NAC (N-acetyl cysteine) isn’t just a nutrient with a catchy name. I use it commonly in practice in my PCOS patients and as an antioxidant to improve sperm and oocyte quality. But whenever my patients go to purchase NAC at the health food store, I have to warn them that the label may have a picture of a couple of old people smiling in their new-found youth, or a note that the indicated use of this nutrient is for pulmonary disease. Whenever I forget to mention this, patients invariably call me the next day asking – “is this really what you want me to take? You know I don’t have a pulmonary disease…”
(Insert face-palm here)
There are an incredible number of uses for NAC in natural medicine, and yes one of them is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). But I wanted to write about NAC and its many benefits, in order to show that you don’t have to be an ailing 80 year old to benefit from it!
NAC is a derivative of the amino acid L-cysteine (amino acids are the building blocks of proteins). Due to its origin as cysteine, NAC is a source of sulfhydryl (-SH) groups, which allow it to act as a potent antioxidant in the body. When taken internally, NAC is used as a precursor to the natural antioxidant glutathione (GSH). As such, NAC restores cellular ability to fight damage from reactive oxygen species (ROS) or oxidative stress, and improves cellular detoxification. As our patients at Acubalance know, when you have high levels of oxidative stress, the reserve of antioxidants in the system is low and needs to be replenished or widespread cellular damage will occur. This is particularly harmful to the sensitive sperm and oocyte cells when we’re talking about fertility.
One of the most common uses of NAC in medicine is to counteract acetaminophen (Tylenol) and carbon monoxide poisoning, due to its protective effects on the liver. For more than 30 years, NAC has been given by inhalation to help thin the thick and tenacious mucous associated with cystic fibrosis. Today, NAC is used in many fields of natural medicine from psychiatry to cardiovascular – it’s readily available, inexpensive, has four decades of validated scientific research to back it up, and many docs have never heard of it – how is that possible?
Many of the benefits of NAC are derived from its capacity to modulate the expression of genes for signaling molecules in the inflammatory cascade. NAC reduces expression of pro-inflammatory cytokines (signaling molecules) after exposure to influenza virus, and suppresses production of NF-kB, a strongly inflammatory signaling molecule. NAC also regulates the gene for COX-2, the enzyme that produces pain and inflammation-producing prostaglandins in many chronic conditions like arthritis. As inflammation is an underlying theme in many acute and chronic conditions, a nutrient that controls this response can have benefit in many areas of medicine.
Plus, the ability of NAC to replenish levels of the potent antioxidant glutathione affords protection against DNA damage and cancer development, even in those who smoke.
NAC has been shown in performance literature to reduce the acute oxidant-provoked inflammatory response following exercise, which makes vigorous exercise safer and more beneficial.
Obesity-associated or PCOS-associated insulin resistance, which arises from the production of inflammatory signaling molecules, can be reversed by NAC through regulation of the genes. Studies show that NAC can improve circulating insulin levels and insulin sensitivity in women with PCOS, and can be used as an adjunct treatment with clomiphene citrate (Clomid) to induce ovulation in these women. A 2013 study showed a head-to-head comparison of NAC to metformin (a diabetes drug) in PCOS women. Following a 24-week intervention, both groups saw improvements in hirsutism (excessive hair growth), reductions in LH, total testosterone and free testosterone, and improvements in SHBG (sex hormone binding globulin). Menstrual regularity was restored in 34% of the metformin group and 36% of the NAC group. The NAC actually out-performed the metformin group, as it improved total and LDL cholesterol levels. And all of the women in the NAC group completed the trial, while 5/35 dropped out in the metformin group due to side effects.
So really – the reason that NAC benefits patients with cancer, H. pylori, diabetes, pulmonary disease, protects against the flu, boosts performance in professional athletes, and helps regulate menstrual cycles in PCOS patients is because of two things:
it plays a role in the modulating the inflammatory cascade, and improves the production of natural antioxidants.
It’s also really well tolerated with no adverse effects.
If you are curious to see what your antioxidant status is like, or would like more information on the benefit of oral or intravenous nutrient therapy for your health concerns, feel free to contact the clinic for a free 15 minute consultation. Also check out our other information on the benefits of IV antioxidant therapy here.