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Struggling with trichotillomania, nail biting, skin picking or another form of impulse control disorder?

If so, have you heard of an over the counter supplement called N-acetylcysteine (NAC)?

It’s a natural amino acid that’s also used to treat a number of medical conditions – and just recently, researchers are finding that people with impulse control disorders who use this very affordable (cheap, actually) supplement get significant symptoms relief in a relatively short period of time.

So is NAC right for you?

Read on to learn a bit more about what it is, how it works and about some of the research that demonstrates its effectiveness, and see whether you might want to talk to your doctor about adding a new supplement to your treatment regimen.

What Is NAC?

N-acetylcysteine is a supplement that delivers the amino acid L-cysteine to the body. You also get L-cysteine in your diet naturally, from protein, but taking the supplement greatly increases the amount that gets to your brain.

NAC has long been used as a medication to treat conditions as varied as ALS, acetaminophen overdose, kidney and liver diseases and others.

Within the last 5 years or so, researchers have started to find that NAC also works quite well as medication for certain psychiatric conditions, such as bipolar depression, OCD, addictions and notably – for impulse control disorders.

How Does It Work?

Researchers aren’t totally sure how NAC helps people overcome impulse control problems. They suspect that NAC might help by moderating the over-action of the neurotransmitter glutamate.

How Well Does It Work to Reduce Impulse Control Disorders

Researchers are just starting to investigate NAC for impulse control disorders – but early results are very positive.

Anecdotal reports indicate that it works and the one major clinical trial that investigated its efficacy against trichotillomania found that it worked very well.

The Major Study

Researchers at the University of Minnesota enlisted 50 trichotillomania patients and gave half of these patients a daily dose of NAC and the other half a daily dose of a placebo (none of the patients knew which medicine they were receiving).

After 12 weeks, 56% of the patient taking NAC had significantly reduced their hair pulling, compared to just 16% of patients on the placebo who had achieved the same success.1

Another Study: NAC and Pathological Gambling

27 pathological gamblers were assigned to receive either NAC or a placebo. After 8 weeks, more than 80% of the subjects receiving the NAC has reduced their gambling behaviors by 30% or more, while only 28% of the subjects on the placebo had achieved the same reduction.2

Other Case Studies

Although not as convincing as double-blind clinical studies, doctors have also published case reports on patients having success with NAC for nail biting and skin picking.3

Are There Any Safety Concerns?

Most people tolerate NAC very well.

  • Side effects sometimes observed include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and constipation, as well as some other side effects that occur quite rarely.4
  • You should not take NAC if pregnant or asthmatic. Some drugs may interact badly with NAC, so, as always, you should talk to your doctor before trying this, or any, new supplementary medication.

Where Can You Get It?

You can buy NAC legally over the counter at well stocked pharmacies or supplement retailers. At the date of writing, you could buy 100, 600mg tablets on Amazon for between 6$ and 12$.

Does It Help in the Treatment of Any Other Psychiatric Conditions?

Initial research studies suggest that NAC may have a role to play in the treatment of several psychiatric disorders, such as:

  • Reducing depressive symptoms for people with bipolar disorder5
  • Reducing irritability among autistic children6
  • Marijuana addiction – in one study, teens receiving NAC and therapy were twice as likely to stay abstinent as teens getting therapy only7
  • As an augment therapy for chronic schizophrenia8
  • As an augment therapy for OCD9
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Page last updated Jul 02, 2015

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