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N-acetyl cysteine (NAC)


There’s a lot of buzz about amino acids in the invisible illness community—and just as much confusion about what they are, what they do, who needs them, and where you get them. If you’ve ever been puzzled by amino acids, you’re definitely not alone! So, here’s the basic rundown. There are 20 amino acids, and they’re often referred to as “the building blocks of protein.” They come in three different types: essential, semi-essential, and nonessential. Essential amino acids can only be obtained by diet, non-essential amino acids can be synthesized (aka made) by the body, and semi-essential amino acids are kind of in the middle. Cysteine (semi-essential) operates in your body with help from other amino acids, in this case, methionine and serine. The supplement form of cysteine is N-acetyl cysteine (NAC). If you’re wondering why we’re even talking about NAC, it’s because it’s a strong antioxidant. NAC is classically used as an IV medicine for acetaminophen (Tylenol) poisoning. It works as a binder, latching onto and removing poisons in the liver. (In fact, some experts think acetaminophen should contain a little NAC to protect the general public.) NAC is especially relevant to people with invisible or chronic illness because it’s a building block of one of the most powerful antioxidants out there—glutathione (GSH)—which is produced by the liver. GSH is beneficial in the treatment of heart disease, some types of infertility, and some mental health conditions. It plays a role in building and repairing cell damage and boosting the immune system, and it’s thought to be anti-aging. And GSH levels can drop when your body is busy fighting off a chronic illness or infection. Your body can produce NAC, but many people supplement as well. You can buy oral formulations online or in most pharmacies. (FYI: N-acetyl-cysteine, N-acetylcysteine, N-acetyl cysteine, and N-acetyl-L-cysteine are all names for NAC.) If you’re wondering whether you need to take NAC, or if you can just skip straight to GSH supplements, it’s important to know that GSH has low bioavailability. So, you can take it in, but your body won’t process it very well—meaning high oral or IV doses are often necessary for it to be effective. Studies suggest NAC is more bioavailable, but at least one study found that sublingual GSH (meaning you take it under your tongue) was more effective. Yeah…confused yet? That’s why enlisting the help of a practitioner will help you make the best decision about what to take!

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