N-acetyl cysteine, according to Wikipedia, “ is a medication used to treat paracetamol (acetaminophen) overdose and to loosen thick mucus such as in cystic fibrosis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It is available by intravenous, by mouth, or inhaled as a mist.” But it is really so much more than that. This amazing amino acid derivative is a slightly modified version of the sulfur-containing amino acid L- cysteine. One of the really important things that NAC does is bring back intracellular levels of glutathione (GSH), a powerful antioxidant. It is also an anti-inflamatory by regulating the gene for COX-2, the enzyme known for pain and inflammation. So you see that it serves some pretty important functions in the fight against heart disease. It is widely used in the medical community for things like acetaminophen poisoning and liver failure. But for the purpose of extending healthy lives here are some more important benefits. Influenza Influenza, or the flu, is one of the viral killers of people over the age of 65. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that about 20,000 people die a year in the U.S. most of them older people. NAC is often recommended to reduce flu symptoms. After all, people don’t die of the influenza virus, they die of the symptoms before their body can overcome the virus. A study published in the European Respiratory Journal studying the efficacy of using NAC said that only 25% of people who took NAC and were injected with a an influenza A virus developed flu symptoms compared with 79% who received a placebo. It’s believed that NAC inhibits expression of pro-inflammatory cytokines following exposure to the influenza A virus Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease COPD COPD is a crippling pulmonary condition. NAC is used to treat this condition and other pulmonary conditions like cystic fibrosis. It works by suppressing the master signaling molecule for inflammation response. NAC also regulates the gene for COX-2, the enzyme that produces pain- and inflammation-inducing prostaglandins in a wide variety of chronic conditions. Helicobacter pylori As we grow older, our digestive systems become increasingly stressed by bad bacteria, toxin buildup, and many other factors. As an aside here, that’s why I always take a good probiotic supplement. A nasty gut bacteria that is believed to cause ulcers, H. pylori lives in the stomach by overcoming gastric acidity and peristalsis, the muscle movement meant to move food through our gut. It’s tough to get rid of because this type of bacteria forms a biofilm that probably facilitates antibiotic resistance. NAC works by destroying the biofilm. It does this by cleaving disulfide bonds1 NAC also keeps bacteria from reproducing. There is a joke in here about it being a Cox2 inhibitor. Anti-Cancer Remember that NAC replenishes glutathione which acts as a powerful antioxidant that fights against damage to DNA and against the development of cancer. This is true even in high risk cases like that of smokers. Also PQQ, which I will talk about in detail in another article, is a known cancer killer. NAC, given with PQQ was shown in a study2 to increase the cancer-killing power of PQQ by as much as 5%. But the jury is still out on whether NAC is effective in anti-cancer therapies. In fact, at least one naturopath reported that NAC keeps cancer cells from dying.3 Insulin Resistance Insulin resistance, which arises from production of inflammatory signaling molecules in fat cells, can be overcome by NAC through the regulation of their genes. In fact, studies have shown that NAC has the same ability to fight insulin resistance as the prescription drug, metformin.
It’s not often you come across supplements that people claim help with psychiatric disorders like OCD. NAC is similarly been shown helpful for bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, depression, cocaine addiction, cigarette smoking, and other symptoms of addictive withdrawal. Interestingly, NAC may also help with autism. It is believed that autism may be caused by a cysteine and related sulfur amino acids depletion.
Acetaminophen toxicity and acute liver failure
Overdose of acetaminophen, AKA Tylenol®, or in Europe, paracetamol, along with other drugs created by combining analgesic compounds, such as Vicodin® and Percocet® are the number one cause of acute liver failure in the United States. Who hasn’t knocked down a few Tylenol for some of those aches and pains we feel as we get older. There are great alternatives, like curcumin, but that’s another topic. When overdoses happen, NAC helps protect the liver.
Generally recommended doses range between 600mg and 1,800 mg. Divide the doses into two or three throughout the day and take them on an empty stomach. Lower doses (200mg) are generally used for issues like asthma or bronchitis.
Warnings: Do not use Acetylcysteine with nitroglycerin, as this can cause the body’s blood flow to increase and the blood vessels to dilate. In addition, activated charcoal interacts with Acetylcysteine if given at the same time to help prevent poisoning and may reduce the effectiveness of both treatments.
- Kian Makipour, MD and Frank K. Friedenberg, MD, MS (Epi), The Potential Role of N-Acetylcysteine for the Treatment of Helicobacter pylori, J Clin Gastroenterol. 2011 Nov-Dec; 45(10): 841–843.
- Shankar BS1, Pandey R, Amin P, Misra HS, Sainis KB.,Role of glutathione in augmenting the anticancer activity of pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ). Redox Rep. 2010;15(4):146-54. doi: 10.1179
- Jacob Schor ND, FABNO, N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC): good for some things but dangerous with cancer., Feb 2011, denvernaturopathic.com/NAC2011.htm