Julia is a delightful, full-of-life 94-year-old woman whom I have never met.
She lives in a nursing facility on the other side of the country, and it’s just not an option for her to travel to Nevada. However, she is very well informed. She’s always been interested in natural healing.
I started treating Julia several years ago. She needed my help with some health problems she was having. I want to share with you what happened with one of them – a very remarkable story about peripheral neuropathy.
Peripheral neuropathy can be a very disabling problem. It almost always hits the feet, where it causes pain, numbness, and tingling. The tingling often feels like hundreds of continuous needle punctures. And it can be mild or, as in Julia’s case, quite severe.
At 94 years old, you need your sleep worse than ever. And one of the first things peripheral neuropathy does is to interrupt sleep. How can you expect to sleep with a constant sensation of needle punctures? Without her sleep, Julia was becoming weaker. The pain and lack of sleep was affecting her entire life in one way or another.
A Very Common Problem
But Julia isn’t the only one suffering so terribly. Peripheral neuropathy is becoming increasingly more common. In 2000, a published study from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey reported on a group of 2,873 men and women ages 40 or older. They found that 14.8% of them had peripheral neuropathy. The most common cause of peripheral neuropathy is diabetes. So it was not surprising that in this group the ones who had diabetes had a much higher rate of peripheral neuropathy – an astounding 62%! But that’s not all.
The chance of developing peripheral neuropathy increases with age. The same study showed that in the people from 40 to 49 years old, 8.1% had peripheral neuropathy. But in the people over the age of 80, the number went up to 34.7%. However, aging and diabetes are not the only causes of peripheral neuropathy.
It can also result from genetics, chronic disease, environmental toxins, excessive alcohol intake, nutritional deficiencies (especially the B-vitamins), or as a side effect of various medications, including the statin drugs. And just as the causes are varied, so also is the treatment.
Julia’s Problem Started With Fatigue
When I started treating Julia, her biggest complaint was that she was waking up tired. This was the case even though she was sleeping about 9-10 hours a day. As soon as I heard that, I knew that she must have some disorder of her sleep. In the absence of a sleep disorder, the most sleep anyone needs is about eight hours. Excessive sleep like that indicated that Julia was not getting the full value of her sleep. But why? At that point I didn’t know why, even though later on it became obvious. I ordered a sleep study on her. But because of logistical reasons, she was not able to get it.
In the meantime, I put her on a low dose of thyroid and ordered some vitamin B injections. Perhaps the two most common reasons for people over the age of 65 to feel tired and run down are an undiagnosed low thyroid function and an inability to properly absorb B-vitamins. They can take B-vitamins all day, but because of their age, their digestive systems cannot absorb them well. So they can become deficient easily. The primary symptom is fatigue. And the best way to diagnose is not with blood tests, which are often deceivingly inaccurate within normal limits. No, the best way is to give them a trial of injectable B-vitamins twice a week for a few weeks. If the energy comes back, then it proves that the problem was a B-vitamin deficiency.
After four months, she reported that her energy was much better, indicating she did, indeed, have a B-vitamin deficiency.
But now that she was feeling better, she noticed a “disturbing burning and itching in my feet.” She had seen several doctors about the symptoms, but none were able to shed light on what was going on. I thought it might be due to the swelling in her feet from her heart failure. And so I treated her for this.
Three weeks later, she said that the swelling was gone. But the symptoms in the feet were still present, and had not let up one bit. What was going on? I was stumped. The idea that Julia was developing peripheral neuropathy right under my eyes simply did not occur to me. The symptoms persisted for the next three months despite the various homeopathic remedies I prescribed. Then, the case broke.
Finally, A Breakthrough
One of her doctors finally figured it out. He ordered a nerve conduction study called an electromylogram (EMG). The EMG revealed that Julia’s burning and tingling pain was due to peripheral neuropathy.
Now, thanks to this doctor, we at least knew what Julia had. And she knew exactly what to do. Like I told you, Julia was knowledgeable about nutritional therapies. And she had heard before about how the antioxidant alpha lipoic acid was effective for peripheral neuropathy. So she started to take it even without talking with me. Then, when I talked with her in June 2010, she told me this: “My symptoms cleared up within one week of taking the lipoic acid.”
I knew alpha lipoic acid was effective, but this was astounding. I’m still not sure why Julia developed peripheral neuropathy in the first place. She was not battling diabetes or any other chronic disease. She didn’t drink, and she was not on statin drugs. Perhaps it was just the age factor, and her body had gotten to the point that it could no longer produce as much lipoic acid as it was used to producing.
I was not surprised that she was better. But I was surprised by the fact that her symptoms were completely gone, and that it happened in only a few days. I have never seen this kind of rapid response before. But maybe that’s because every other time I have treated a patient with peripheral neuropathy they have had it for years. Perhaps the reason why she responded so well was because she started the treatment so early in the game.
Just recently the Chinese literature published a study emphasizing the efficacy of lipoic acid as a treatment for peripheral neuropathy in diabetics. In the study, researchers divided 95 type-2 diabetic patients who had peripheral neuropathy into two groups. They gave one group 600 mg of alpha lipoic acid intravenously once a day for 14 days. The others received a placebo.
Compared with the placebo group, the lipoic acid group had significantly fewer symptoms even after only one week.
Overall, 90% of the lipoic acid group found improvement, as opposed to 14% in the placebo group. And yet another study showed an even better result – shall I say an amazing result – using oral lipoic acid for a longer time.
In this study, 26 type-2 diabetic patients with peripheral neuropathy took a daily dose of 600 mg of alpha-lipoic acid for three months. Of those, 20 of them (76.9%) developed an improvement in their EMGs, and also had a complete clearing of all of their symptoms. Five of these (19.2%) also had a complete normalization of their EMG studies.
These are very impressive results for something as simple as taking an over-the-counter nutrient. And I should mention this: Not one person in any of the studies had any side effects.
Why Is Alpha Lipoic Acid So Effective?
But why should Julia’s peripheral neuropathy have responded so well to lipoic acid? Like I said, she didn’t have diabetes. She did not have even one hint of anything wrong with her blood-sugar metabolism. I think it might have been due to the nitric oxide stimulating effect of alpha lipoic acid.
A study published in 2000 looked at the effect of giving alpha lipoic acid to 16 diabetic patients with peripheral neuropathy. Prior to giving these patients the lipoic acid, the researchers measured the total plasma concentrations of nitrates and nitrites. This is a reflection of how much nitric oxide their cells were making.
The first thing the researchers noticed was that the nitric oxide levels in these diabetic patients were a full two-fold lower than normal. Then, when they gave the patients lipoic acid for three weeks, the levels normalized, and their neuropathy symptoms and EMGs improved. Why?
Nitric oxide is produced naturally in the circulation system. And it’s critical for adequate circulation to nerve cells. As we get older, our bodies produce ever-diminishing amounts of nitric oxide. This accounts for many of the circulation problems that we can develop, such as hypertension, impotence, and atherosclerosis. Diabetics have diminished levels of nitric oxide, but so do non-diabetic patients who just happen to be older. Scientists believe this is true. And, theoretically at least, increasing the production of nitric oxide could improve circulation to nerve cells – and correct the cause of age-related peripheral neuropathy. This is probably what happened in Julia’s case.
So if you are diabetic and have peripheral neuropathy, or if you have developed it as a result of having birthdays, always give lipoic acid a try. It’s completely safe and available at any health food store.
Take 600 mg of r-alpha lipoic acid (check the label) twice a day for a minimum of three months. If your symptoms aren’t substantially better by then, then it didn’t work, and it’s time to try something else.
Liu, F., Y. Zhang, M. Yang, B. Liu, Y.D. Shen, W.P. Jia, and K.S. Xiang. “Curative effect of alpha-lipoic acid on peripheral neuropathy in type-2 diabetes: a clinical study.” Zhonghua Yi Xue Za Zhi, 2007 October 16;87(38):2706-9.
Negrianu, G., M. Ro?u, B. Bolte, D. Lefter, and D. Dabelea. “Effects of 3-month treatment with the antioxidant alpha-lipoic acid in diabetic peripheral neuropathy.” Rom J Intern Med., 1999 July-September;37(3):297-306.
Strokov, I.A., E.B. Manukhina, L.Y. Bakhtina, et al. “The function of endogenous protective systems in patients with insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus and polyneuropathy: effect of antioxidant therapy.” Bull Exp Biol Med, 2000;130:986-990.
Head, K.A. “Peripheral neuropathy: pathogenic mechanisms and alternative therapies.” Altern Med Rev. 2006 December;11(4):294-329. Review.