N-Acetyl Cysteine and Polycystic Ovary Syndrome
December 12, 2002—Women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and associated elevations of insulin levels may benefit from taking supplemental N-acetyl cysteine (NAC), according to a study in Fertility and Sterility (2002;77:1128–35).
PCOS is a common condition that affects up to 10% of all women of reproductive age. It is characterized by enlargement of the ovaries, irregular menstrual cycle, failure to ovulate, obesity, high levels of insulin in the blood and insulin resistance, excessive hair growth (due to increased testosterone), and infertility. More than 50% of all women with PCOS have high insulin levels, which may be a risk factor for diabetes, high blood pressure, blood clots, and heart disease.
There is no cure for PCOS, but doctors often recommend birth control pills, which help decrease the levels of testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone, thereby reducing hair growth and shrinking the cysts in the ovaries. However, birth control pills have not been shown to improve insulin resistance. N-acetyl cysteine may be useful in picking up where birth control pills leave off, by increasing insulin sensitivity. While it is possible that birth control pills and NAC could work in conjunction with one another, the interaction between the two treatments is unknown.
In this preliminary study, 31 women with PCOS were given 1.8 to 3 grams per day of NAC for five to six weeks. Blood measurements for glucose and insulin were taken before and after a glucose tolerance test, both at the start of the study and at the end of the treatment period. No dietary modifications were made during the study.
Initial measurements showed that 14 of the 31 women had normal insulin levels, while the remaining 17 had abnormally high levels of insulin. Women with high initial insulin levels who took NAC had a significant reduction in insulin levels following the glucose tolerance test and also showed improved insulin sensitivity. On the other hand, those with initially normal insulin levels had no improvement in any measurement. This suggests the benefit of NAC in women with PCOS may be restricted to only those women who already have high insulin levels to begin with.
NAC is an amino acid that has commonly been used as a treatment to break up mucus in the lungs. It is also a precursor to glutathione, a powerful antioxidant in the body, which has been shown in other studies to improve insulin sensitivity. Although glutathione levels were not measured in this study, the improvement in insulin resistance seen in the group taking NAC may have been due to increased amounts of glutathione; however, future studies will need to clarify this issue.
Some physicians recommend taking NAC on an empty stomach, so it does not compete with other amino acids in food for absorption. People taking single amino acids should also make sure they eat adequate amounts of protein, to prevent upsetting the balance of amino acids in the body. In addition, some doctors recommend that long-term supplementation of NAC (more than a few weeks) be accompanied by 15 mg of zinc and 2 mg of copper per day, because preliminary evidence suggests that NAC might deplete these minerals.
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Darin Ingels, ND, MT (ASCP), received his bachelor’s degree from Purdue University and his Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. Dr. Ingels is the author of The Natural Pharmacist: Lowering Cholesterol (Prima, 1999) and Natural Treatments for High Cholesterol (Prima, 2000). He currently is in private practice at New England Family Health Associates located in Southport, CT, where he specializes in environmental medicine and allergies. Dr. Ingels is a regular contributor to Healthnotes and Healthnotes Newswire.
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