A common complication of diabetes, neuropathy (nerve damage) results when the body sustains high blood sugar levels for too long a period of time. Symptoms of neuropathy often develop slowly, over the course of several years, and they can range from tingling or burning in the arms and legs to digestive, bladder, and heart problems.

Although different treatments are available, maintaining health blood sugar levels is crucial to preventing further damage from neuropathy. Medications can help, but many individuals are turning to natural remedies to ease the pain.

One treatment that's proving effective is the antioxidant alpha lipoic acid (ALA), a fatty acid found naturally in cells of the body.

A source of energy

Our bodies need ALA to convert glucose (blood sugar) into energy. It also neutralizes free radicals (potentially harmful chemicals). Unlike other antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E, ALA functions in water and fat, which enables it to enter all parts of a cell to prevent damage. And ALA can help restore other antioxidants after they have been used by the body.

Alpha lipoic acid is available as a supplement and can be found in trace amounts in certain foods, including spinach, broccoli, peas, Brussels sprouts, and certain meats.

Studies on ALA

Research has shown that ALA reduces symptoms and pain associated with neuropathy. In a randomized study of 181 people, participants were asked to take 600 mg, 1,200 mg, or 1,800 mg of ALA a day or a placebo. After five weeks, the ALA groups showed reduced signs of paresthesia, numbness, and pain. The 600 mg dose was tolerated best while still providing benefits.

Other studies indicate that as an antioxidant, ALA not only helps protect people with diabetes against neuropathy pain, but also enhances insulin action, improves circulation, and decreases oxidative stress (oxygen imbalance that can lead to cell damage).

Side effects of ALA

For those who use insulin or certain medications, ALA can increase the risks of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Other possible side effects include:

• Interference with the absorption of biotin (a vitamin that contributes to cell growth)
• Headache
• Tingling sensation
• Skin rash
• Muscle cramps

If you are interested in taking ALA to treat your neuropathy, talk with your healthcare provider before you start.