Despite the fact that fibromyalgia is estimated to affect around ten million Americans, the underlying processes (biological, neurological, biochemical, and so on) responsible for fibromyalgia remain little understood. Unfortunately, this lack of understanding means that fibromyalgia remains difficult to diagnose and extremely difficult to treat effectively. Recently however, scientists have had success treating fibromyalgia pain with proper supplementation of dietary aids. In particular, the Fibromyalgia Support Formula has shown to significantly reduce fibro pain with Alpha Lipoic Acid and other natural ingredients.
Standard medical treatments for fibromyalgia generally include one or both of the following:
• Pain medication: usually over-the-counter, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (or NSAIDs) such as Tylenol, Aspirin, and Advil. Sometimes prescription medications intended to treat nerve pain, such as Ultram, are prescribed instead or in addition.
• Exercise and physical therapy techniques: there are multiple benefits of exercise, including weight loss (obesity is often associated with fibromyalgia) and sleep regulation (if you’re tired from working out, you’re more likely to sleep better!). Certain physical therapy techniques and stretches can help reduce tender point pain, at least in the short term.
However, these common techniques mostly treat the symptoms of fibromyalgia rather than the underlying cause. Recent studies, though, have shown that multiple vitamin deficiencies are correlated with fibromyalgia. Though it isn’t clear yet whether these vitamin deficiencies are responsible for fibro, there’s increasing evidence that treating these deficiencies can improve fibro symptoms dramatically.
There are multiple supplements increasingly used to regulate fibro patients’ vitamin levels. In this article, I’ll discuss one of them: the supplement that seems to have the most noticeable impact on fibro pain—that is, alpha lipoic acid (or ALA).
Note: “ALA” is also used to refer to an essential fatty acid called alpha linolenic acid—this is not the same chemical and hasn’t been shown to have any effect on fibro symptoms! I’m using “ALA” to refer to alpha lipoic acid throughout.
1. What is Alpha Lipoic Acid?
Alpha lipoic acid is a vitamin-like chemical probably best described as an antioxidant. As you’ve probably heard, antioxidants are known for reducing or eliminating “free radicals”: a chemistry term used to refer to atoms or molecules (collections of atoms bound together) that are “free” in the sense that, due to their chemical structure, they very easily bond to other atoms and molecules. This means that free radicals easily damage cells throughout your body by starting a chain reaction: free radicals in your body bond to the molecules that make up your cells, turning those molecules into free radicals as well; these new free radicals bond to new molecules and make more new free radicals… and this goes on and on until the cycle is broken. Antioxidants, however, prevent these harmful reactions from taking place. It has been suggested by studies that fibromyalgia actually is the result of cell damage caused by free radicals, meaning that antioxidants are extra important for fibro patients.
ALA isn’t just any antioxidant, though: it’s considered to be an extra-special antioxidant for several reasons. First, while most antioxidants are either fat or water soluble (making them less effective, or harder for your body to break down, under certain conditions), ALA is effective in both water and fatty tissue. Second, it increases the amount of another antioxidant which is crucial for fibromyalgia patients called glutathione. Third, unlike many other antioxidants, it can cross the blood-brain barrier: this just means that it’s able to reach and protect your brain from free radicals as just described. It’s likely that ALA is special in other ways as well—current studies continue to show how effective it is across different cells and different medical conditions
2. Why and how does alpha lipoic acid help reduce fibro pain?
Ok, now why am I going on about chemistry and free radicals and so on? This information is helpful in understanding exactly how it is that ALA can improve your fibro pain.
First, the fact that ALA can cross the blood-brain barrier is extremely important for fibro treatment. Widespread nerve pain—such as that experienced by fibromyalgia patients—is often caused by the damage or destruction of cells in the brain and central nervous system. Think about it this way: if the nerve cells that are responsible for sending and receiving pain signals are damaged, they might send too many pain signals even without the external factors that ordinarily would cause that pain. By preventing cell destruction and eliminating free radicals in your brain and nervous system, ALA can help stop or at least reduce your nerves’ excessive pain signaling. ALA is so effective at reducing nerve pain that, in Germany, it’s often prescribed for nerve damage caused by diabetes.
ALA is also excellent at preventing damage to the mitochondria—the “powerhouse” of the cell. Mitochondria destruction plays a large part in causing both chronic fatigue and pain, since when your mitochondria are damaged, it’s more difficult for your body to turn food into energy. This means that even if you’re eating well in an attempt to fuel your body and prevent fibro-caused fatigue, you might still be running on half a tank, so to speak.
Lastly, when ALA is combined with other supplements—especially L-carnitine, Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), N-acetylcysteine (NAC), SAMe, Vitamin D, Omega-3 fatty acids, B-complex vitamins, and magnesium—it can help your body replenish its store of antioxidants. When combined with certain of these supplements, ALA helps form compounds (such as the previously mentioned glutathione, which is often severely deficient in those suffering from fibromyalgia and is impossible to supplement orally) that balance your vitamin levels and correct any deficiencies.
Again, while the mechanism of action is not fully understood, the link between fibromyalgia and these vitamin deficiencies have been studied repeatedly; studies show that, when these deficiencies are taken care of, fibro pain is greatly reduced.
3. How should I take alpha lipoic acid?
Ordinarily, ALA is produced by the body. However, it is usually deficient in fibromyalgia patients. ALA does occur naturally in many foods—particularly foods such as spinach, broccoli, peas, Brussels sprouts, rice bran, brewer’s yeast, and organ meats. However, the amount found in food is much too small to be of any therapeutic value. In order to significantly affect your fibro pain, ALA should be taken in capsule form (these capsules are available at most health food stores and some pharmacies).
The correct dosage of ALA, however, is a more contentious subject. The studied therapeutic amount for diabetic nerve pain is 600-1200 mg daily. However, The University of Maryland’s Medical Center advises only 50-100mg daily for fibromyalgia patients. If considering the use of ALA, you should ask your doctor about dosage recommendations. This is extra important if you have diabetes (ALA can lower blood sugar), thyroid problems (the supplement might interfere with your thyroid medication), or a thiamine (B1) deficiency, most often caused by alcohol consumption. If you do drink while taking ALA, make sure you talk to your doctor and take a thiamine supplement as well.
There’s no doubt that alpha lipoic acid is an extremely exciting supplement with studied potential for significantly improving fibromyalgia symptoms. Studies linking fibromyalgia with free radical-related nerve damage and vitamin deficiencies are incredibly exciting as well: they show that we just might discover an underlying mechanism (or mechanisms) causing fibromyalgia, and that one day we just might be able to treat that mechanism rather than individual fibro symptoms!
However, as with any new self-treatment, be sure to talk to ask your doctor whether ALA is right for you or safe for you to take.