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Alpha Lipoic Acid - Free Radical Powerhouse

Jayson Kroner

When we hear the term free radical fighter, many images come to mind. Unconventional superhero? Deranged rookie boxer? A new alternative band, perhaps? Wrong, wrong and wrong. While free radicals can be a nuisance to hard working, hard training, pain-snubbing endurance athletes, many still have no idea what they are, what they do and why it's imperative to eliminate them. Let's squash the mystery, once and for all.

Oxidative Stress

In a nutshell, free radicals are nothing short of bad crooks -- short lived, unstable atoms that lack electrons of their own. To compensate, these shady molecules rob healthy cells of their functioning electrons -- a process more commonly known as oxidation. During the heist, the stolen electrons become damaged and rendered useless to the thief, the original owner and ultimately to your health. Not only does this throw your energy reserves into a complete frenzy, oxidation can also lead to more serious conditions including premature aging, high cholesterol, degenerative disease and in rare cases, cancer. So it goes without saying that conditioned athletes (with their rich supply of healthy cells) are especially at risk.

Fret not. Nutritionists have been working on this dilemma since the dawn of microscopes, and have made remarkable advances. A favourite among the white-robed guru is Alpha Lipoic Acid (ALA) -- a supercharged antioxidant with a penchant for cell protection. Upon its discovery in the 1950's, ALA was officially classified as a vitamin. But that changed in 1980 when a team of researchers determined that this unique compound had antioxidant properties that could lay the smackdown on these oxidation prone freeloaders. The rest is history.

Here's how it works ... one of the most interesting facets of this free radical quenching antioxidant is that it's both fat and water soluble. Without getting more technical than we need to, ALA can travel to any cell in the body to knock out oxidation with a single blow. As a result, researchers have officially dubbed it the “universal” antioxidant. These unique travel habits allow ALA to safeguard the nervous system, lungs, heart, eyes and muscles -- all of which are crucial when you find yourself dragging at mile 21 or pedaling up a 45 degree incline with mud-caked tires. And if that weren't benefit enough, ALA has been clinically proven to increase the effectiveness of partnering antioxidants, especially vitamins C and E.

The perks ... Falling short on energy? No problem. ALA partners up with the B vitamins in your diet to unlock energy from proteins, fats and carbohydrates. This was discovered when ALA was administered to individuals suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome. Accordingly, studies indicate that this can have a positive effect on immune system function and overall good health. And if you're one of the many who constantly lose all sense of direction during long runs, rides and adventures, ALA can also help increase long and short term memory. By protecting the billions of neurotransmitters that travel across the synapse of the brain and throughout the body each second, ALA has become a subject of keen interest with regard to memory and cognitive function. Finally, many users have reported that ALA supplementation can slow the effects of aging, support healthy vision and promote clear, healthy skin.

What to look for ... quality takes the cake on this one. ALA can be found in capsule and tablet forms, and either will do a wonderful job. Multi-antioxidant formulas have become quite popular, due to the fact that ALA has the unique ability to recycle and boost the activity of other antioxidants. Regardless of which route you go, look for a formula that contains at least 100 mg of pure Alpha Lipoic Acid from a respected manufacturer.

How to take it ... unlike some supplements that are only effective when taken at specific times, ALA can be consumed at any time of the day, with or without food. For training purposes, many have found success in taking 100-200 mg an hour before physical activity.

Side effects ... ALA is one safe supplement, and your body will begin thanking you immediately. Some users have reported mild upset stomachs and skin rash, but the occurrences are extremely rare. Diabetics may need to adjust their insulin and medications before supplementing with ALA, and should consult their physicians beforehand.

Health Disclaimer. Copyright ©2006-2022. First published April 2005, last updated July 2022. Content provided by NOW Foods. Published with permission. Jayson Kroner is a health and fitness journalist, a certified sports nutritionist, and co-author of the book "7-Syndrome Healing."

More: See Protocol Alpha Lipoic Acid and AOR R-Lipoic Acid.