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Feeling Impulsive, Compulsive Or Addicted?


Are there things you don’t want to do but simply can’t resist doing over and over again? Are you having trouble stopping yourself from smoking tobacco or marijuana, or from drinking too much alcohol, snorting cocaine, gambling compulsively, pulling out your hair or engaging in other addictive or compulsive behaviors?

Our “work hard, play hard” culture rewards the mantra “just do it,” but what happens when you want to just stop doing it?

Quitting is not easy. Sometimes, it may seem just about impossible. Let’s say you want some extra boost to your willpower, but you’re not interested in getting medicated. You know there is a growing interest in vitamins and dietary supplements for all types of benefits. Shouldn’t there be something natural that can help? Perhaps there is.

Scientists in the U.S. and Australia are studying an antioxidant for treatment of impulsive/compulsive and addictive symptoms. It’s called N-acetyl-cysteine and is abbreviated as NAC.

What is N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC)?

NAC comes from an amino acid; it is a building block of glutathione, considered to be the most important antioxidant in the body. Glutathione plays a key role in fighting oxidative stress and in detoxification, the process by which the body removes toxins.

Taking NAC has been shown to increase the levels of glutathione in cells. In addition NAC has its own ability to reduce oxidative stress, according to research from the University of Arizona Health Science Center.

The Neuroscience of NAC

A review published last year in the journal Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience described the rationale for the use of NAC to treat behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders — including depression, which has been associated with oxidative stress, and compulsions or addictions, which involve malfunction of the brain’s reward systems.

NAC for Compulsive/Impulsive and Addiction Symptoms

Repetitive acts that seek some type of reward are governed by the actions of another amino acid called glutamate. Malfunction of the brain’s glutamatergic system has been linked to addiction. Treatment with NAC is being investigated to determine if it can restore normal glutamate function in the brain.

After NAC is absorbed in the intestines, it passes through the blood to the brain where it is converted to cysteine, an amino acid that contributes to glutathione production. As complex as this chain of events may sound, a series of NAC clinical trials is underway.

Results of Clinical Trials on NAC

Tobacco Smoking

A small placebo-controlled study led by researchers from the Medical University of South Carolina looked at the effect of 2400 mg per day of NAC on nicotine-dependent smokers. They found that those taking NAC reported that they smoked fewer cigarettes. The results were published in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

Read “Quitting Boosts Quality of Life” here.

Marijuana Dependence

In another study, also led by researchers from the Medical University of South Carolina, 24 marijuana-dependent users who wanted to cut back took 2400 mg per day of NAC. The drug users reduced their frequency and quantity of marijuana use. Interestingly, they also reported a decline in compulsive feelings regarding their marijuana use.

Publishing their findings in The American Journal on Addictions the authors conclude: “Results from this preliminary open-label study indicate that treatment with NAC was well tolerated and associated with significant decreases in self-report measures of marijuana use and craving. These reductions parallel those noted in prior NAC treatment studies in cocaine and nicotine dependent individuals.”

More: Cannabis Speeds Mental Illness?

Cocaine Dependence

A study of 23 cocaine-dependent users taking NAC for four weeks found that 70 percent discontinued or significantly reduced their cocaine use.

In a double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial, 13 cocaine addicts who took 800 mg of NAC per day during three days of cocaine withdrawal reported a reduction in cocaine cravings and withdrawal symptoms when compared to the placebo group.

Presenting their findings in The American Journal on Addictions in 2006, the authors explain: “At the present time, there is no effective FDA-approved treatment for cocaine dependence, despite over two decades of intense research. A pharmacological treatment that could serve as an effective adjunct to psychosocial treatment for cocaine dependence would constitute a major public health advancement.”

Pathological Gambling

Researchers from the University of Minnesota School of Medicine enrolled 27 participants with pathological addiction to gambling in a study to examine the effectiveness of NAC. Significant reductions of gambling behaviors were observed in 16 participants, according to the study, which appears in the journal Biological Psychiatry.


Researchers from the University of Minnesota School of Medicine conducted a 12-week, double-blind controlled trial among 50 individuals with compulsive hair-pulling, a condition known as trichotillomania.

The results appear in the Archives of General Psychiatry, a publication of the American Medical Association. “Fifty-six percent of patients ‘much or very much improved’ with N-acetylcysteine use compared with 16 percent taking placebo,” the authors wrote. “Significant improvement was initially noted after nine weeks of treatment.”

More: Hair Pulling Halted by Amino Acid

So what can these studies on NAC teach us? Science is discovering, perhaps anew, the ways in which nutrition’s role is not confined to the physical body, but extends above the neck and into our brain and mind. A body of research now shows the promise of the use of the supplement NAC for smoking, marijuana dependence, cocaine dependence, pathological gambling and hair pulling.

Let’s hope that further studies support these and reveal more about how nutrition can help improve brain function, control addictive and compulsive behaviors and improve our wellbeing and mental health.

Now I’d like to hear from you:

Do you have problems with self-control? Do you suffer from compulsions, addictions or impulsive behaviors?

Did you get any treatment for that?

Have you found anything that gives you more control?

Please let me know your thoughts by posting a comment below.

Best Health,

Jonathan Galland

For more by Jonathan Galland, click here.

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