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Ames Report, Alpha-Lipoic Acid, Acetyl-L-Carnitine, Echinacea

March 2002 - Print | Index

The big 'news' around here this week was the announcement in the San Francisco Chronicle that Bruce Ames, University of California biochemist and cancer researcher, is touting Alpha-Lipoic Acid (LA) and Acetyl-L-Carnitine (ALCAR) as a great combination for reversing the signs of aging.1 Ames is known as the developer of the Ames Test, which detects cancer-causing chemicals based on their ability to disrupt the genes of bacteria. He's also the guy who later argued that many pesticides were no more cancer causing than chemicals found in such foods as alfalfa sprouts, cabbage, peanut butter and potatoes.

The Chronicle quoted Ames as saying, "With the two supplements together, these old rats got up and did the Macarena." Interesting, but we have to ask, why is Ames promoting two nutrients commonly available in healthfood stores, and for which there already exists a tremendous amount of research and information?

For one thing, he contends that the two antioxidants work better together. One study concludes, "ALCAR+LA also increased ambulatory activity in both young and old rats; moreover, the improvement was significantly greater ... when compared with old rats fed ALCAR or LA alone. Feeding ALCAR in combination with LA increased metabolism and lowered oxidative stress more than either compound alone."2 This is apparently what led Ames to envision Macarenized rats.

Another Ames study concludes, "Dietary administration of ALCARand/or LA significantly reduced the extent of oxidized RNA, the combination being the most effective... These results suggest that feeding ALCAR and LA to old rats improves performance on memory tasks by lowering oxidative damage and improving mitochondrial function."3 Thus, it appears these rats could not only dance but could remember their lines too. Could a Broadway hit be far off?

In fact, it's well known that antioxidants work much better in combination than singly, so it's not surprising that LA and ALCAR work better together than alone. Alpha-Lipoic Acid also has a powerful insulin regulating effect, so much so that diabetics should carefully monitor their insulin levels as they introduce LA into their programs, as they may need to decrease their exogenous insulin over time. We have found that our 20-something customers need only about 50 mg of ALA; more than that can sometimes give rise to sugar cravings. People in their 40's and up can usually utilize much more.

So we ask again, what's the big deal here, if the nutritional information is no biggee? Maybe it has to do with the promotion of the new company, Juvenon, which will market the products Ames develops. Light begins to emerge on the Juvenon situation with the announcement from UC Berkeley that the university has patented the combination of LA and ALCAR to rejuvenate cells, and Ames' company has licensed the patent from the university. Since UC Berkeley is a public school, funded by tax dollars (yours and mine), will the profits from the eventual sale of Juvenon's products pay back our venture capital? I wouldn't count on it.

While insisting that his new company, Juvenon, was only interested in doing "really solid science in this venture because there's so much snake oil out there", Juvenon is already reporting that 50 volunteers in an anecdotal study have reported "a wide variety of positive effects," including: "Increased energy, elevated mood, steady emotional state, improved sleep, enhanced cognitive function, weight loss or improved weight control, decreased age pigment (lipofuscin) and lower blood pressure." Notably absent from this list is improved Flamenco dancing, but who knows, maybe they just need to add Vitamin C, Vitamin E, trace minerals including zinc, manganese, selenium and chromium, the essential fatty acids DHA and EPA, and other essential nutrients.

A perhaps more interesting study was mentioned in an article by Jane E. Brody in the New York Times, in which veterinarian researchers studied the decline of cognitive function in old dogs.4 With support from a pet food company, the National Institute on Aging, and the US military, these researchers found that a diet containing antioxidant-rich fruit and vegetables, antioxidant vitamins C and E, antioxidant nutrients carnitine and alpha lipoic acid, and the essential fatty acids DHA and EPA, had a significant effect on improving the signs of brain aging in these elderly canines. As in the Ames study, the mechanism is believed to be improving the health of the cellular mitochondria.

Ames work is valuable because it provides further evidence of the importance of proper antioxidant nutrition and may give helpful insights into one good way of using two antioxidants. However, when Juvenon warns of "copycat competitors that may use poor-quality compounds or whose dosages may not be clinically proven," they are ignoring the fact of biological individuality, proven half a century ago by scientist Roger Williams. The principle of biological individuality shows that the need for nutrients in individuals can and does vary widely. So any "clinically proven" dosage is, in reality, just a starting point for an individual to determine what her optimal dose will be, as in the Alpha-Lipoic Acid example previously mentioned.

As to "poor-quality compounds," we can't agree more that buyers need to purchase products from reputable companies. We also know about the great measures that our healthfood supplement manufacturers take to insure the quality of their products. The myth of "pharmaceutical" quality is just that, and the top level of healthfood supplement manufacturers (which Vitamin Express sells) have long-ago instituted Good Manufacturing Practices that meet or exceed the highest standards.

Ames work is also important in that it further explicates the free radical theory of aging, which shows that the signs of aging are the result of harmful chemicals called free radicals that tend to build up inside mitochondria, the "power plants" of cells in the body. Powerful antioxidant nutrients, including LA and ALCAR, can prevent and reverse the deterioration of mitochondria, helping to prevent the decline of memory and bodily energy. Nutrition pioneers such as Patrick Mooney of SuperNutrition and Dr. Stephen Levine of NutriCology have helped many people utilize this theory with their products, starting over 20 years ago! If you're not already experiencing the well-known benefits of Alpha-Lipoic Acid and Acetyl-L-Carnitine, here's more reason to consider using them now.

1 San Francisco Chronicle, Tuesday,February 19, 2002 
2 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,
3 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,
4 The New York Times, Science section, February 5, 2002

Echinacea's Long-Term Effectiveness

We often hear repeated an idea that Echinacea should never be used for long-term or chronic conditions. A few years ago I attended a lecture given by an NIH researcher, in which she stated categorically that Echinacea extract should never be used longer that two weeks. It turned out that she was quoting from the German Commission E Monographs, a compendium of information on some of the research on herbs, considered the "bible" of herbal knowledge in Europe and apparently, now by some "experts" in this country.1

The Commission E contains a lot of good information, but the problem with the Commission E occurs when it is presented or quoted from as the "final knowledge" about anything. In fact, the information there is incomplete (as information tends to be by nature), and some of it is inaccurate.

I know many people who use Echinacea for months during the cold and flu season, and are certain that their bodies have not developed a tolerance for it. The benefits continue to be felt as long as they take it. I have talked to people who are dealing with long-term AIDS, who have used Echinacea continuously for years. They report it continues to help them control some of their symptoms, and that they can feel the effect lessen when they stop taking it and return when they take it again. From these and other observations I have never accepted that Echinacea isn't effective for any long-term situations.

Now renowned Australian herbalist Kerry Bone reports, "In fact, the limitations imposed on the use of Echinacea constitute a modern mythology which has no basis in fact and probably stems from the thinking that it is not healthy to 'stimulate' the immune system all of the time."2

The Eclectic healers used Echinacea for many chronic conditions, including cancer, chronic mastitis, chronic ulceration, tubercular abscesses, chronic glandular indurations, and syphilis. Bone also analyzes modern studies of Echinacea, especially one by Jurcic and coworkers, which contrary to the misinterpretation of some writers, actually shows that:

  • Echinacea stimulates immune activity throughout it's time of use, oral doses more than injected;
  • When Echinacea is stopped, immune activity continues elevated for a few days;
  • After that, immune activity returns to normal - no depletion occurs.

There are some useful "tricks" to using herbs for longer than a few days. For instance, some herbalists recommend that people use a dosing cycle such as 3 weeks on and 1 week off. Herbalist Christopher Hobbes once described to me a pattern of dosing that he often recommends for long-term use of herbs: 6 days on, 1 day off; do this for 6 weeks, then take 1 week off; do this until 6 months, then take 1 month off.

Modern studies also show that Echinacea used for 12 weeks had rare adverse events, consisting mainly of unpleasant taste!3 Other modern studies corroborate these results. One usually reliable source cautions against using Echinacea long-term in the presence of kidney disease, though no literature is cited.4 As this article shows, though we can gain indications of how herbs may work for us from reading, it's wise to let our own observations have a primary voice in our conclusions regarding how and how long to use a safe herb such as Echinacea.

1. To his credit, Alan T. Marty, MD, did write a review of the Commission E Monographs that addressed some of it's shortcomings, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association; see The Complete German Commission E Monographs: Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines, JAMA, Vol. 281 No. 19, May 19, 1999;
2. The Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients, Feb-March 2002, p 60 
3. Parnham MJ. Benefit-Risk Assessment of the Squeezed Sap of the Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) for Long-Term Oral Immunostimulation. Phytomedicine.1996;3(1):95-102. 
4. Dietary Supplement Information Bureau,

Second San Francisco Vitamin Express Opens

Our second San Francisco store is now open for business. President Michael LeVesque is again personally creating another delightful shopping and educational experience, where you will be able to find a huge selection of products, at great prices, and staffed by the knowledgeable staff that you've come to expect. You can find the new Vitamin Express at 2047 Fillmore Street, between Pine and California Street - visit us there soon!

The BEST of health to you!
Michael LeVesque, President

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The products listed in this newsletter are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Consult with your physician before taking any of these products.