This versatile compound has impressive effects on your body — including your lungs, liver and overall immunity.
Haven’t heard of N-Acetyl L-Cysteine, or NAC? You’re not alone. This powerful compound has been flying relatively under the radar in the world of wellness — and we’re not sure why! The multipurpose supplement delivers a variety of benefits to the body, including acting as an antioxidant, strengthening immune defenses and supporting fertility, liver detoxification and even muscle recovery.
Among NAC’s many benefits is one that’s particularly timely: It may help relieve chronic respiratory conditions — which preliminary research suggests could play a pivotal role in supporting, preventing and treating those with COVID-19.
The Science Behind NAC
NAC is the supplement form of cysteine, a semi-essential amino acid, found in high-protein foods such as eggs, chicken and turkey. Often referred to as the building blocks of protein, amino acids like cysteine are essential to body function and help with various processes such as building muscle or regulating immune function.
NAC acts as a precursor to glutathione, a powerful antioxidant that prevents damage from free radicals on a cellular level. Free radicals are unstable atoms that cause major damage to cells by breaking them down, which in turn lays the foundation for serious illnesses, like diabetes, cancer and Alzheimers. Antioxidants (like glutathione) neutralize those free radicals. In other words, NAC can help combat cell damage throughout the body.
"NAC can help combat cell damage throughout the body."
According to this study, glutathione may even impact longevity by fighting the negative effects of oxidative stress that lead to many chronic diseases.
Plus, as we age it’s even more important to add NAC to your routine. “Although the body can produce glutathione naturally, we produce less of it as we get older,” says Frank Lipman, MD, our Chief Medical Officer. “Thus the need to take some NAC to top off your tank.”
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Health Benefits of NAC Supplements
Improves Lung Health
NAC is often used to help fight long-term lung damage in those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). According to Lipman, “NAC replenishes glutathione levels in the lungs, decreases inflammation in the lungs and bronchi and loosens mucus in the airways.”
Some researchers even predict that NAC could potentially decrease the infectivity and prevent the severity of COVID-19. Several clinical trials are underway to test its effectiveness on coronavirus patients.
“So in times like this, especially with colder weather coming, it’s a great supplement to be taking,” adds Lipman.
Strengthens Immune Health
Research shows promising results that NAC may improve immune function by killing viral cells or blocking their replication. A recent study revealed that HIV patients supplementing with NAC saw a significant improvement in their immune function and natural killer cells. Another study indicated that NAC may hinder the replication process of viruses like the flu, potentially shortening lifespan and symptoms.
This study revealed that gut microbiota impacts antioxidant metabolism, regulating glutathione. “Health starts in the gut,” says Raj Barker, Health Coach at THE WELL, adding that the amino acids from NAC build and strengthen your gut. “Immunity mirrors the state of your gut health, so a healthy gut is always recommended,” says Barker.
Detoxifies the Liver and Kidneys
NAC also aids in the body’s detoxification process. Doctors regularly use NAC to combat kidney and liver damage for people who have overdosed on the pain reliever acetaminophen (a.k.a. Tylenol).
NAC may even help prevent side effects from environmental toxins, such as exposure to sulfhydryl-reactive metals (mercury, cadmium, lead, arsenic). These metals deplete glutathione, inhibit antioxidant benefits and can even disrupt metabolism. Research continues to investigate how NAC may be able to counteract these harmful effects.
Healthy levels of glutamate in the brain are necessary for normal brain function.
Aids Brain Function and Psychiatric Disorders
Learning, memory and brain function may also improve because NAC regulates levels of the neurotransmitters glutamate in the brain.
Healthy levels of glutamate in the brain are necessary for normal brain function, but excess levels of glutamate and low levels of glutathione can be damaging for the brain, which may magnify mental health conditions like bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and addictive behavior. Although doctors do not recommend NAC as a sole treatment for mental health conditions, promising research shows that NAC may help decrease symptoms of bipolar disorder, depression and OCD.
Some studies even point to NAC impacting diseases such as Alzheimers because glutathione reduces oxidative damage to brain cells that comes with aging.
NAC may also improve fertility, especially amongst men. Infertility issues in men often stem from low levels of antioxidant activity and free radical destruction in the fertility system. In one study, 468 men struggling with infertility improved their fertility by supplementing with 600 mg of NAC and 200 mcg of selenium and significantly improved fertility levels over 26 weeks.
NAC can also improve fertility in women suffering from polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) by inducing or augmenting ovulation.
What to Look for in NAC Supplements
As immune health continues to stay top-of-mind in the ongoing pandemic, adding NAC to your routine can not only boost your overall health, but also protect your immune system in the process. Prioritizing food as a source of nutrients is a vital part of healthy living. Increasing your consumption of foods high in protein — chicken, turkey, yogurt, eggs, cheese and legumes — will boost cysteine levels. However, sometimes it’s necessary to supplement.