N-acetyl-cysteine (commonly known as NAC) is a compound that is an amino acid precursor to the body’s master antioxidant, glutathione. A derivative of cysteine, a sulfur-containing amino acid found in many foods, including garlic, NAC has been used for decades to treat acetaminophen overdose because of its powerful detoxification and liver supportive properties as well as to loosen thick mucus in the lungs and sinuses. NAC is an incredible immune system booster that had mostly been forgotten for years before recently resurfacing as the subject of renewed clinical interest. Having strong anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, NAC benefits on the immune system extend to both direct and indirect support of the body’s ability to fight off external insults and maintain the health of the body and its tissues. It is particularly valuable in supporting lung function in conditions that affect breathing and sinus health.
Oxidative stress (or free radical damage) is a common factor in many health conditions, including when the body is undergoing attack from various immune challenges (bacterial, viral or other environmental insults we face on a daily basis) as well as in cases of lung conditions where breathing is compromised. NAC supplementation is an ideal choice for both situations. Several clinical studies show that NAC supports levels of glutathione, which represents the most potent and important antioxidant in the body. Studies using NAC for lung health show that it, along with glutathione, serve to reduce free radical damage, keeping lung tissue healthy.
In fact, the lungs along with the liver are the two main sites of production of glutathione in the body, and NAC is a critical precursor for this to occur. This, coupled with NAC’s anti-inflammatory effects, makes it a superior nutrient for quickly restoring health to the lungs, sinuses, and immune system. However, the effects of NAC go beyond anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits. Research is shedding light on additional ways NAC can impact the body’s ability to protect vital tissues.
Enhanced cell-mediated immune function and reduced inflammation
As an immune booster, NAC supplementation increases cell-mediated immunity, which is particularly critical as we age. Aging is associated with a decrease in the activity of immune cells against foreign substances, including bacteria and viruses. In clinical trials, NAC was found to normalize the immune response of these cells and lead to a significant reduction of symptoms from infections versus those treated with a placebo. Additionally, NAC reduces inflammation by reducing or suppressing NF-kappaβ, a key switch involved in the inflammatory response. The ability of immune challenges to negatively affect the body is highly dependent on the body’s response to inflammation. By depressing NF-kappaβ activity, NAC can reduce the reactivity of immune invaders and limit their negative effects.
Replenishes glutathione levels in immune cells and prevents oxidative bursts from neutrophils
Interesting research has demonstrated that NAC raises glutathione levels in immune cells including neutrophils, which can potentially lead to neutrophils showing a reduction of damaging oxidative bursts. As one of the key negatives associated with damage from immune invaders is our own immune system’s reaction to them in the form of releasing free radicals (including superoxide, peroxides, hydroxyl radicals, singlet oxygen and others, which can directly damage lung tissue), reducing the reactivity of neutrophils can protect tissues from harm, and NAC moderates the immune response to help with this. Amazingly, other beneficial activities of neutrophils don not seem to be impacted by NAC, since the cells were still able to perform critical functions such as phagocytosis (swallowing up immune invaders) as well as their direct killing functions.
Destroys microbial biofilms and has anti-bacterial properties
Biofilms are frequently present on tissue surfaces and consist of multi-cellular microbial (mainly bacteria) communities that are self-preserving. In other words, the formation of biofilms allows these organisms to continue to flourish and makes them resistant to degradation by treatment. Research shows that NAC has direct activity against these biofilms by digesting the mucus that encases them and then acting against the bacteria that comprise the biofilm through direct anti-bacterial effects. By breaking up the biofilms, NAC enables other anti-bacterial treatments to have their intended effect.
Improves parameters of lung health and function
Several studies indicate that NAC benefits several aspects of lung function, specifically in the small airways of the lung. Research shows that NAC can significantly improve forced expiratory flow (the ease with which air can leave the lungs), post-exertion inspiratory capacity (the volume of air able to be inhaled into the lungs) and functional residual capacity (the amount of air the lungs can hold), which are all indicators of improved lung function. These effects are likely all related to NAC’s anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and mucus thinning properties.
With a multi-pronged approach, NAC has demonstrated its value in supporting both immune health and lung function, while its ability to thin mucus makes it an ideal choice for sinus health. As an amino acid precursor of glutathione with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and microbial balancing properties, NAC should be included as a part of the daily regimen for anyone looking to enhance immune protection and those who regularly suffer with lung and sinus health issues. A good starting NAC dosage for sinus, lung, and immune health is 300-600mg twice daily for NAC supplement benefits.
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- Dinicola S et al. European Review for Medical and Pharmacological Sciences. 2014.
Tags: N-acetylcysteine, NAC, immune, immunity, lungs, sinus, mucus, inflammation, glutathione, antioxidant, microbes, airways, immune cells, neutrophils