Difference Between Alpha-Lipoic & Alpha-Linolenic Acids

By Shawn Radcliffe

With similar names and sometimes even the same abbreviation -- ALA -- alpha-lipoic acid and alpha-linolenic acid also play important roles in human health. They are, however, quite different. Alpha-lipoic acid, an antioxidant that neutralizes free radicals created when the body turns food into energy, occurs throughout the body and can be synthesized within the cells. Alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid, is more concentrated in brain tissues. Unlike alpha-lipoic acid, it cannot be made by the human body and must be obtained in the diet, making it an essential fatty acid.

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With similar names and sometimes even the same abbreviation -- ALA -- alpha-lipoic acid and alpha-linolenic acid also play important roles in human health. They are, however, quite different. Alpha-lipoic acid, an antioxidant that neutralizes free radicals created when the body turns food into energy, occurs throughout the body and can be synthesized within the cells. Alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid, is more concentrated in brain tissues. Unlike alpha-lipoic acid, it cannot be made by the human body and must be obtained in the diet, making it an essential fatty acid.

Functions

Alpha-lipoic acid is an antioxidant which -- like vitamins E and C -- scavenges free radicals to prevent them from damaging cells. In addition to neutralizing free radicals, this molecule recharges other antioxidants so they can once again attack free radicals. Alpha-lipoic acid also works alongside enzymes in the mitochondria -- powerhouses -- of cells to convert glucose into energy. Alpha-linolenic acid, on the other hand, plays a role in reducing inflammation in the body -- and diseases related to that -- as well as forming part of cell membranes.

Dietary Source

The human body produces alpha-lipoic acid, but the molecule also occurs naturally in red meat, organ meats such as liver, and yeast, especially brewer’s yeast. Supplemental alpha-lipoic acid is available as capsules or through injection by a health care provider. Alpha-linolenic acid, however, cannot be made by the human body, so it must be obtained in the diet. Flaxseeds provide the highest concentration of alpha-linolenic acid -- both as the seeds and the oil. Other plants contain this molecule, as well, including canola, soybeans, perilla and walnut oils.

Disease and Health

Alpha-lipoic acid plays a role in lowering blood sugar levels in people with diabetes, and it may also help with pain and burning in the limbs -- peripheral neuropathies -- associated with that disease. In animals, this molecule protects the brain and nerve tissues after a stroke, although it is not certain that the effect is the same in people. Alpha-linolenic acid, like other omega-3 fatty acids, may fight heart disease and high blood pressure, and reduce inflammation -- as with arthritis and asthma. It may also play a role in brain health -- such as reducing depression -- as well as be involved in growth and development.

Risks

Both compounds may interact with prescription and over-the-counter medications, so it is important to consult with a health care provider before taking supplements. Few risks are associated with alpha-lipoic acid, although because it lowers blood glucose levels, it may interact with insulin to cause hypoglycemia -- a dangerously low blood glucose level. Alpha-linolenic acid may cause increased bleeding and can interact with blood thinner medications. It may also increase the risk of prostate cancer in men, and macular degeneration -- an eye disorder.

References

About the Author

Now living in Portland, Ore., Shawn Radcliffe has written about science and health since 1998, including online and print content for Drexel University and Oregon Health & Science University. He holds bachelor's degrees in music, English and biology from the University of Pittsburgh, as well as a Master of Science in science education from Drexel University.

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