When it’s working at its best, your brain, like the rest of your body, remains on a daily rhythm that synchronizes its cellular activities with the functions of your digestive tract, heart, liver, kidneys and other organs.
If those daily rhythms, called your circadian rhythms, weaken or falter then your sleep is disrupted. Your mood deteriorates. And your thinking can grow cloudy as the production of neurotransmitters in your brain is thrown off-kilter.
But researchers have discovered that one particular antioxidant nutrient can help re-synchronize the circadian rhythms in the body to keep your memory and intellectual abilities intact.
The master biological clock of your body is located in a part of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus. That’s where about 20,000 neurons are in charge of maintaining the brain’s daily cycles – like feeling sleepy at night and alert when the sun’s up – keeping them correctly aligned with the time of day and what’s going on in the rest of the body.
These neurons can start to fail with age. The consequences are big, including a reduction in your body’s ability to fight disease and an increased vulnerablity to emotional stress, insomnia and memory problems.1
But researchers at Oregon State University have discovered that the antioxidant nutrient alpha-lipoic-acid (ALA), which is used in the body to make energy by breaking down carbohydrates, can help get circadian functions back on track.
And although much of the Oregon State research focused on the circadian rhythms of the liver, the researchers say this function could explain why ALA is so crucial for many physiological functions in the human body, from helping to improve memory and heart function, to supporting muscle performance, keeping blood sugar under control and offsetting negative consequences of aging.2
“This could be a breakthrough in our understanding of why lipoic acid is so important and how it functions,” says researcher Tory Hagen. “Circadian rhythms are day-night cycles that affect the daily ebb and flow of critical biological processes. The more we improve our understanding of them, the more we find them involved in so many aspects of life.”
Protects the Brain from Alzheimer’s Related Damage
Alzheimer’s disease is sometimes called “diabetes of the brain” because it is closely associated with high blood sugar (metabolic syndrome) and involves a disruption in neurons’ ability to use sugar for energy. But lab tests in Asia demonstrate that ALA can improve neurons’ glycolysis, or the use of sugar to fuel cellular functions.
The researchers conclude that ALA may be “a critical supplement to reinstate brain glucose metabolism.”3
So it’s no surprise that additional research has shown that ALA can help balance blood sugar in some people with diabetes. As a result, researchers believe that ALA can protect nerves from damage due to Alzheimer’s disease.
Another benefit is ALA’s ability to reduce inflammation and damage from accumulated iron in brain cells. Numerous studies have found that there’s an imbalance of iron in brain cells that impairs cognitive function in those with Alzheimer’s disease.4
A study by researchers in Italy and Switzerland shows that ALA, when combined with vitamin D, can repair oxidative damage in neurons and also improve the beneficial activities of astrocytes – immune cells that protect the brain. The study also found that these nutrients keep iron from collecting in neurons and disrupting their function.5
What’s more, ALA has been shown to help lower total cholesterol as confirmed in a 16-week study. As you know, lower cholesterol may improve heart health and increase blood flow throughout the body and brain.
Losing Extra Weight
Added to its brain benefits, some folks use ALA to help them lose weight. And while its usefulness for shedding pounds remains controversial, a review of research at Yale that analyzed ten studies of dieters who used ALA found that these studies demonstrated “small, yet significant short-term weight loss compared to placebo.”6
What that means is that while all the people in the studies reduced the amount of food they ate in an effort to lose excess pounds, the people who took ALA along with their calorie-restricted diets generally lost about an extra four pounds, compared to non-ALA takers.
To the Yale researchers that means “further research is needed.” But you might want to consider using ALA along with your diet if you’re trying to lose weight. As the Yale people point out, compared to prescription diet drugs ALA is cheaper and probably safer – in Yale research-speak it has a “benign side-effect profile.”