Groundbreaking Research Shows That the Natural, Biologically Active Form of Lipoic Acid Provides Optimal Antioxidant Protection
Exciting new research links certain antioxidants to enhanced mitochondrial energy production. This finding is changing the way scientists view the interactions of damaging free radicals and beneficial antioxidants. Among the discoveries produced by this research are the disease-fighting properties of R-dihydro-lipoic acid (R-DHLA), a powerful antioxidant that is critically involved in cellular metabolism. Recent studies suggest that R-dihydro-lipoic acid may help prevent mitochondrial decay, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, atherosclerosis, and other disorders associated with aging.
Antioxidants are known to play a vital role in preventing many of the health disorders associated with aging, including degenerative diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and cardiovascular disease.
Medical researchers continue to discover new antioxidant compounds as well as new applications for these protective nutrients. A vitamin-like substance known as alpha-lipoic acid is now at the forefront of antioxidant research. Alpha-lipoic acid was first introduced as a supplement in the late 1990s. Researchers are uncovering new applications to add to the already impressive list of therapeutic uses for alpha-lipoic acid.
A newly available version of alpha-lipoic acid, called R-dihydro-lipoic acid (R-DHLA), has been shown to offer substantially greater antioxidant and neuroprotective benefits than previous versions of alpha-lipoic acid.
Actions of Alpha-Lipoic Acid
Medical researchers initially classified alpha-lipoic acid, which was virtually unknown until the 1930s, as a new vitamin. Alpha-lipoic acid eventually was recognized as an essential coenzyme, following the discovery that it is naturally synthesized in tissues and plays a vital role in mitochondrial electron transport reactions required for metabolizing glucose into adenosine triphosphate (ATP) for cellular energy production.1
By 1988, alpha-lipoic acid had been revealed as a powerful biological antioxidant, exhibiting a potential to quench free radicals equal to that of coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) and vitamins C and E.2 Researchers also discovered that alpha-lipoic acid is unique in being the only antioxidant known to work in both fat- and water-soluble tissues. By contrast, the actions of vitamin C (ascorbic acid) are restricted to watery (aqueous) tissues, while the actions of vitamin E, which is soluble only in fat, are restricted to fatty tissues and cellular membranes.
This dual-acting ability allows alpha-lipoic acid to be easily transported across cellular membranes to neutralize free radicals in both interior and exterior cellular structures, leading researchers to refer to alpha-lipoic acid as the “universal antioxidant.” According to Lester Packer, PhD, professor of molecular biology at the University of California, Berkeley, alpha-lipoic acid “could have far-reaching consequences in the search for prevention and therapy of chronic degenerative diseases . . .”3
Recycling Vitamins C and E
To understand how alpha-lipoic acid and R-dihydro-lipoic acid work against various degenerative disorders, it is first necessary to understand how these compounds work in the body—specifically, how they interact chemically with other critical antioxidants such as glutathione and vitamins C and E to combat harmful reactive oxygen species.
Human aging is marked by a sharp decline in the concentration, synthesis, and recycling of central antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, CoQ10, and glutathione. This loss of antioxidant function reduces the body’s ability to protect tissues from highly reactive free radicals. Left unchecked, free radical proliferation leads to increased oxidative damage to DNA strands, cell membranes, mitochondria, and organs. Over time, the cumulative effects of free radical damage can result in impaired immune function and increased incidence of cancers and degenerative diseases. In recent years, one of the leading breakthroughs in antioxidant research is an understanding of how alpha-lipoic acid recycles vitamins E and C to help control free radical damage.
Vitamin E is a potent biological antioxidant and a central component of the antioxidant cycle. Vitamin E protects fatty tissues, primarily cellular membranes, by quenching free radicals such as lipid peroxyl and lipid alkoxyl radicals. By donating an electron to pair up unpaired electrons present in lipid radicals, vitamin E is transformed into its oxidized form. The oxidized vitamin E then interacts with vitamin C by accepting one of vitamin C’s electrons. The process continues as vitamin C, in its oxidized form as dehydroascorbic acid, accepts an electron from glutathione. Glutathione is in turn recycled by reduced nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate (NADPH). It is at this point in the cycle, however, that the body’s antioxidant complex runs into a limiting factor determined by the availability of glutathione.
The Missing Link: Alpha-Lipoic Acid
Glutathione is one of the body’s most important intracellular antioxidants. In addition to playing a central role in quenching free radicals, glutathione protects against cataract formation, en-hances immune function, prevents liver damage, slows the initiation of cancers, and aids in the elimination of heavy metals. Glutathione levels can quickly be depleted when the body is exposed to high levels of oxidative stress during times of illness, infection, trauma, or surgery. Glutathione deficiency is also seen in cases of low protein intake, diabetes, liver disease, cataracts, HIV infection, respiratory distress syndrome, cancer, and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, along with other conditions that produce oxidative stress.
When researchers sought ways to increase cellular glutathione levels, they encountered a problem. Normally, cellular glutathione is produced only in the body. When taken orally, glutathione is largely broken down in the stomach, resulting in modest serum increases in glutathione but almost no change in intracellular levels of glutathione.
Dr. Packer and other researchers at UC-Berkeley have spent almost four decades studying glutathione and antioxidant recycling. Despite a detailed understanding of the antioxidant regeneration cycle, Dr. Packer ran into the same problem that had stymied other researchers when attempting to increase cellular glutathione levels. This problem was finally solved when he began working with alpha-lipoic acid, which, according to Dr. Packer, proved to be the missing link.3 (Editor’s note: The real problem was found to be that the amino acid building blocks of glutathione could not be transported across age-damaged cell membranes, and intracellular glutathione levels decline with age.)
Packer and his team discovered that, in addition to being a powerful biological antioxidant, alpha-lipoic acid, when administered orally, quickly crosses cellular membranes to enter cells where it is rapidly converted into its reduced form, R-dihydro-lipoic acid (R-DHLA).
It was later discovered that it makes more sense to take R-dihydro-lipoic acid directly because it is immediately usable, as the body does not have to convert it from alpha-lipoic acid. In addition, the synthetic form of alpha-lipoic acid used in the older studies is a mixture of right-handed and left-handed molecules. Only the right-handed R- portion of alpha-lipoic acid is biologically active.
Alpha-lipoic acid, and especially R-dihydro-lipoic acid, is effective against hydroxyl radicals, peroxynitrite hydrogen peroxide, and hypochlorite. In addition, alpha-lipoic acid has been shown to regenerate and elevate intracellular glutathione levels, thereby participating in the recycling of the antioxidant complex.4,5
Initial research revealed that, in addition to conferring general health benefits like other antioxidant supplements, alpha-lipoic acid possesses properties that can be helpful in managing a wide range of diseases. According to Dr. Packer, “Alpha-lipoic acid could have far-reaching consequences in the search for prevention and therapy of chronic degenerative diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and because it’s the only antioxidant that can easily get into the brain, it could be useful in preventing damage from a stroke.”3
Alpha-Lipoic Acid’s Effects on Diabetes
Alpha-lipoic acid has been shown to be particularly helpful for conditions arising from diabetes, and has been used in Europe for over 30 years for diabetic complications caused by overproduction of reactive oxygen species and nitrogen radicals.6 Alpha-lipoic acid has also been shown to aid in increasing glucose uptake in skeletal muscles, as well as in enhancing insulin-stimulated glucose disposal.7,8
Alpha-lipoic acid has proven especially effective in treating diabetes-related neuropathy, the functional or pathological changes in the peripheral nervous system that can include pain, tingling, or sensory abnormalities. In one study, German scientists tested a group of 80 diabetic patients who were randomly assigned to four groups of 20 patients each. Each group received alpha-lipoic acid, selenium, vitamin E, or placebo. After three months, the researchers found that treatment with 600 mg of alpha-lipoic acid daily resulted in significant improvements in two markers of diabetes (thiobarbituric acid reactive substances and urinary albumin excretion rates). The researchers also noted significant improvements in neuropathy, leading them to conclude that alpha-lipoic acid was effective in reducing late diabetic complications.9
In a second study, 328 non-insulin-dependent diabetic patients diagnosed with symptomatic peripheral neuropathy (causing pain, burning, or numbness) were treated either with alpha-lipoic acid or placebo. At the study’s end, pain scores had declined significantly in the group treated with alpha-lipoic acid, leading researchers to conclude that alpha-lipoic acid was effective in reducing symptoms of diabetic peripheral neuropathy, without side effects.10
Actions Against HIV/AIDS
Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) results from infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV-1). Certain regions of HIV-1 DNA contain binding sites for nuclear factor-kappa beta, a transcriptional activator with a major role in the regulation of HIV-1 gene expression. Research has shown that alpha-lipoic acid inhibits the replication of HIV-1 and other viruses by blocking reactive oxygen species used in signal transduction pathways that lead to activation of nuclear factor-kappa beta. Dr. Packer and his colleagues theorized that alpha-lipoic acid, by eliminating reactive oxygen species, may prevent activation of nuclear factor-kappa beta and subsequently halt HIV transcription.11 When Dr. Packer and his team tested their theory by exposing cells to alpha-lipoic acid, they discovered that alpha-lipoic acid was able to completely inhibit nuclear factor-kappa beta to block activation of the gene sequence that allows the AIDS virus to reproduce. These results, the authors suggested, “indicate that alpha-lipoic acid may be effective in AIDS therapeutics.”
In a related finding, when Japanese researchers exposed cells infected with HIV-1 to alpha-lipoic acid, “initiation of HIV-1 induction by [tumor necrosis factor-alpha] was completely abolished.” The scientists concluded that their findings confirm “the efficacy of alpha-lipoic acid as a therapeutic regimen for HIV infection and [AIDS].”12
Synthetic vs. Natural Lipoic Acid
Natural alpha-lipoic acid, or R-lipoic acid, is present in exceedingly tiny amounts in, and tightly bound to, mitochondrial complexes in animal and plant tissues. Because of the extreme difficulty and high cost of isolating natural R-lipoic acid, early studies were conducted with synthetic alpha-lipoic acid. Unlike R-lipoic acid, synthetic lipoic acid comprises a fifty-fifty mixture of two forms of alpha-lipoic acid: R-lipoic acid and S-lipoic acid. The R- and S- forms of alpha-lipoic acid are isomers—identical chemical structures, with the three-dimensional atomic arrangements reversed to form mirror images of each other.
Initial studies with synthetic alpha-lipoic acid helped scientists to understand its antioxidant-recycling and energy-production properties. When pure samples of the natural R- form of lipoic acid version became available, however, researchers quickly discovered that the body has a strong preference for R-lipoic acid. German researchers reported that, unlike the natural R-lipoic acid, synthetic lipoic acid does not improve ATP synthesis in isolated cells. Furthermore, whereas the natural R- form was shown to increase membrane fluidity and transport, the synthetic form was far less effective in doing so.13
Continuing experimentation revealed that R-lipoic acid is more biologically active and offers greater antioxidant and neuroprotective benefits at substantially lower doses than the synthetic forms of lipoic acid. This became apparent when researchers compared the effects of natural and synthetic lipoic acid in the prevention of cataracts. Half of all healthy adults over 65 will eventually develop cataracts, an opacity of the eye lens that can cause vision impairment or blindness. For those with diabetes, the odds of developing cataracts are substantially higher, as eye lenses are especially susceptible to damage from elevated glucose levels. Researchers have found that R-lipoic acid may aid in preventing cataracts and their complications by increasing levels of glutathione, ascorbate, vitamin E, and certain protective enzymes in lens tissues.
In one study, researchers induced cataracts by incubating rat lenses in glucose to mimic the damaging processes seen in diabetes. R-lipoic acid was shown to be highly effective in preventing cataract formation, while synthetic lipoic acid was only half as effective at protecting lens cells.14 In a follow-up study, when eye lenses were exposed to either R-lipoic or synthetic lipoic acid, glutathione concentrations in the lenses incubated with the natural form were significantly higher than those incubated with the synthetic form. These data showed that R-lipoic acid was more effective in maintaining glutathione levels and protecting the lens from damage.15