Scientists first discovered the ALA compound in bacteria back in 1937. At one time scientists believed ALA was a vitamin -- substances the body needs, but can't produce on its own. But in 1998, it was identified as an antioxidant crucial to energy production in the body [source: American Cancer Society].
Alpha Lipoic Acid Benefits
Many of the health benefits attributed to ALA supplements are based on lab testing on animals, primarily rats. Whether humans would experience similar results from ALA's antioxidant powers has not been studied enough to produce definite answers.
Early animal studies suggest that ALA may help in treating Alzheimer's and other diseases that affect the nervous system [source: Larsen]. Additional studies have shown that a combination of antioxidants (including ALA) has helped cancer patients regain their appetite and weight. While early lab experiments suggest that ALA might cause cancer cells to self-destruct, it is unknown if the same effect can be replicated in animals or humans. Researchers are studying ALA as a possible therapy for reducing the side effects of radiation and chemotherapy. Research is also underway to determine if ALA can help prevent nerve damage that may result from some chemotherapy drugs [source: American Cancer Society].
Another potential benefit of ALA is the treatment of diabetes. Although some studies have found that ALA has a positive effect on insulin sensitivity, glucose metabolism and diabetic neuropathy, more research is needed to determine whether ALA supplements provide substantial benefits for type 2 diabetes and its complications [source: National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine].
ALA supplements may also decrease the buildup of plaque within the arteries. One study found that ALA reduced heart damage caused by chemotherapy drugs. Another found it beneficial in treating cardiovascular autonomic neuropathy -- a condition characterized by an irregular heartbeat that's common in diabetics [source: Higdon, American Cancer Society].
There are also reports that ALA may have health benefits in relation to cataracts, seizures, kidney damage and liver disease, but additional studies are necessary before any definite conclusion is drawn. In addition, ALA, like just about any other medication or supplement, is not without its side effects. Read on to find out more about ALA's side effects.