Alpha-Lipoic Acid (ALA) and Diabetic Neuropathy

Medically reviewed by Peggy Pletcher, MS, RD, LD, CDE on June 27, 2016Written by Kristeen Cherney on July 21, 2014

Overview

Alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) is a possible alternative remedy to treat the pain associated with diabetic polyneuropathy. Neuropathy, or nerve damage, is a common and potentially serious complication of diabetes. Nerve damage is permanent, and its symptoms can be difficult to alleviate. Polyneuropathy involves the peripheral nerves of the body. It’s the most common form of neuropathy in people who have diabetes, and it causes foot and leg pain.

ALA is also called lipoic acid. It’s an antioxidant found in trace amounts in some foods including:

  • liver
  • red meat
  • broccoli
  • brewer’s yeast
  • spinach

The body also makes it in small amounts. Experts think antioxidants protect against cell damage. ALA helps fight free radicals, which are the substances that cause cell damage. ALA may also help the body be more sensitive to insulin.

People with diabetes might use ALA in supplemental form to help neuropathy. This supplement is promising, but you should still address risks and certain questions before you take ALA.

Symptoms of diabetic neuropathy

Neuropathy can develop in people with diabetes as a result of high blood glucose, or hyperglycemia. People with diabetes are at a high risk of nerve damage when blood glucose levels are poorly controlled over many years.

Your symptoms may vary depending on the type of neuropathy you have and which nerves are affected. Diabetes can lead to several different types of neuropathy, each with different symptoms. ALA may help ease the symptoms of peripheral and autonomic neuropathy.

Peripheral neuropathy

The symptoms of nerve damage in people with diabetes most commonly occur in the feet and legs, but they can also occur in the hands and arms. Peripheral neuropathy can cause pain in these areas. It can also cause:

  • numbness or an inability to feel changes in temperature
  • a tingling or burning sensation
  • muscle weakness
  • a loss of balance
  • foot problems, including ulcers or infections, due to an inability to feel damage to the foot
  • sharp pain or cramps
  • sensitivity to touch

Autonomic neuropathy

Diabetes can also affect the nerves in your autonomic nervous system. Your autonomic nervous system controls your

  • heart
  • bladder
  • lungs
  • stomach
  • intestines
  • sex organs
  • eyes

The symptoms of autonomic neuropathy may include:

  • difficulty swallowing
  • constipation or uncontrollable diarrhea
  • bladder problems, including urinary retention or incontinence
  • erectile dysfunction in men and vaginal dryness in women
  • increased or decreased sweating
  • sharp drops in blood pressure
  • increased heart rate when at rest
  • changes in the way your eyes adjust from light to dark

Early research on ALA suggests it may help treat blood pressure or heart problems associated with autonomic neuropathy. Further study is needed to confirm this finding.

How does ALA work?

ALA isn’t a diabetes medication. It’s a supplement available in drugstores and health stores. This antioxidant is both water- and fat-soluble. All areas of your body may absorb it. ALA is a potential natural method for relieving nerve pain that occurs due to diabetes. ALA potentially lowers blood glucose, which can protect from nerve damage.

If you have neuropathy, ALA might provide relief from:

  • pain
  • numbness
  • itching
  • burning

ALA is available in different forms for people with diabetes. Some studies have involved the use of intravenous (IV) versions of ALA. A healthcare professional helps administer IV ALA. Excessively high doses of IV ALA can harm your liver. Some doctors may use it in shots. ALA is also available in oral supplements.

Researchers have studied ALA’s effect on blurred vision in people with diabetes, but the results have been inconclusive. According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a 2011 study showed that the supplement doesn’t prevent macular edema from diabetes. Macular edema occurs when fluid builds up in the macula, which is an area in the center of your eye’s retina. Your vision can be distorted if your macula thickens due to fluid buildup.

Side effects of ALA

ALA is a natural antioxidant found in foods and supplied by your body in small quantities. But this doesn’t mean that ALA supplements are free from side effects.

The most common side effects of ALA are:

  • abdominal pain
  • diarrhea
  • constipation
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • a skin rash

Should you take ALA for diabetes?

Controlling your blood sugar is the best way to prevent diabetic neuropathy. Few treatments are available once you have nerve damage. Prescription pain relievers can provide some pain relief, but some types can also be dangerous and addictive. Prevention with good glucose control is the best option.

It may be worth trying ALA supplements if other diabetes treatment methods aren’t working for you. Ask your doctor about the safest, most effective dose for your condition. You may find that you get enough ALA from your current diet. Supplements are most useful if you don’t get enough from natural sources or if your doctor deems them useful.

ALA shows some promise as a treatment for diabetic neuropathy, but it isn’t guaranteed to work. ALA’s safety and effectiveness can vary among people with diabetes.

As with any dietary supplement, you should talk to your doctor before you start taking it. Stop taking ALA immediately if you notice any unusual side effects or if your symptoms worsen.

You can’t reverse nerve damage. Once you have diabetic neuropathy, the goal is to reduce pain and other symptoms. Doing so can increase your quality of life. It’s also important to prevent further nerve damage from occurring.

CMS Id: 71421