Can acetyl-L-carnitine and alpha-lipoic acid really turn back
Throughout the ages, people have searched for magical potions to
reverse the aging process. Ponce de León was searching for
the Fountain of Youth when he discovered Florida. And the 19th century
was rife with anti-aging potions.
In 1889, for example, a French scientist called Charles Edouard
Brown-Séquard claimed that drinking an extract of crushed
dog testicle could restore youth and vigor to old men.
Acetyl-L-carnitine and alpha-lipoic acid are the latest in a long
line of supplements promising to turn back the clock.
Acetyl-L-carnitine and alpha-lipoic acid
The interest started when researchers in the Linus Pauling Institute
at Oregon State University and the University of California at Berkeley
found that they improved both the activity, energy level and cognitive
function of old rats [2, 3, 4].
"After just a month, older rats whose diet was supplemented
with these two compounds were about twice as active as our control
rats, which remained largely inactive," says Tory Hagen, an
assistant professor in Oregon State University's Linus Pauling Institute.
"With the two supplements together, these old rats got up
and did the Macarena," says Bruce Ames, a professor of biochemistry
at the University of California at Berkeley. "The brain looks
better, they are full of energy everything we looked at looks
more like a young animal."
There are scores of different theories about aging. Some believe
that aging is due to the normal wear and tear resulting from daily
living. Others think that it's the result of a pre-programmed genetic
plan, a process that begins at birth and continues until your "biological
clock" runs down.
Ames falls in the wear and tear camp. He thinks that aging is at
least partly due to a process called oxidative stress.
One particularly vulnerable area appears to be the mitochondria
Your body is made up of millions of tiny cells. Think of each cell
like a miniature city. Inside each city, you'll find the power stations
of the cell. They're called mitochondria. Of the oxygen consumed
by an average cell, the mitochondria use most of it to help turn
food into energy.
Unfortunately, mitochondria also appear to have a major design
flaw they leak electron electricity. This, in turn, leads
to an increase in the production of free radicals.
The antioxidant defenses of your body are usually adequate to prevent
substantial tissue damage. However, an overproduction of free radicals
(caused, for example, by intense exercise) or a drop in the level
of the antioxidant defenses will lead to an imbalance between free
radical generation and antioxidant protection.
This imbalance is known as oxidative stress.
Mitochondria are right in the neighborhood of the free radicals
they just created. This means they're often the first victims.
It's ironic that the thing we most need to live oxygen
is the very thing contributing to aging and some of the other problems
associated with it, such as cancer and heart disease.
"Oxygen is a double-edged sword," says Tory Hagen. "We
need it to live and its essential to cell function. But oxygen
can be converted into what we call reactive radical oxygen species,
or free radicals."
Bruce Ames and Tory Hagen have long had an interest in mitochondria
as they relate to aging. They were intrigued by Italian research
showing that acetyl-L-carnitine improved mitochondrial activity
in older rats .
When Ames and Hagen tried the same experiment, there was a problem
. The carnitine did improve mitochondrial health. But it also
appeared to increase the level of free radicals. So, they decided
to pair it with alpha-lipoic acid.
In one of the studies, Hagen, Ames and colleagues compared old
rats to young rats, all fed acetyl-L-carnitine in their water and
alpha-lipoic acid in their chow .
"We significantly reversed the decline in overall activity
typical of aged rats to what you see in a middle-aged to young adult
rat 7 to 10 months of age," Hagen says. "This is equivalent
to making a 75- to 80-year-old person act middle-aged. We've only
shown short-term effects, but the results give us the rationale
for looking at these things long term."
Supplementation has also been shown to improve both spatial and
temporal memory. Pictures of brain cells show less decay in old
rats fed a supplemented diet .
"It appears that some compounds, including carnitine and lipoic
acid, can mask the metabolic problems caused by cellular aging and
the natural oxidative process," Hagen says. "If we can
better understand the process of aging and how to influence it,
we may be able to give people a way to maintain human health for
as long as possible."
The University of California has
patented the use of acetyl-L-carnitine and alpha-lipoic acid
(US Patent #5,916,912) as a way of "enhancing metabolism and alleviating oxidative
Juvenon, a company
founded by Ames and Hagen, has licensed the patent from the university.
Their first product Juvenon
Energy Formula contains both alpha-lipoic acid and acetyl-L-carnitine.
The bottom line
Of course, the big problem is the lack of reliable research to
show that these compounds benefit humans in the same way as rats.
Under certain circumstances, large doses of the popular antioxidants vitamin C and CoQ10 have been shown to increase oxidative stress. Whether alpha-lipoic
acid and carnitine have any negative effects is a question that
can only be answered by more human research.
Aging is a complex process. Different tissues may have fundamentally
different mechanisms underlying their maintenance and repair. And
most scientists believe that mitochondrial health is only one cog
in the aging wheel.
Ames acknowledges he has not discovered the Fountain of Youth.
But he does lay claim to a Fountain of Middle Age. "I don't
want to over-hype it," he cautions. "If you're an old
rat, it looks very good. But we still have to wait for the results
from the human trials. There's every reason to think it's going
to work in people. I'm very optimistic."
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About the Author
Christian Finn holds a master's degree in exercise science, is a certified personal trainer and has been featured on BBC TV and radio, as well as in Men's Health, Men's Fitness, Muscle & Fitness, Fit Pro, Zest and other popular fitness magazines.
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V., Bartholomew, J.C., Song, M.H., & Ames, B.N. (1998). Acetyl-L-carnitine
fed to old rats partially restores mitochondrial function and ambulatory
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R.T., Vinarsky, V., Bartholomew, J.C., & Ames, B.N. (2002).
Feeding acetyl-L-carnitine and lipoic acid to old rats significantly
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T.M., Cotman, C.W., & Ames, B.N. (2002). Memory loss in old
rats is associated with brain mitochondrial decay and RNA/DNA oxidation:
Partial reversal by feeding acetyl-L-carnitine and/or R-alpha -lipoic
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5. Paradies, G., Ruggiero, F.M., Petrosillo, G., Gadaleta, M.N.,
& Quagliariello, E. (1995). Carnitine-acylcarnitine translocase
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