We've Got A NAC for Increasing Glutathione!

N-acetylcysteine (aka NAC for short) is an amino acid which plays a role in the formation of glutathione within the body. Glutathione is considered by many to be one of the body’s “master antioxidants” considering that it has the ability to scavenge free radicals at a rate thousands of times that of exogenous antioxidants that would otherwise be consumed through food like berries or turmeric. This master antioxidant is comprised of the three amino acids cysteine, glycine and glutamate - and can be produced by and is found in virtually all cells in the human body. It plays various roles in liver function and the natural detoxification processes of the body. Yes, sounds like some pretty important stuff!

So it sounds like it would be a good idea to increase glutathione in the body in order to help reduce the risk of disease and oxidative damage, so many supplement manufacturers have come out with free-form glutathione supplements. Unfortunately, much of this glutathione is actually broken down into its constituent amino acids in the digestive tract and only provides the substrate amino acids along with a negligible amount of intact glutathione - at a price which is often well above what you’d pay for buying the amino acids separately.

So where does NAC come into play here? Well, NAC supplements are actually known to increase glutathione levels in the body more than taking glutathione itself. It is even used in some aspects of conventional medicine for thinning mucus and as a detox agent in cases of poisoning.

What about taking other antioxidants?

The problem here is that many exogenous antioxidants (outside of the body) have been demonstrated to have the potential to be toxic to cells in the quantities that many people commonly ingest them in supplement form. This is due to 2 main reasons.

  1. Many antioxidant supplements contain quantities of the antioxidant that are impossible to achieve through food sources (i.e. vitamin C tablets containing 800 oranges worth of ascorbic acid). This means that it is best to leave these antioxidants to the food you consume.

  2. Our body’s endogenous antioxidants like glutathione and SOD (superoxide dismutase) are orders of magnitude more powerful than many plant antioxidants

The last thing you need to do when dealing with toxic loads on the body is to introduce more poison! The best thing to do in these cases is to allow the body to manufacture its own antioxidants and deal with the toxic load using natural detox processes.

What is NAC?

NAC is a prodrug for cysteine, meaning that your body will convert NAC into cysteine, and then use it for processes associated with the metabolism of cysteine (like producing glutathione). Cysteine is considered a conditionally essential amino acid, meaning that sometimes it is required to intake, and sometimes it is not. Our bodies have the ability to make cysteine, but certain conditions may increase the need for its consumption. Having an external source like food or a supplement can lighten the load on the body for manufacturing its own cysteine, and may actually provide additional benefits that would not be seen otherwise.

Considering that cysteine is often the limiting factor in the production of glutathione, it is imperative that an adequate amount is either consumed through diet or supplementation. Some common sources of cysteine include:

  • Meat

  • Soy

  • Dairy

  • Eggs

  • Sunflower Seeds

  • Some Grains like Oats and Kamut

Why might I need more NAC or Glutathione?

Some things have the ability to deplete the body’s glutathione reserves including drugs, disease, infections and pollutants. Considering that many of us are exposed to at least one of these on a daily basis, it makes sense that we should try to bolster our antioxidant defenses as much as possible.

This antioxidant works by donating electrons to free radicals (unstable compounds formed by metabolic processes and by external toxins). Free radicals have the potential to damage DNA when left unchecked and when oxidation is not properly balanced. Oxidative damage from free radicals is thought to be one of the primary causes of aging, cancer, and a big factor in other diseases like heart disease.

What makes glutathione a superior antioxidant is that your body can produce it in virtually all cells of the body and recycle it multiple times when it has been “used up” by neutralizing free radicals.

So How Do I Increase My Glutathione Levels?

We previously mentioned how reishi can help increase glutathione levels, but some other common foods and herbs may be of use as well. Some of these include:

  • Turmeric

  • Milk Thistle

  • Berries

  • Spices/Seasonings

This is likely due to the fact that many of the “antioxidant compounds” in these plants are actually hormetic stressors to the body (i.e. a small stress that elicits a positive change). They can make the body upregulate its own production of antioxidants because they can be slightly damaging to cells. This is one of the reasons why megadosing antioxidant supplements can actually be harmful!

It is also essential to make sure that you get proper nutrition. B-vitamins, Vitamin C, Selenium and Zinc are among the essential nutrients that can limit how much glutathione you produce when you lack any one of them.

So what are some common benefits associated with NAC supplementation?

Helps Reduce Mucus Viscosity and Increase Breathing

This is one of the more interesting uses as it is actually accepted by conventional medicine. NAC is used in clinical settings for those with breathing disorders like COPD, asthma, and bronchitis because of the role that glutathione plays in thinning mucus secretions. This helps the lungs to clear mucus faster and help reduce build up similar to drugs like guafinesin. While some studies indicate that it provides benefit for those with these types of breathing conditions, NAC does not appear to actually “heal” lung tissue itself.

It is also used as an adjunct treatment in colds and flu for its mucus thinning properties, and some studies actually indicate that it may have usefulness in helping reduce the severity of the flu.

Reduction in Addictive Behavior

Interestingly enough, it appears that increasing glutathione production via NAC has the potential to help alleviate cravings, though it has not been thoroughly tested. Two studies found that 2400mg of NAC was able to reduce cravings for nicotine and marijuana in those who are addicted or dependent. Another study found that 600mg of NAC every 6 hours when administered to patients withdrawing from cocaine was able to reduce cravings when compared to a placebo. It is theorized that NAC helps to normalize glutamate production in the brain which provides better balance of neurotransmitters.

These are highly important findings and should be further investigated considering that addiction and substance abuse are major issues in society and safer alternatives like NAC may be of more use than some traditional routes which mainly involve replacing one addiction with another.

As a General “Detox” Agent

NAC is sometimes used in clinical settings for poisoning as a means of reducing liver damage and other organ damage. I personally use NAC when taking anything which is known to be hepatotoxic (liver toxic) like alcohol, NSAID pain relievers, or even during times of heavier chemical exposure (like being downtown in pollution).

Research also indicates that NAC has been shown to help reduce the accumulation of lead in the bloodstream. It appears to have a chelating effect that may apply to other heavy metals, but it really needs to be tested in different environments and with different toxic metals.

NAC appears to offer some general protection against a few diseases and has been shown to help increase the survival rate of liver disease, poisoning, heart attacks, and even chronic heart failure.

Psychological Aid

Interestingly enough, NAC may also be of use to those suffering from psychotic disorders. It is theorized that it can help reduce the effects of excess glutamate, which is associated with conditions like schizophrenia, OCD, bipolar, and depression.

Additional trials are needed in order to assess the potency of NAC when compared to traditional therapies and drugs.

Side Effects and Toxicity

  • No known side effects aside from possible nausea and stomach upset. It tastes pretty bad.

  • Virtually non-toxic even in higher doses, but there are a lack of studies on the long term use.

  • It may increase risk of bleeding in combination with blood thinning medications.

Summing Up NAC

Since glutathione supplements are so expensive (and ineffective), NAC offers an antioxidant boost with a much lower price tag. The studies used anywhere from 400-2400mg per day depending on the exact protocol. Lower doses were used for more long term and chronic toxicity whereas the higher doses were used in cases of acute poisoning and for aid of psychotic disorders. The acute use of NAC in poisoning has reached 20-30 grams with no known toxicity, however it would not be wise to use over the counter supplements in doses this high without doctor supervision.

Two other interesting effects were also noted!

  • Rats given NAC before consuming alcohol reduced the severity of liver damage, but when given NAC after alcohol consumption, it accelerated the liver damage. This hasn’t been tested in humans, but it makes sense considering that the liver may have a harder time processing multiple compounds at once.

  • Higher dose NAC was associated with clearer skin (i.e. less acne) in an 8 week trial where participants were given 2400mg per day.

We personally keep NAC around for a variety of reasons, but we see it as an essential component to any medicine cabinet for its potential in reducing toxic load and improving liver health. I feel better when using it consistently, though sometimes its hard to remember to take it on a consistent basis!

Please remember to check out our podcast episode on NAC on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Play or wherever you listen to podcasts. You can also check us out on YouTube.


Until next time everyone, always remember that H = Health!