Alpha lipoic acid is a versatile antioxidant that can help in the treatment of diabetes and diabetic neuropathy. As diabetes progresses, especially when blood sugar is poorly controlled, many areas of the body are damaged, including peripheral nerves. Eventually, the nerve damage can lead to chronic pain in feet and/or hands. The usual way that doctors treat the pain is symptomatic — that is, they will try drugs from different classes such as antidepressants, antiseizure medications, or major analgesic drugs like opiates.
The trouble is, the drugs lessen the pain for many people with diabetes, but they are not able to treat the underlying disease process or the progression of the nerve damage. Researchers have found that alpha lipoic acid, a natural antioxidant substance that can recycle other antioxidants like vitamin C or vitamin E, reduces diabetic neuropathy pain. Lipoic acid can also lessen insulin resistance and help lower elevated blood sugar levels.
A recent review of multiple large studies on 1,160 patients, testing the effects of lipoic acid for diabetic neuropathy (they call it polyneuropathy because more than one nerve is usually damaged) found that it helps. The studies used lipoic acid either intravenously at a dose of 600 milligrams per day for 3 weeks or by mouth up to 5 weeks. Patients tolerated the treatment well without major side effect problems (Mcllduff and Rutkove, Ther Clin Risk Manag 2011; 7:377-85).
Another benefit of lipoic acid is that it is both fat- and water-soluble. It can apparently also protect the brain from episodes of low oxygen or low blood sugar or other short-term insults, at least in animals. It even may improve memory in older animals. It is not clear if it has these types of benefits for people, but it seems to be a very worthwhile supplement to consider adding to your daily regimen.
Other research has found that people can experience nausea or even vomiting as one of the more likely side effects. To minimize this problem, dissolving the capsules in a fruit smoothie with perhaps some protein powder might help, or at least taking the supplement after food. Test different brands of lipoic acid, as some may have a formulation that works better for you. Some report that for oral use (you can buy it in a health food store), the R form that is well stabilized is the best way to take lipoic acid.
You can always start with a lower dose and work your way up. Watch your blood sugar along the way – it is very possible that it will reduce your need for diabetic hypoglycemic oral drugs or insulin. That can become dangerous if you are not monitoring your blood sugar often enough when you first start using the lipoic acid.
Finally, there are rare risks of serious adverse events, but early research reported that animals who were deficient in vitamin B1 or thiamine sometimes died when taking alpha lipoic acid supplementation. This is only possibly relevant to someone who is a severe alcoholic, as they deplete their B complex vitamins including thiamine and folic acid. Supplementation with a good B complex vitamin before starting alpha lipoic acid should help offset some of the brain and nerve damage that the alcohol itself can cause anyway.
Bottom line- it is worth a try to see if lipoic acid can help you if you are diabetic and need treatment for neuropathy (peripheral nerve pain) affecting your hands or feet. Always discuss this first with your own health care provider so that they can monitor your progress and adjust your meds if needed.