Neuropathy is nerve damage that often occurs in people with diabetes and as a side effect of chemotherapy. Although lifestyle changes and conventional treatments may ease symptoms of neuropathy, supplements may also help.
Symptoms of peripheral neuropathy include:
- tingling in the affected part of the body
- a burning sensation
- feeling pain from light touch
- experiencing extreme changes in temperature, usually in the feet
- having other unusual sensations
Although any of the body’s peripheral nerves can develop neuropathy, most people experience symptoms in the feet or hands.
Treatment for neuropathy usually involves managing the condition that has caused it and relieving symptoms. Research into using supplements and natural remedies for neuropathy is ongoing. Supplements may have fewer side effects than conventional treatments and have other health benefits.
As with any medication, anyone wanting to try supplements should discuss the risks and benefits with a doctor first. Anyone experiencing severe side effects should seek medical advice as soon as possible.
In this article, we examine vitamin and supplements that may help reduce symptoms of neuropathy, prevent it from occurring, or even reverse nerve damage. We also discuss dietary and lifestyle tips for neuropathy and look at when to seek advice from a doctor.
Acetyl-l-carnitine (ALC) is a popular supplement for treating a wide variety of symptoms. The liver and kidneys naturally produce it.
People undergoing chemotherapy may find relief from neuropathy with ALC. However, the data supporting its use are mixed.
While some small early studies produced promising results with the supplement, other data suggest that ALC does not work.
Other studies show that ALC helps control pain and may improve nerve function in people with neuropathy due to diabetes.
B-12, B-6, other B-complex vitamins may also ease symptoms of neuropathy.
B-complex vitamins play an essential role in nerve health, metabolism, and sensory perception. B-complex deficiencies are relatively common, and a person can develop a deficiency after just a few weeks of inadequate intake.
A person needs to consult a doctor before supplementing with B vitamins.
Some B-complex supplements that may help neuropathy include:
- folate (vitamin B-9), which is also present in dietary sources, such as oatmeal and fortified cereals
- vitamin B-1, which is present in many types of meat, as well as oranges and peas
Alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) may help reverse free radical damage and intensify the effects of antioxidants, which may slow or stop nerve damage.
A handful of studies suggest that ALA may offer relief from some neuropathy symptoms, especially burning and stabbing pains, within a few weeks.
A 2006 study evaluated symptoms of neuropathy after 5 weeks of taking oral doses of ALA once a day. The researchers divided participants into three groups according to ALA dosages of 600 milligrams (mg), 1,200 mg, and 1,800 mg.
Participants received a single oral dose of ALA each day, and researchers compared them with a placebo group. At all three dosages, participants reported fewer symptoms. However, people who took higher doses experienced more side effects.
The Foundation for Peripheral Neuropathy state that magnesium may help with chemotherapy-related neuropathy, but more research is needed.
A study published in Nutrients of people undergoing chemotherapy found that people who had high levels of magnesium in their diet were less likely to experience neuropathy.
An earlier 2013 study did not have the same outcome. Researchers found that giving magnesium and calcium infusions with chemotherapy did not improve neuropathy symptoms.
Magnesium is abundant in dark chocolate, nuts, avocados, and legumes.
The Foundation for Peripheral Neuropathy also suggest that calcium could help with chemotherapy-related neuropathy, but again, research is limited.
However, the study published in Nutrients found that high dietary calcium had no effect on chemotherapy-induced neuropathy in some people.
Rich dietary sources of calcium include dairy foods, such as milk and cheese.
Glutamine is the body’s most abundant amino acid. It may improve many side effects of chemotherapy, including inflammation, muscle pain, and neuropathy.
Food sources of glutamine include:
- egg whites
Glutamine is also available as a pill or an injection.
Glutathione is an antioxidant that the body produces naturally. It is an increasingly popular supplement, and some foods, such as okra, asparagus, and avocados, contain high levels of it. However, digestion breaks up glutathione, and the body does not absorb it, so people may need to use other methods. Talk to a doctor about the best ways to take in glutathione.
Preliminary research has found that glutathione may help with chemotherapy-related neuropathy, diabetic neuropathy, and neuropathy of unknown origin.
Not all studies have found that glutathione works, so more research must assess its role in nerve health.
N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) is present in foods such as lentils, beans, and bananas. NAC may protect the neurological system from inflammation and damage, which may help prevent or treat neuropathy.
NAC may also help with Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease, though the research is still in its infancy.
Some people develop neuropathy because they have a deficiency in particular vitamins and nutrients. Supplements can help reverse or reduce symptoms.
Some vitamin and mineral deficiencies that may cause neuropathy include:
- Vitamin B-12. People who do not eat any animal products are more vulnerable to B-12 deficiency. Vitamin B-12 deficiency may also cause anemia.
- Copper. Copper deficiency may damage nerves and lead to excess zinc in the blood. People with too little copper may need lifelong treatment.
- Vitamin E. Vitamin E is an important antioxidant. Being deficient in vitamin E can damage the nerves. A disease called spinocerebellar syndrome can cause vitamin E deficiency, though unusual diets and other conditions may also lead to low vitamin E.
- Vitamin B-6. Vitamin B-6 can cause peripheral neuropathy if a person gets too much or too little. A poor diet and eating disorders may cause B-6 deficiency.
Taking too much of any supplement can cause serious health problems, including worsening neuropathy. People who suspect they have a nutrient deficiency should ask a doctor to check their levels and then consult with a nutrition expert about which supplement to use and at what dosage.
Neuropathy is a complex symptom, and the right treatment varies from person to person.
Diet and lifestyle strategies that may help a person to reduce their symptoms or even prevent neuropathy include:
- Controlling blood glucose levels. A person can manage their levels by eating a balanced diet rich in fiber and low in simple carbohydrates. People with diabetes may need to take medication.
- Getting a shingles vaccine. Shingles may cause nerve damage.
- Physical activity. Exercise improves blood flow, helps a person maintain a healthy weight, and can prevent some conditions that may cause neuropathy. Exercise also plays an important role in blood glucose management.
- Quitting smoking. Smoking narrows the arteries and increases the risk of neuropathy in people with diabetes. Quitting smoking can help.
- Eating foods that reduce inflammation. Good choices include fatty fish, such as salmon and tuna, flaxseed, and fruits and vegetables.
People with conditions that may cause neuropathy should discuss prevention strategies with a healthcare professional.
It is also important to see a doctor if:
- neuropathy symptoms appear for the first time
- neuropathy symptoms are unbearable or are getting worse
- treatment for neuropathy is not working
- the feet go completely numb, or neuropathy makes walking difficult or impossible
Neuropathy can be unpredictable and may suddenly get better or worse.
Many people with neuropathy find that they have to try several treatments to see improvements. Neuropathy is a treatable symptom, especially with the right combination of medication, lifestyle changes, and treatment for the underlying condition.
A person should talk to a healthcare professional about strategies for managing neuropathy.
Some people find that tracking their symptoms over time helps them understand which interventions or medications have worked and allows them to establish links between their lifestyle and neuropathy symptoms.