November 24, 2023

9 Reasons Why You Should Try N-Acetyl L-Cysteine (NAC)

Written by our expert


Avanthika Nityanand

M.Sc Human Genetics, B.Sc Plant Biology & Plant Biotechnology

9 Reasons Why You Should Try N-Acetyl L-Cysteine (NAC)
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N-acetylcysteine (NAC) is classified as 'conditionally essential,' meaning the body can synthesize it from other amino acids, specifically methionine and serine. It becomes an essential nutrient only when the dietary intake of these amino acids is insufficient.

Cysteine, a key component for producing NAC, is prevalent in many high-protein foods. Sources of cysteine include chicken, turkey, yogurt, cheese, eggs, sunflower seeds, and various legumes.

Consuming adequate amounts of cysteine and NAC is important for several health aspects. These amino acids play a crucial role in replenishing glutathione, the most potent antioxidant in the human body. Additionally, they contribute to managing chronic respiratory conditions, support fertility, and benefit brain health.

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Making The Powerful Antioxidant Glutathione

N-acetylcysteine (NAC) plays a crucial role in synthesizing glutathione (GSH), a powerful antioxidant in all mammalian tissues. This process is complex and involves several steps:

NAC is a source of cysteine, a sulfur-containing amino acid essential for GSH synthesis. A study exploring cysteine's provision for glutathione synthesis in human erythrocytes found that NAC can provide cysteine by intracellular deacetylation. This process is crucial in conditions with a significant depletion of endogenous cysteine and GSH. The study demonstrated that plasma concentrations of NAC could react with plasma cystine to produce cysteine sufficient for maximal glutathione synthesis rates​​.

NAC has been used therapeutically as a precursor for the substrate l-cysteine in synthesizing hepatic glutathione. This application is particularly noted in the treatment of acetaminophen overdose. NAC's role in GSH synthesis is significant in situations where GSH is depleted, such as in drug conjugation processes​​.

Glutathione synthesis occurs in a tightly regulated manner within the cytosol. The critical determinants of GSH synthesis include the availability of cysteine and the activity of the enzyme glutamate cysteine ligase (GCL). GCL comprises a catalytic and a modifier subunit and is the rate-limiting enzyme in this process. The second enzyme involved in GSH synthesis is GSH synthetase (GS)​​.

Reducing Liver And Kidney Damage

N-acetylcysteine (NAC) is utilized in medical treatments for its detoxification properties, particularly for liver and kidney health. A study examined NAC's influence on liver damage induced by long-term exposure to carbon tetrachloride (CCl4). The study found that NAC administration significantly decreased levels of bile acids, bilirubin in plasma, and triacylglycerols in the liver. However, it also indicated some potential harmful effects, such as increased triacylglycerols, alanine aminotransferase (ALT), and aspartate aminotransferase (AST) activity, along with an increase in plasma cholinesterase activity, suggesting a complex interaction​​.

Regarding kidney health, a systematic review and meta-analysis evaluating the safety and benefits of NAC for chronic kidney disease (CKD) found that NAC reduced cardiovascular events among people with CKD and improved estimated glomerular filtration rate (eGFR) and serum creatinine levels, compared to a placebo group. The study concluded that NAC appears safe and can benefit kidney function, relieve inflammation, and reduce cardiovascular events among people with CKD​​.

May Improve Mental Health Conditions

N-acetylcysteine (NAC) shows potential in improving mental health conditions and treating substance use disorders (SUDs), primarily due to its role as a precursor to the antioxidant glutathione and its modulating effects on various neural pathways. In the context of psychiatric disorders, NAC's utility stems from its influence on glutamatergic, dopaminergic, neurotropic, and inflammatory pathways, which are significant in conditions like schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, and substance use disorders.

Clinical trials have shown promising results in using NAC as an add-on treatment for several conditions, including schizophrenia, where it significantly improved total psychopathology. However, its effects on depressive and manic symptoms in bipolar disorder were not significant, and it only had a negligible impact on major depressive symptoms​​. In substance use disorders, NAC is significantly superior to placebo for reducing craving symptoms, with a low risk of publication bias and favorable tolerability, suggesting its potential clinical use in treating cravings associated with SUDs​​​​​​.

Relieves Symptoms Of Respiratory Issues

NAC is known for its antioxidant properties and significantly relieves symptoms of various respiratory conditions. It has been found to improve outcomes in people with acute respiratory distress syndrome and acute lung injury, conditions that share similarities with COVID-19 symptoms​​. Additionally, NAC inhibits influenza virus replication and reduces the secretion of inflammatory and apoptotic mediators during viral infections, thereby protecting airway epithelial cells​​.

In chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), bacterial infections can exacerbate symptoms by increasing mucus production in the airways. As a mucolytic agent, NAC helps alleviate these symptoms, suggesting its broader utility in respiratory conditions beyond its primary role as an antioxidant​. This multi-faceted approach of NAC in managing respiratory symptoms highlights its therapeutic potential across a spectrum of respiratory ailments.

May Help Boost Brain Health

N-acetyl L-cysteine (NAC) supplements contribute to brain health through multiple mechanisms. NAC acts as a precursor to glutathione, a potent antioxidant that helps reduce oxidative stress in the brain. Oxidative stress, neuroinflammation, and neurogenesis are known cognitive modulators across various disorders. NAC's role as a glutathione precursor enhances its antioxidant, pro-neurogenesis, and anti-inflammatory properties, improving brain health and cognition​​.

NAC has shown potential in attenuating oxidative damage and neurodegeneration in neurodegenerative diseases. Several neurodegenerative changes linked to oxidative stress can occur in the brain as aging occurs. NAC's ability to increase glutathione levels in the brain protects against age-dependent neurodegeneration​​.

NAC's effects extend to conditions like alcohol use disorder (AUD), where it improves impulse control and attenuates related symptoms. AUD is associated with a disrupted glutamatergic system, which is a core component of addictive disorders. NAC helps in modulating this system, providing therapeutic benefits​​.

Moreover, a nutraceutical formulation containing NAC has demonstrated pro-cognitive benefits in Alzheimer's patients and older adults, although the evidence for NAC alone is less conclusive. Despite its low bioavailability, NAC's ability to cross the blood-brain barrier contributes to its neuroprotective potential​​.

Furthermore, NAC's role in counteracting neurodegenerative and mental health diseases has been noted. Its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities and its neuroprotective potential make it a promising candidate in therapies aimed at brain health and the prevention of neurodegenerative conditions​​.

Could Improve Fertility In Men And Women

NAC supplements have shown promising results in improving fertility in both men and women. In women, NAC has been explored as adjuvant therapy for infertility. Systematic reviews have focused on evaluating its effectiveness and safety in this context, suggesting its potential role in female reproductive health​​.

For men, NAC has demonstrated significant improvements in sperm parameters. In one study, NAC improved sperm concentration and the acrosome reaction while reducing reactive oxygen species (ROS) and oxidation of sperm DNA. This is crucial since high levels of semen ROS are associated with sperm dysfunction, DNA damage, and reduced male reproductive potential​​. A meta-analysis further supports this, indicating a considerable improvement in sperm concentration and ejaculate volume in idiopathic infertile men treated with NAC​​. Another study investigated the effects of NAC supplementation on sperm quality, chromatin integrity, and oxidative stress levels in infertile men, further confirming its beneficial role in male fertility​​.

In women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a condition often linked with infertility, NAC has been reviewed for its potential benefits. The focus has been on understanding the effects of NAC in managing PCOS and its associated fertility issues​​.

Stabilizing Blood Sugar Levels

N-acetyl L-cysteine supplements significantly stabilize blood sugar levels, particularly in metabolic syndromes like type II diabetes (T2DM). In a study involving a diabetic mouse model induced by a high-fat diet, it was observed that NAC treatment reduced oxidative stress in beta-cells and pancreatic stellate cell activity. This is crucial since obesity, a significant factor in T2DM progression, results in metabolic and oxidative stress, leading to dysfunctional beta-cells and islet fibrosis​​.

NAC's role as a free radical scavenger helps suppress oxidative stress and inflammation, which are inherent components of metabolic syndrome (MetS). Enhancing nitric oxide bioavailability contributes to an improved metabolic profile, which is vital for the management of MetS​. Additionally, NAC has been shown to counter the insulin resistance caused by prolonged elevation of plasma-free fatty acids (FFAs), a common issue in obesity. By preventing hepatic and peripheral insulin resistance, NAC regulates blood sugar levels​​.

Furthermore, there is growing interest in the potential of NAC in the early stages of type-2 diabetes development. Its role as a cysteine pro-drug and glutathione precursor makes it a promising candidate for therapeutic practices in managing early diabetes symptoms and preventing disease progression​​. Early intervention with NAC has also been demonstrated to improve insulin resistance in a diet-induced obesity mouse model, underlining the importance of timely optimization of blood glucose control​​.

Helps Reduce Risk For Heart Disease

NAC supplements can reduce the risk of heart disease through several mechanisms. NAC's ability to enhance the endogenous synthesis of glutathione, a potent antioxidant, plays a key role in its cardiovascular protective effects. This antioxidative property ameliorates health issues and has a favorable safety profile​​.

NAC has shown protective effects against the development of cardiovascular diseases like atherosclerosis, which can be exacerbated by factors like ambient fine particulate matter. Its antioxidant properties are critical in mitigating such risks​​.

Additionally, studies in hypertensive humans and animal models have demonstrated that NAC, a stable cysteine analog, can lower blood pressure. Since hypertension is a significant risk factor for heart disease, stroke, and kidney failure, this blood pressure-lowering effect of NAC is particularly relevant in reducing the overall risk of cardiovascular diseases​.

Helps Improve Immune Function

NAC supplements enhance immune function through various mechanisms. As a precursor to glutathione, a potent antioxidant, NAC plays a crucial role in modulating immune responses. It has long been recognized for its powerful antioxidant properties and effectiveness as an antidote for paracetamol overdose, but its immune-boosting capabilities have become increasingly evident​​.

In the context of aging, which involves chronic oxidation processes affecting the immune system, NAC has shown positive effects on immune function. A study that administered NAC orally to older adults revealed improvements in several immune parameters, including lymphocyte functions (adherence, chemotaxis, proliferation, natural killer activity) and neutrophil functions (adherence, chemotaxis, phagocytosis, superoxide production). These functions are vital markers of health and longevity​​.

Side Effects Of NAC Supplements

NAC, when prescribed as a medication, is generally considered safe for adults. Despite its safety profile, being aware of potential side effects is essential, especially when taken in high doses. These side effects can include gastrointestinal discomforts such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and constipation. Additionally, inhaling NAC solutions might lead to respiratory symptoms, including mouth swelling, a runny nose, drowsiness, and chest tightness.

There are specific considerations for individuals with certain medical conditions. For instance, people with bleeding disorders or those on blood-thinning medications should exercise caution with NAC. This is due to its potential effect on slowing blood clotting, as the medical literature highlights.


The main takeaway about N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) supplements is that they are a versatile and generally safe option for various health applications, particularly due to their role as a precursor to the antioxidant glutathione. NAC's potential benefits span respiratory health, immune function, brain health, fertility, blood sugar stabilization, and even heart disease risk reduction.

However, it's essential to be aware of potential side effects, especially when taken in high doses, including gastrointestinal discomfort and respiratory symptoms. Additionally, individuals with certain medical conditions, like bleeding disorders, or those on specific medications, such as blood thinners, should exercise caution when considering NAC supplements.

The effectiveness and safety of NAC supplements can vary based on individual health conditions and needs, and its distinct smell can sometimes make it challenging to consume. Therefore, consulting with a healthcare provider before starting NAC supplementation is essential to ensure it aligns with one's specific health requirements and mitigate potential risks. In summary, while NAC supplements offer numerous health benefits, their use should be tailored to individual needs and undertaken with an awareness of possible side effects and contraindications.

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