With so many side effects of various medications, patients with multiple sclerosis, like so many others, have started seeking alternative and complementary therapies to help manage their symptoms. There is no cure for multiple sclerosis, so seeking one is not the goal in looking at supplements and herbal remedies. Rather, reducing the severity of symptoms or even attempting to prolong a remission so that relapses occur less frequently are the focus.
Several supplements have been touted as effective for certain symptoms of MS, but one of the latest discoveries is that lipoic acid can make a very big difference, especially in patients with secondary progressive multiple sclerosis (SPMS). What are the benefits of lipoic acid supplements in the treatment of multiple sclerosis, and how does it work? A lot of research is still looking into all the major possibilities for this natural substance.
What is lipoic acid?
Also called alpha-lipoic acid or abbreviated ALA, lipoic acid is a natural antioxidant that the body produces. It takes part in the production of energy in the body, including being present and useful during cell respiration. In healthy individuals, lipoic acid is produced in high enough quantity to perform tasks as needed. However, it may be lacking in those who suffer illness, whether acute or chronic.
As a supplement, lipoic acid is sold over the counter in the “one pill a day” form. There is debate as to how much of an oral supplement the body can absorb, and it’s believed that about forty percent of the supplement can be absorbed, perhaps more on an empty stomach. However, lipoic acid has shown promise in assisting patients with type 2 diabetes in reducing sugar levels, as well as reducing the effects of diabetic neuropathy (the latter in the form of an injection).
Other health conditions that lipoic acid potentially helps include HIV and liver disease. There are typically no side effects to taking lipoic acid as a supplement, though on rare occasions, clinical trial participants report very mild gastrointestinal discomfort.
How do lipoic acid supplements relate to multiple sclerosis?
Perhaps prompted by the fact that lipoic acid can help with diabetic neuropathy, science has theorized that lipoic acid has properties as a neuroprotector, due to immunomodulatory and anti-inflammatory properties. With these benefits, it’s possible that lipoic acid can:
- Reduce inflammation caused by the autoimmune response that destroys myelin, the protective coating that covers the nerve fibers in the central nervous system (CNS) and promotes proper signaling; inflammation can further damage myelin and nerves
- Reduce the number of white blood cells (T-cells and antibodies) that attack the CNS and cause the destruction of the myelin and the nerves it protects
There have been a number of smaller studies that show significant results in the treatment of multiple sclerosis using lipoic acid. Unfortunately, there are still questions because no large scale studies have been completed, though there are some planned, which will last two years, as some of those already completed have.
Lipoic acid supplements: Pilot study
One of the earliest studies in 2005 looked at various doses of lipoic acid and the effects on thirty-seven patients with multiple sclerosis. It was a very short study, lasting only two weeks, but it provided some insight, showing that treatments of all doses were tolerated well and that, based on the two week implementation, there was less migration of T-cells into the spinal cord and brain, which means less chance for an immune attack and inflammation.
Secondary progressive multiple sclerosis
Another pilot study of fifty-one patients with SPMS lasted two year. Patients were blindly prescribed lipoic acid or a placebo and watched over the course of the study for multiple results.
Several incredible findings were published at the end of the study, including:
- Patients taking lipoic acid had less than one-third as much loss of brain volume in those two years compared to patients on the placebo, an incredible finding since this is essential to slowing the advancement of the disease as well as potentially reducing disability in patients.
- Patients taking lipoic acid saw improved speed in their mobility, based on two separate timed walking tests as opposed to those on the placebo, who did not have the same positive results.
- Patients taking the placebo still struggled with mobility in other ways, as well, including falling more frequently than those taking lipoic acid, showing the possibility of improved coordination and balance.
One clinical trial simply addressed how the breakdown of lipoic acid in patients with MS compared to healthy patients. The study didn’t find much evidence of a difference between healthy patients and those with either RRMS or SPMS, but it did show that there seem to be no adverse effects of lipoic acid supplementation on MS patients.
Another trial took a look at the effects of both lipoic acid and omega-3 fatty acids on cognitive function in both RRMS and SPMS patients, based on comparison to a placebo over a twelve week period. While this was a short term study, there were no results that proved conclusively any benefit of either supplement, though there is a chance that a longer term trial might produce different results.
Currently, another planned two year study on lipoic acid on SPMS patients is on the horizon. It will look at some similar findings to the previous two year study, such as brain volume, changes in mobility, and other signs that lipoic acid acts as a neuroprotector.
Even with the current findings, the potential benefits of using a lipoic acid supplement to help with symptoms of multiple sclerosis far outweigh potential risks. Of course, patients should always consult with their physicians prior to opting into any alternative treatment, especially to assure there is no negative interaction with current medications. But it seems that increasing levels of lipoic acid in the body, with its antioxidant properties as well as the ability to reduce inflammation and help regulate the immune system, could be a simple over the counter method of treating the disease and including regularly in the prescribed therapeutic path for many MS patients.