Question: What is alpha lipoic acid ? What is its effect on the body? - J.B., Mays Landing

Answer: Alpha lipoic acid is one of five antioxidants that our bodies produce. The other four are superoxide dismutase, coenzyme Q10, glutathione and catalase. The roles of these compounds have not fully been identified, but generally speaking, they protect cells against "oxidative stresses" that seek to cause cellular damage, including damage to our DNA information. As we age, we tend to lose some ability to produce these naturally produced antioxidants.

Alpha lipoic acid is present in very low amounts in many foods, with slightly higher levels in liver and red meat, kidney, heart, spinach and broccoli. Therefore, the best way to get extra ALA is through over-the-counter dietary supplements.

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There are studies that suggest ALA supplementation is beneficial in helping with neuropathy caused by diabetes or chemotherapy; improving insulin sensitivity in diabetics to help lower blood sugar; protection against macular degeneration; slowing down memory loss or improving memory through protective effects on brain tissue; and protection to the liver. ALA also has been suggested to be of benefit in Alzheimer's disease, multi-infarct dementia, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, glaucoma, migraine headache and burning mouth syndrome. The optimal dose of ALA for supplementation in studies is 600 mg per day. Side effects may include dizziness, headache, paresthesia (pins and needles sensation), muscle cramps and rash. It also may slightly alter thyroid hormone levels, so those on thyroid replacement should watch their thyroid levels. Lastly, diabetics should watch for possible lower blood sugar levels.

Question: I work 45 hours per week at a very sedentary desk job. My busy work and family life leaves me no time for exercise and I would like to know whether there are any exercises I can do at the desk. Every little bit helps, right? - K.B., Alpharetta, Ga.

Answer: If you're someone whose life at the moment is just too busy to set time aside for regular exercise, there are a number of unstructured exercises and stretches that can make an improvement in your physical and mental health. First of all, don't look for the closest parking spot from your building (also applies to the grocery store and the shopping mall). When walking, make it brisk. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Stand up every half an hour to stretch, walk in place or walk the halls and stairs if there's time. If you have any downtime, perhaps while loading a large file, get up and take a short walk around your floor. If you have the space and privacy, try running in place, doing jumping jacks, doing a few sit-ups and push-ups during brief lulls in the day. A hand gripper is a simple way to work on forearm muscles. An elastic exercise band is another easy way to stretch and tone muscles while sitting at your desk.

Don't forget the importance of daily stretches of your neck, shoulders, back, chest, wrists, abdominal muscles, buttocks, thighs and calves. They'll help prevent you from feeling stiff.

A great online website for office-based exercise is Break Pal will guide you through a series of micro-exercises with reminders to your computer every 30 minutes throughout the workday to result in a cumulative 45 minute workout.

(This is the final Ask Dr. H. column.


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