How the Popular Antioxidant NAC (N-acetylcysteine) and Essential Oils Can Support Emotional Health in More Than One (Holistic) Way: Part 1
The Well-Respected Antioxidant, NAC
Recently, I was studying up on NAC (i.e., N-acetylcysteine, or N-acetyl cysteine). It was for a very different reason than for what it is popularly used for, which I’ll get to later. For now, let’s start at the beginning with the definition of NAC and reviewing its most recognized application.
N-acetylcysteine (NAC)- Cellular Defender and Liver Savior
NAC is a precursor of the amino acid L-cysteine and “master” antioxidant glutathione (GSH). It is most well-known for its role in minimizing the damage that oxidative stress can cause to the body. Oxidative stress is defined as the “disturbance in the balance between the production of reactive oxygen species (free radicals) and antioxidant defenses.”
That’s a lot of big words, right?
Don’t worry, in order to respect your sanity and maintain your attention, I will refrain from a long discussion on molecular chemistry and decode this medical jargon. Think of antioxidants as mediators in a process where atomic balance has gotten a little out of hand. This is due to overzealous “free radicals” grabbing more than their fair share of subatomic particles, electrons. Therefore, we need various types of “defenders” to prevent the harm that these greedy “electron thieves” can cause to cellular health during their hostile and “charged” takeovers. (See Box 1 for a more detailed explanation.)
Here’s where NAC comes in.
NAC has earned respect from both “sides” of medicine… integrative doctors and the conventionally oriented physicians. It is the standard of care intervention for treating acetaminophen (Tylenol) overdose. Too high levels of this over the counter pain medication in the bloodstream is a common cause of liver toxicity and NAC has been proven to prevent damage. This is through its ability to restore the “master” antioxidant, glutathione. (source, source, source)
For those who wish for the jargon-filled details, this summary below from the Utah Poison Control should suffice:
The primary toxic effect of acetaminophen is hepatotoxicity caused by the formation of the toxic metabolite N-acetyl-p-benzoquinonimine (NAPQI). NAPQI is conjugated by glutathione at therapeutic dosages.2 In an “overdose, the normal pathways of metabolism are overwhelmed and NAPQI is formed in greater quantities, resulting in depletion of glutathione and hepatic injury. Administration of NAC is beneficial in preventing or mitigating hepatic injury through stimulation of glutathione synthesis, enhancing nontoxic routes of acetaminophen metabolism, detoxifying the toxic metabolite and free radicalscavenging3.
NAC- Moving Beyond its Glutathione Benefits
What most recently peeked my interest during my review of NAC was related to its use in psychiatric disorders. I had been aware of its use for addictions, but I was not fully cognizant of the extent of studies testing it as an intervention for extreme mental health issues, including schizophrenia and treatment-resistant obsessive compulsive disorder. (source, source, source, source, source, source)
This had me take a second pause. You may remember my previous post regarding the pitfalls of trying to medicate depression away with a pill, whether natural or synthetic. Yet, I began thinking of the implications of providing more support with such a low risk-to-potential benefit ratio in this very misunderstood, heavily stigmatized, and underserved population in healthcare. (source, source, source) Intrigued, I wanted to know more about how it worked.
Next week, I’ll finish up on NAC including:
- reviewing its role in brain health
- the bottom line on its efficacy and safety
- how it has more than one mechanism of action with a low risk of harm
- how it validates that mental health is bigger than a “one-pill-for-all” solution
I will also highlight how any brain in need of support can benefit from the physical, emotional, and spiritual impact of essential oils.
Please post your comments below, especially if you have experience with using NAC!
For those who want more details on oxidative stress, the free radical theory, and a general overview of why studies with supplements can be conflicting and confusing, please see Box 1 and Box 2 below.
Oxidative Stress, Free Radicals, & Antioxidants
The body’s trillion or so cells face formidable threats, from lack of food to infection with a virus. Another constant threat comes from nasty chemicals called free radicals. They are capable of damaging cells and genetic material. The body generates free radicals as the inevitable byproducts of turning food into energy. Others are in the food you eat and the air you breathe. Some are generated by sunlight’s action on the skin and eyes.
Free radicals come in many shapes, sizes, and chemical configurations. What they all share is a voracious appetite for electrons, stealing them from any nearby substances that will yield them. This electron theft can radically alter the “loser’s” structure or function. Free radical damage can change the instructions coded in a strand of DNA. It can make a circulating low-density lipoprotein (LDL, sometimes called bad cholesterol) molecule more likely to get trapped in an artery wall. Or it can alter a cell’s membrane, changing the flow of what enters the cell and what leaves it.
We aren’t defenseless against free radicals. The body, long used to this relentless attack, makes scads of molecules that quench free radicals as surely as water douses fire. We also extract free-radical fighters from food. These defenders are often lumped together as “antioxidants.”
But using the term “antioxidant” to refer to substances is misleading. It is really a chemical property, namely, the ability to act as an electron donor. Some substances that act as antioxidants in one situation may be prooxidants—electron grabbers—in a different chemical milieu. Another big misconception is that antioxidants are interchangeable. They aren’t. Each one has unique chemical behaviors and biological properties. They almost certainly evolved as parts of elaborate networks, with each different substance (or family of substances) playing slightly different roles. This means that no single substance can do the work of the whole crowd.
Source: Harvard School of Public Health
Confusing, Conflicting, and Biased Supplement Studies
Although the above excerpt is fantastic for understanding the free radical theory, the authors’ review of antioxidants, in my opinion, is very biased. The studies referenced are not based on how an integrative doctor schooled in the mechanisms of action of these nutrients, minerals, and/ or nutraceuticals would apply them as interventions.
Please read this referenced post for more information on the reasons why there are confusing and conflicting evidence for supplements. I explain why individualized recommendations are best. I also review how trials with supplements commonly ignore the importance of many factors, including:
- balancing compounds and nutrients that interact with the therapeutic agent
- baseline measurements
- individual differences and deficiencies
- miscalculations of dosage efficacy
- using inactive forms of the nutrient or mineral
Please check with your primary care provider before implementing any change to your health care regime.
This material is for information purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prescribe for any illness. You should check with your doctor regarding implementing any new strategies into your wellness regime. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. (Affiliation link.)
Disclaimer: This information is applicable ONLY for therapeutic quality essential oils. This information DOES NOT apply to essential oils that have not been tested for purity and standardized constituents. There is no quality control in the United States, and oils labeled as “100% pure” need only to contain 5% of the actual oil. The rest of the bottle can be filled with fillers and sometimes toxic ingredients that can irritate the skin. The studies are not based solely on a specific brand of an essential oil, unless stated. Please read the full study for more information.