A metabolite from an amino acid which is classified as both a nutritional supplement and pharmaceutical drug, has been used to treat bronchitis, cystic fibrosis, high cholesterol, diabetes, HIV, autism and even cancer. It assists in the production of glutathione, which plays a key role in regulating many cellular functions and helps keep the immune system in check. Moreover, it helps detox the body chelating dangerous heavy metals.
N-acetylcysteine (NAC) is converted by the body into an amino acid called cysteine. Proponents claim that taking N-acetylcysteine supplements can protect against a wide range of health problems and the science backs up the claim.
Irritability affects 60 to 70 percent of children with autism. NAC lowers irritability in children with autism as well as reduced the children’s repetitive behaviors. The study appears in the June 1, 2012 issue of Biological Psychiatry.
N-Acetylcysteine may help keep chronic bronchitis in check, according to a 2000 report in Clinical Therapeutics. Looking at data from eight clinical trials, the report’s authors found that long-term use of N-acetylcysteine may help prevent acute flare-ups of chronic bronchitis and, in turn, lower healthcare costs.
NAC has been shown to reduce the proliferation of certain cells lining the colon and may reduce the risk of colon cancer in people with recurrent polyps in the colon. Its action as an antioxidant and a glutathione precursor may also contribute to a protective effect against cancer.
In a study conducted at 20 centers in Italy under the direction of the Institute of Hygiene and Preventive Medicine, University of Genoa, Italy, involving 262 subjects, 78% of whom were age 65 years or older who either received 600 milligrams NAC or a placebo tablet twice a day (1200 mg NAC total per day) for 6 months, the effects of NAC were profound. Subjects given NAC experienced a significant reduction in the frequency of flu-like episodes as well as reduced severity of symptoms.
N-Acetylcysteine may aid in diabetes management, suggests a 2006 study from the Journal of Basic and Clinical Physiology and Pharmacology. Involving 32 patients with type 2 diabetes and 15 healthy controls, the study found that three months of treatment with N-acetylcysteine helped regulate glutathione levels in diabetes patients. The study’s authors suggest that regulating glutathione levels may help protect against diabetic complications brought on by free radical-induced damage.
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome
N-Acetylcysteine may help treat polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), according to a 2007 study in the journal Acta Obstetricia et Gynecologica Scandinavica. For one menstrual cycle, 573 PCOS patients were treated with clomiphene citrate (a drug commonly used to induce ovulation). Next, 470 of these patients took a combination of N-acetylcysteine and clomiphene citrate for another menstrual cycle. Study results revealed that ovulation rates improved significantly after the addition of N-acetylcysteine.
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease
In patients with stable, moderate-to-severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), N-acetylcysteine may help improve physical performance. For a 2009 study published in the journal Chest, 24 COPD patients took either N-acetylcysteine or a placebo daily for six weeks. After taking a two-break (in order to eliminate N-acetylcysteine from the bodies of participants in the treatment group), the study participants were switched over to the alternate therapy for an additional six weeks. Study results indicated that N-acetylcysteine helped improve several markers of respiratory health, such as lung capacity and exercise endurance.
N-acetyl cysteine is also used to counteract acetaminophen (Tylenol) and carbon monoxide poisoning. It can be used for chest pain (unstable angina), bile duct blockage in infants, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease), lung cancer, chronic fatigue, Alzheimer’s disease, allergic reactions to anti-seizure medications and eye infections. It is also used for reducing levels of a type of cholesterol called lipoprotein (a), homocysteine levels (a possible risk factor for heart disease) and the risk of heart attack and stroke in patients with serious kidney disease.
This powerful metabolite is also used against environmental pollutants including carbon monoxide, chloroform, urethanes, herbicides, pesticides, reducing toxicity of cancer drugs, hangover remedy, damage due to certain X-ray dyes; and for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
How Does NAC Do All of This?
Cysteine plays a role in the sulfation cycle, acting as a sulfur donor in phase II detoxification and as a methyl donor in the conversion of homocysteine to methionine. Cysteine also helps synthesize glutathione, one of the body’s most important natural antioxidants and detoxifiers. NAC is the acetylated form of L-Cysteine.
Increases Glutathione Levels
NAC is rapidly metabolized to intracellular glutathione. Glutathione acts as a powerful antioxidant in the body. Glutathione also detoxifies chemicals into less harmful compounds. N-Acetyl Cysteine also protects the body from acetaminophen toxicity and is used in hospitals for patients with acetaminophen poisoning. It has also been shown to be effective at treating liver failure from other causes as well.
Chelates Heavy Metals
Heavy metals like lead, mercury and arsenic are detoxified and removed from the body by NAC . It also increases the excretion of zinc and other essential minerals when taken over an extended period. It is therefore necessary to supplement zinc, copper and other trace minerals when taking N-Acetyl Cysteine.
Enhances the Immune System
Glutathione is known to aid in the transport of nutrients to lymphocytes and phagocytes, two major classes of immune cells, and to protect cell membranes. While purified glutathione is available as a dietary supplement, absorption is low, and NAC is thought to be a better method of boosting cellular glutathione levels. N-Acetyl Cysteine is being investigated as a treatment for AIDS.
Breaks up Mucus
NAC cleaves disulfide bonds by converting them to two sulfhydryl groups. This action results in the breakup of mucoproteins in lung mucus, reducing their chain lengths and thinning the mucus, improving conditions such as bronchitis and flu. Double-blind research has found that N-Acetyl Cysteine supplements improved symptoms and prevented recurrences in people with chronic bronchitis. N-Acetyl Cysteine at a dosage of 1,200 mg per day helps to prevent Influenza infection, reduces the symptoms of existing Influenza infection and reduces the duration of Influenza infections.
When taking NAC it is recommended that two to three times as much vitamin C be taken at the same time. Failure to do so may result in more harm than good from taking this product because of the prolonged presence of the oxidized form of L-Cysteine. The vitamin C also helps keep the glutathione that is produced from the Cysteine in its reduced form so that it can continue acting as an antioxidant.
Typical dosage recommendations are in the range of 250-1500mg of NAC daily for the majority of therapeutic benefits.
Richard Firshein, DO, director of the Firshein Center for Comprehensive Medicine in New York City, prescribes N-acetylcysteine (NAC) for many people with health problems. In his practice, Dr. Firshein prescribes a daily dose of 500 mg to 1,000 mg of NAC to successfully treat patients with chronic asthma or certain liver problems.
N-Acetylcysteine is one of the most powerful supplements to hit the market in the natural health industry. However, quality is key so it’s imperative that you research your sources before buying this supplement from a health food store to maximize its benefits and therapeutic value.
Natasha Longo has a master’s degree in nutrition and is a certified fitness and nutritional counselor. She has consulted on public health policy and procurement in Canada, Australia, Spain, Ireland, England and Germany.