NAC is an antioxidant compound that has recently been found to benefit depression and other mental health issues. Read on to learn more.
Your body uses N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) to make its own antioxidants. Medically, it is used to treat acetaminophen toxicity; it is almost 100% effective as long as it’s given within the first eight hours after overdose [ 1 , 2 ].
For all other purposes, NAC is an unapproved supplement. Preliminary evidence may look promising (and in some cases, very promising!), but future studies may find that NAC is actually ineffective for some of these purposes.
It’s important to talk to your doctor before adding NAC to your health strategies, as it may have unexpected interactions. Proponents:
Some good evidence for a benefit in depression
May help with obsessive-compulsive symptoms and addiction
Promising early research in many mental health concerns
Generally considered very safe
Doesn’t taste good and can cause nausea
May affect bleeding
Many purported benefits are unproven
Potential Mental Health Benefits of NAC
NAC supplements have not been approved by the FDA for medical use. Supplements generally lack solid clinical research. Regulations set manufacturing standards for them but don’t guarantee that they’re safe or effective. Speak with your doctor before supplementing. 1) Depression
Balancing brain glutamate levels
Boosting the growth of new brain cells
In a review of studies including 574 people, NAC improved symptoms of depression and overall day-to-day functioning after 3-6 months [ 5 ].
Additionally, it improved the mood of people with depression after 3-4 months [ 6 , 4 ].
It may also balance mood by reducing oxidative stress in the brain. In a study of 76 depressed patients, those who took NAC had higher brain antioxidant levels [ 7 ].
NAC improved mood in depressed patients, possibly by balancing brain glutamate and reducing oxidative stress and inflammation.
The following purported benefits are only supported by limited, low-quality clinical studies. There is insufficient evidence to support the use of NAC for any of the below-listed uses. Remember to speak with a doctor before taking NAC, and never use it in place of something your doctor recommends or prescribes. 2) Bipolar Disorder and Mania
NAC is under investigation for its potential to improve chronic health issues, such as heart disease and hormonal imbalance, in people with bipolar disorder. It had an indirect effect on overall health, antioxidant status, and inflammation [ 8 ].
In another study with 17 bipolar patients, NAC improved low mood and overall symptoms after 6 months [ 9 ].
Larger studies are currently underway to investigate the potential benefits of NAC for Bipolar Disorder [ 10 ].
NAC could also improve mania symptoms in a small study of 15 people after 6 months. The NAC group experienced less severe mania, while the placebo group experienced mood worsening [ 11 ].People with bipolar disorder have benefited from NAC supplementation in small studies, but larger clinical trials will be needed to confirm this. 3) Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) NAC may help with OCD by balancing glutamate and increasing antioxidants in the brain. In a study of 44 OCD patients, NAC as an add-on to standard medications improved symptoms, even in severe cases [ 12 ].In a study of 48 OCD patients who previously didn’t respond to drugs, NAC could safely improve the symptoms after 3 months [ 13 ].Some studies, however, didn’t find any benefits of NAC for OCD [ 14 ].Although the evidence is mixed, NAC may be useful for obsessive-compulsive disorders, according to a large review. Overall, it shows promising benefits and has few side-effects [ 15 ]. 4) Autism NAC reduced irritability in a study of 33 children with autism after 3 months [ 16 ].In two studies of 80 autistic children, those who got NAC as an add-on to an antipsychotic (risperidone) experienced less irritability and hyperactivity after two months [ 17 , 18 ].But NAC had no benefits in children with autism in a different study [ 19 ].It boosted glutathione in 31 children with autism but had no effect on their social functioning [ 20 ].NAC reduced irritability and hyperactivity in children with autism, but clinical evidence is still considered insufficient. 5) Schizophrenia NAC may help improve symptoms of schizophrenia and psychosis by balancing the brain’s glutamate levels and fighting oxidative stress and inflammation.NAC improved cognition and working memory in 58 people with psychosis, taken at a higher dose of 2 g/day. It also reduced symptoms like mania and hallucinations and improved response to standard treatment in another study of 121 people [ 21 ].Combined with antipsychotics, NAC improved overall symptoms in 42 people with schizophrenia with no side effects. It especially helped with low mood and apathy [ 22 ].NAC reduced manic and psychotic symptoms in some patients with schizophrenia and improved their cognition. 6) Cognition Combinations of NAC with other antioxidants improved cognition in healthy older people and those with mild cognitive impairment [ 23 , 24 ].Scientists have been researching NAC for boosting cognitive function in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, schizophrenia, and anesthesia recovery [ 25 ]. 7) Compulsions in Children NAC safely reduced obsessive skin picking in a study of 66 children with the disorder [ 26 ].It could also reduce compulsive nail biting in 42 children [ 27 ].It seems to help only with obsessive or compulsive behaviors as it did not improve tic symptoms in 31 children with Tourette Syndrome [ 28 ]. 8) Addiction Some researchers believe that NAC has the potential to help combat various types of addiction, based on the model of binge eating in animals [ 29 ].Cysteine from NAC may normalize brain levels of the neurotransmitter glutamate , which affects reward pathways involved in addiction [ 30 , 31 ].A large review of 165 patients and 9 studies found NAC especially useful for cannabis and cocaine addiction. NAC could also help with nicotine dependence, methamphetamine addiction, and pathological gambling [ 32 ].It seems to help some odd types of impulsive behaviors, such as hair pulling. NAC could reduce uncontrolled […]