which have been identified (1). Flavonoids are just one class of antioxidants!
With so many fish in the sea to choose from, so to speak, why is alpha lipoic acid (ALA) good for you? Does it offer more health benefits than others?
There’s no such thing as the best antioxidant, because they interact with our bodies in different ways and therefore, we need many different types in our diet. That being said, alpha lipoic has been shown to be good for you in a broad number of ways, which is why some have coined it “the universal antioxidant.”
1st Advantage: Both water and fat soluble
Except for when it’s in a modified ester form, vitamin C is water soluble. That means it dissolves in water and is not stored in your body’s fat and for that reason, you need to take it daily.
Fat soluble vitamins – such as A, E, D, and K – are the opposite, they’re soluble in fats and for our body to readily absorb them, we need to consume them in conjunction with fats. If you swallow your multi-vitamin with a glass of water and don’t eat a meal along with it, chances are very little of these nutrients are being absorbed (however the vitamin C is, since it’s water soluble).
What makes ALA special is that since it is both water and fat soluble, you are able to absorb it at any time, regardless of what you’re eating or drinking with it.
2nd Advantage: Crosses blood-brain barrier
Over a century ago it was discovered that when colored dye was injected into the bloodstream of an animal, it would show up everywhere in the body with two exceptions; the spinal cord and brain.
This is because of the blood-brain barrier (BBB), which basically acts as a protective filtering mechanism to only allow certain substances to pass through, especially our body’s natural hormones as well as many larger molecule toxins, both of which could wreak havoc on our central nervous system.
This also means however that good nutrients are often blocked, such as antioxidants. Does alpha lipoic acid cross the blood brain barrier? It does. Not many antioxidants can do that.
3rd Advantage: Health benefits research
Because it is so readily absorbed and can permeate throughout our entire body, it comes as no surprise that it has been suggested as possibly offering health benefits for many things ranging from skin, eyes, diabetes, fitness/bodybuilding, and numerous others.
Diabetes and Insulin Sensitivity
Research suggests ALA offers not just one, but several benefits for diabetics. It has been shown to increase insulin sensitivity (2). When given intravenously to patients with diabetic neuropathy, it was found to offer “significant and clinically relevant reduction in neuropathic pain” from the symptoms of of tingling, burning, and itching (3).
One study suggested a combination alpha lipoic acid and acetyl L carnitine supplementation “tended to decrease systolic blood pressure for the whole group” and had “a significant effect in the subgroup with blood pressure above the median” (4). If further studies confirm these findings, this may also benefit diabetics since there is a high correlation between people who have hypertension and type 2 diabetes.
Muscle Synthesis and Bodybuilding
All types of athletes, from endurance runners to competitive bodybuilders, have embraced the use of the supplements and eating more of the foods highest in alpha lipoic acid. This is because research has suggested it may benefit muscle growth and recovery post workout. How so? Purportedly by increasing the amount of Glucose transporter type 4 (GLUT4 transporters) which interact with skeletal muscle cells (5). This is said to allow more glucose to get into your muscles during and after a workout. That glucose is responsible for fueling and repairing the muscles and therefore, it is believed alpha lipoic acid benefits muscle growth.
Many face creams and serums in recent years have been incorporating ALA into their ingredients list. Why? Because of it is easily absorbed and metabolized by our body, it is theorized that the antioxidant activity of ALA helps with oxidative stress which may accelerate or contribute to premature signs of aging (6). Furthermore, it is believe to disrupt the cross-linking process between proteins and other large molecules, which is said to contribute to the aging process with symptoms such as hardening of blood vessels and capillaries and wrinkling of the skin (7).
Promising studies have suggested lipoic acid might be beneficial for age-related macular degeneration (AMD), glaucoma, and retinitis pigmentosa (a disease causing retinal cell death) (8). One of the causes of cataracts is believed to be oxidative stress in the eye’s lens. Animal studies have shown ALA to be beneficial in slowing the formation of cataracts – 60% of the animals were protected from getting them (9). It was concluded in that study the ALA “restored the activities of gluthathion peroxidase, catalase, and ascorbate free radical reductase” in the lenses of the animals. In plain English, those first two words are enzymes which are said to protect against oxidative damage.
It’s important to realize that these statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Dietary supplements and foods containing alpha lipoic acid are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Further research is needed to conclusively prove or disprove any health benefit claims.
Rich Dietary Sources of Alpha Lipoic Acid
All amounts below are measured in lipoyllysinem, which is the protein-bound form alpha lipoic acid, as per Nutritional Ergogenic Aids. Be aware that it is not known exactly how much antioxidant activity the protein-bound form has (versus isolated ALA as a supplement) since a conversion process must take place for it to serve as a source of “free” alpha lipoic acid. The amount converted may vary by person based on the unique factors of their body.
|Top 10 Foods Highest In ALA (as lipoyllysine, the protein-bound form)|
|Food||mcg/g Dry Weight
|2. bovine (cow) kidney||2.64||50.57|
|3. bovine (cow) heart||1.51||41.42|
|6. green pea||0.39||17.13|
|7. brussel sprouts||0.39||18.39|
|8. bovine (cow) spleen||0.36||5.69|
|9. bovine (cow) brain||0.27||4.85|
|10. rice bran||0.16||4.44|
In addition to the source we found it, this data is also addressed in greater detail in Antioxidant Food Supplements in Human Health (thanks to Bartel for that).
When it comes to animal sources (meats) unfortunately it’s only the uber-gross body parts which contain a lot of ALA, or at least the highest amounts. Not to mention, I don’t think you can exactly stroll into your local Trader Joe’s and pick up a package of cow brain. For the meats which are actually consumed on a regular basis – like skeletal muscle – the protein (ng/mg) was “ND” (non-detectable) and the dry weight (mg/g) was 0.97.
Most of the vegetables listed are actually ideal for bodybuilders and others trying to increase muscle mass:
Spinach is high in protein and BCAAs. If you ate a 10 ounce package of spinach, you would get 8 grams of protein. Eating that raw may take a while (and a lot of chewing) so steaming it would make that lot easier to do. With that same serving you would also be getting 633 mg of leucine, 417 mg of isoleucine, and 457 mg of valine, the 3 Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs).
Peas are high in protein. 1 cup is only 118 calories and provides 8 grams of protein.
Brussel sprouts are also high protein. One cup (38 calories worth) provides 3 grams of protein.
Broccoli has more protein than steak. One serving of it (the NLEA serving size of 148 grams) provides 4.2 grams of protein and only 50 calories. On a per calorie basis, broccoli actually contains more protein than steak. It’s true, not a myth. You will see sources online trying to argue with that fact by cherry picking data, but if you go off of the USDA’s National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, you will see beef tenderloin, trimmed to 1/8″ fat (all grades) as having 19.61 grams of protein per 100 grams (247 calorie worth) (10). Do the math and that means with steak you are getting 7.94 grams of protein per 100 calories. With broccoli, you’re getting 8.4 grams of protein per 100 calories.
How much alpha lipoic acid per day day?
Even if your daily lunch was a spinach salad topped with minced cow kidney and heart, the amount of “free” ALA you are getting in total from food sources can probably be measured in micrograms, no milligrams.
This means even a low dosage supplemental amount, like a 50 mg capsule, may be providing you with hundreds of times more than you are getting from your diet during a 24 hour period.
Oregon State University’s Micronutrient Information Center describes it like this: “The amounts of LA (lipoic acid) available in dietary supplements (200-600 mg) are likely as much as 1,000 times greater than the amounts that could be obtained in the diet.” (11)
Since many, if not the vast majority, of ALA studies looked at dosages of several hundred milligrams (or more) per day, it’s understandable why people choose to take ALA supplements.
Of course, vegetables and other dietary sources with high lipoic acid content continue to be a good diea, since it’s in the natural form. Sure, we may not yet understand its bioavailability when protein bound (i.e. source in ALA foods), but it seems like whenever we tinker with something God made, it’s only research much later on that proves the original was best. GMOs are a current example of that.
If supplementing, how much to take daily?
There’s no straightforward answer. In some studies where insulin sensitivity increased and blood glucose levels decreased, 200 to 600 mg per day were used (12).
We have came across people who take up to 3,000 mg of ALA per day, because they felt they noticed the most benefits with it for building muscle and weight loss of fat. However that decision was only based on how they “feel” which may or may not be grounded in any factual science.
Before deciding the dosage you want to take of this dietary supplement, you first need to take into account these factors which can greatly impact absorption and stability of the substance.
Tip #1: Because ALA is an unstable molecule, powdered forms are questionable.
Once exposed to the atmosphere and light, it rapidly degrades. This is why we personally don’t like taking anything other than enclosed capsules. We think ALA in powder form is a terrible concept.
Tip #2: Short half-life means that smaller doses spread out are better.
What is the half-life of alpha lipoic acid? In blood it’s only 30 minutes, as demonstrated in vivo in at least one study (13). Though this number has been highly disputed, because even though it doesn’t stay in the blood, it purportedly reduces to Dihydrolipoic acid (DHLA) and enters the cells. How long that affects them is unknown.
Whatever the case, the general consensus among supplement users seems to be that taking an ALA supplement once every 3 to 6 hours would be higher preferable over a higher dose that’s once or twice daily.
Tip #3: If you can afford it, go with R Lipoic.
You may have noticed some bottles touting the R version which are about 2x the price or higher. What is the difference between alpha lipoic acid and R lipoic acid? The regular is a 50/50 split of R- (the natural bioavailable form of lipoic acid) and S- (unnatural form). Humans have difficult absorbing the S version it may actually inhibit some properties of the R version being expressed.
In short, this means that if you take a 300 mg pill of regular ALA, only 150 mg of that is the R lipoic acid, the type our body uses. It is unclear whether or not the other 50% – the S type – can be used and if so, how efficiently. So not only are you getting half the benefit, but your body also needs to utilize a conversion process to separate the two forms found in regular Lipoic acid supplements.
It’s now been nearly a decade of us supplementing daily with ALA. Despite being very physically active and having intense exercise 6x per week, fitness is not the primary reason for taking it. Rather it’s for the other potential health benefits which have been suggested by the vast amounts of research on this compound.
In poorer days, it was the regular (not the R) version which was taken and honestly, you shouldn’t stretch your budget to buy it either. Rather than buy the R, just buy the regular version in a dosage which may be 3x the number milligrams as a bottle of R, yet for only half the cost. Only buy the R if you can easily afford it.
It’s changed throughout the years, but during the past couple, this is what the regimen looks like:
Doctor’s Best Stabilized R-lipoic Acid 100 mg capsules, 180-Count bottle. Why? Because among the brands we trust, we find this is the best value. On a per capsule price, the 180 bottle is a great deal. When out of stock or sale, it’s the 60 count bottles (pictured).
- Morning: 1 pill with with coffee upon waking
- Mid-morning (sometimes): 1 pill either with breakfast or after
- Lunch: 1 pill with meal
- Mid-afternoon (sometimes): 1 pill with snack
- Dinner: 1 pill before or with meal
- Late evening: (sometimes): 1 pill
This means anywhere from 300 to 600 mg of R lipoic acid per day. Days with more stress often entail the 600.