Updated: Mar 16
We all know that “anti-aging” is its own industry and a big one at that. That being said, with the hundreds of supplements and creams to pick from it’s hard to know what is a fad and what is backed by science. A new breakthrough supplement for “anti-aging” is N-Acetyl Cysteine, otherwise known as NAC. So the real question is, is this a fad or the real deal?
When we first think of the term “anti-aging” our minds may directly go to wrinkles, and loose skin…but aging happens from the inside out. It is the aging process that is happening within us that ages us on the outside. Bodily functions like synthesizing proteins such as collagen is what helps your body feel and look young. If you remember middle school science class, you may remember the phrase that “proteins are the building blocks,” and are responsible for essential bodily functions, and play a tremendous role in hair, nail, and skin health. But aging goes beyond the skin.
In our society we have seen disease become an accepted part of the aging process and, if I learned anything in my aging and development course in undergrad, it’s that disease is not a normal part of aging. Age related diseases such as Alzheimers, Parkinson’s, chronic pain, and inflammation are not a normal part of the body growing old. This is where NAC can help. To understand this we first need to understand NAC.
NAC is the acetylated (readily digestible) form of aL-cysteine (L-Cys) otherwise known as cysteine. It is a non-essential amino acid and thus is one of the building blocks required for the synthesis of proteins (1). When NAC is ingested it is converted to L-cysteine and then able to be used as a foundation of glutathione, which is a powerful antioxidant. (2) Glutathione is important for the body in terms of absorbing free radicals that cause oxidative damage when the body is under stress or plagued by disease. In these scenarios, glutathione availability in the body rapidly decreases (3). With NAC creating a fertile landscape for glutathione biosynthesis, this supplement has a huge role as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent.
Free radicals can be responsible for several age-related diseases/conditions such as muscle fatigue, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson’s disease. This is where NAC can really shine. Recent studies have shown that NAC infusion can minimize muscle fatigue, as oxidative stress plays a role in muscle performance and fatigue. Therefore, NAC can act as a scavenger of free radicals (4). Another study in patients with Alzheimer's Disease has shown success with NAC supplementation by the same antioxidant mechanism. Results have shown that lipoic acid combined with NAC decreases levels of oxidative and cell death by protecting the mitochondrial function (5,6). Furthermore, one study shows that N-acetyl cysteine decreases mitochondrial-related oxidative stress in patients with Alzheimer’s disease who have confirmed fibroblasts (8).
Regarding Parkinson’s disease, a promising study shows that NAC could potentially be a treatment one day. Aging is the single most important risk factor for Parkinson’s, as oxidative damage accumulates with age. This study used animal models treated with NAC to show an enhanced level of glutathione in the brain, reduction of oxidative damage, and protection against dopamine-induced cell death (7).
Not only have we seen promising results for age-related diseases with NAC but also NAC is already widely known and understood as a powerful antioxidant.
The next time you are out shopping or visiting IVY, look for NAC on the shelf and consider the role it could play in helping you age with finesse. As a reminder, “anti-aging” goes deeper than the skin. Nevertheless I would like to highlight something Dr. Birch reminds us of:
We should consider changing the narrative from “anti-aging” to “aging gracefully.” Because after all, aging is a right of passage. With every wrinkle and age spot there is just as much wisdom and grace. We can support our bodies in the aging process with supplements like NAC, and give our body all the assistance it needs to live a healthy and beautiful life.
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Author: Mickey Hardy
Clemente Plaza, N., Reig García-Galbis, M., & Martínez-Espinosa, R. (2018). Effects of the usage of L-cysteine (L-cys) on human health. Molecules, 23(3), 575. https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules23030575
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Moreira, P. I., Harris, P. L. R., Zhu, X., Santos, M. S., Oliveira, C. R., Smith, M. A., & Perry, G. (2007). Lipoic acid and N-acetyl cysteine decrease mitochondrial-related oxidative stress in alzheimer disease patient fibroblasts. Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, 12(2), 195–206. https://doi.org/10.3233/jad-2007-12210
This information is generalized and intended for educational purposes only. Due to potential individual contraindications, please see your primary care provider before implementing any strategies in these posts.