N-acetylcysteine (NAC) has been used for some time now in emergency rooms as an antidote for acetaminophen (Tylenol) overdose. During the past two decades, a variety of new uses for NAC as a supplement have been uncovered.
What is NAC?
NAC is derived from cysteine, a conditionally essential amino acid that is produced naturally in the body. However, because the body does not always produce adequate amounts of cysteine amounts of cysteine, supplementation is sometimes necessary.
How Does NAC Work?
In general, NAC performs the same function as cysteine — enhancing detoxification and promoting beautiful skin, healthy nails and nourishing hair. However, NAC is more stable than cysteine and is also more efficiently absorbed and utilised. In the body, NAC sets off a chain reaction during which it combines with two other amino acids — glutamic acid and glycine — to form glutathione, which is considered one of the body’s most important antioxidants.
Antioxidants quench free radicals, which can damage healthy cells and have been associated with everything from cardiovascular disease and chronic bronchitis to cancer. Glutathione plays a critical role in helping the liver to break down toxins, whether environmental or produced in the body.
Because glutathione is so vital to health, your body needs a steady supply of its precursors. That is where NAC comes in. This supplement is an effective way to replenish glutathione and reduce damage cause by free radicals. So why not just take glutathione? Because glutathione cannot be easily absorbed from the digestive tract, but NAC can.
NAC and Your Health
NAC’s ability to boost glutathione levels in the body gives it strong antioxidant and detoxifying abilities that is highly beneficial for your health in the long run. Below are some of the perks you get to enjoy when you have NAC by your side:
1. Protect Your Liver
As mentioned, NAC is effective for treating acetaminophen overdose. Acetaminophen by-products that are toxic to liver cells are generally bound up by glutathione and rendered non-toxic. However, too much acetaminophen can deplete the body’s glutathione. NAC, given quickly after an overdose, can reduce liver damage because it restores glutathione levels.
2. Improve Immunity and Treat HIV
Researchers have used NAC in other situations where glutathione seems to play a vital role. In patients with HIV, for instance, NAC has been shown to increase levels of glutathione, which reduces the free radical damage associated with HIV, as well as improve the number and activity of immune-fighting cells.
3. Fend Off Flu
It appears that NAC may be helpful in less severe viral diseases as well. NAC was given to a group of elderly men and women at a dose of 1,200 mg daily for a period of six months to determine if it could reduce the frequency and severity of viral influenza and flu-like symptoms. The researchers found strong indications that it could — although those subjects taking NAC had the same number of flu-like infections as those taking placebo, the infections were much less likely to become symptomatic in the NAC group as compared to the placebo group.
4. Prevent Chronic Bronchitis
Over the recent years, there has been strong evidence suggesting that NAC may be helpful in preventing acute flare-ups of chronic bronchitis in people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or more commonly known as emphysema. Individuals with chronic bronchitis periodically have exacerbations that require antibiotics and they may even need to be hospitalised. Further studies from double-blind, placebo-controlled studies demonstrates that regular use of NAC may substantially reduce these flare-ups. It was long thought that NAC works for chronic bronchitis by breaking down and thinning mucus, but it is now believed that it may work by other means, such as enhancing immunity.
5. Reduce Heart Disease and Cancer Risk
Some additional studies have suggested that consuming NAC may help prevent cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer. For instance, NAC has been found to reduce homocysteine levels, a marker of cardiovascular risk. Additionally, supplementation with NAC has been shown to reduce the proliferation of premalignant cells in the colon and may reduce the risk of colon cancer in people with recurrent colon polyps. However, these areas of investigations are quite preliminary and much work is needed to confirm the true potential of NAC’s cardio-protective and chemo-preventive properties.
Guidelines for Taking NAC
Optimal levels of NAC supplementation remain unknown, but much of the research to date has used between 250 and 1,000 mg of NAC per day. Because NAC is a sulphur-containing amino acid, some people object to the smell and may find it difficult to take. Additionally, it is also worth noting that in some individuals, the use of NAC may increase headache side effects. While there have been some reports of gastrointestinal problems when taken at high dosages, NAC is generally considered safe for adults. However, pregnant or breastfeeding mothers should probably avoid it until they consult with their doctor or gynaecologist.