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NAC for Hangovers: Myth or Miracle?

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Somewhere in between, but closer to myth

Imagine waking up after a night out, feeling refreshed instead of hungover. Could NAC be the secret? No, no it can’t. It’s not magic. With that said, NAC is in my opinion one of the most underrated supplements for overall well-being and vitality out there.

It’s also well-researched for its potential to support liver health. In fact, it’s FDA-approved as a treatment for Tylenol poisoning, which damages the liver.

Because of this, it has also begun to be explored for its potential to reduce hangovers. Since it supports the liver, the logic goes, will it help your liver metabolize alcohol?

Could this be a miracle to help you get after it on the weekends, and still get back in the gym the next day? 

Truthfully, miracles in this realm don’t exist, and if you want to not be hungover, your best bet is to not drink.

Like this fictional college student, who looks like he thinks coffee will fix his problems (it won’t)

With that said, we’ll explore the research on NAC for hangovers, how to use it, and the best NAC supplements for hangovers.

What Is NAC (N-Acetyl Cysteine)?

NAC is a derivative of the amino acid L-cysteine. Cysteine is a non-essential amino acid that serves an important role in protein production. It’s found in foods with high protein content, and it can be produced by the body from other amino acids.

The Swiss Army Knife of Supplements: NAC’s Many Uses

Antioxidant Support: NAC is a precursor to glutathione, one of the body’s most potent antioxidants.

Respiratory Health: It’s commonly used as a mucolytic agent to break down mucus in conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma.

Liver Detoxification: NAC plays a role in detoxifying harmful substances, particularly in cases of acetaminophen (Tylenol) overdose.

Mental Health: Emerging research suggests potential benefits in treating mood disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and addictive behaviors.

Immune Support: It has been studied for its role in boosting immune function, particularly in respiratory infections.

Unlocking NAC’s Power: How It Works in the Body

NAC works through a variety of pathways, making it a very versatile supplement.

Glutathione Synthesis: Once ingested, NAC is metabolized into cysteine, which is a key component in the synthesis of glutathione. Glutathione neutralizes free radicals, thereby reducing oxidative stress.

Mucolytic Action: NAC breaks the disulfide bonds in the mucus, making it less viscous and easier to expel, particularly beneficial for respiratory conditions.

Liver Protection: In cases of acetaminophen overdose, NAC acts as an antidote by replenishing glutathione levels, which helps neutralize the toxic metabolites.

Neurotransmitter Regulation: NAC modulates glutamate levels in the brain, which may explain its potential benefits in mental health conditions.

The Science of Hangovers

To link NAC to hangovers, first we have to talk about the science of it.

What Causes a Hangover?

Hangovers are primarily caused by the consumption of ethanol, the active ingredient in alcoholic drinks.

Ethanol is metabolized in the liver by enzymes like alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) and aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH), resulting in acetaldehyde, a toxic compound, as an intermediate product.

Dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, and inflammation also contribute to hangover symptoms like headache, nausea, and fatigue.

The Role of Glutathione in Hangovers

Glutathione is a tripeptide antioxidant that plays a crucial role in neutralizing free radicals and detoxifying harmful substances, including acetaldehyde.

When you drink alcohol, glutathione levels in the liver are depleted as it binds to acetaldehyde to facilitate its removal from the body.

The depletion of glutathione exacerbates oxidative stress and impairs the liver’s ability to detoxify, contributing to hangover symptoms.

How NAC Could Theoretically Help

NAC is a precursor to glutathione. By supplementing with NAC, you could theoretically replenish glutathione levels. This replenishment may assist in the detoxification of acetaldehyde and other harmful by-products of alcohol metabolism.

Additionally, NAC’s antioxidant properties could mitigate the oxidative stress associated with hangovers. However, it’s important to note that while NAC may alleviate some symptoms, it does not negate the other physiological impacts of alcohol, such as dehydration and electrolyte imbalances.

Studies on NAC and Hangovers

For this, we really only have one solid, human study to look at. The rest is just theory based on the mechanisms of NAC.

A 2021 randomized trial published in the prestigious journal Nature assessed the effects of 600-1800mg of NAC on hangover symptoms.

The results were surprising. In general, the researchers found no difference in subjective hangover scores between those who received NAC and those who got the placebo. However, among women, there was a significant difference. The authors write, “The study was suggestive of gender specific susceptibility with female participants having improved hangover symptoms after NAC use.

There are several theories for this. For example, maybe because women tend to weigh less, the same dose of alcohol had a greater effect, as would the same dose of NAC. However, this is just speculation on more part, so the truth is we don’t know, and we need more research. 

Why This Makes Sense

As if often in scientific studies, we often try to pinpoint one mechanism with one outcome. However, hangovers are a part of a complex phenomenon. For example, even if NAC helps by replenishing glutathione levels, it will do little to solve the dehydration problem. Again, it’s not a miracle.

The researchers also admitted lots of limitations. For example, they used a relatively low dose. The authors write, “Low dose NAC was chosen in this study because of its safe side effect profile, however, it is possible that these lower doses prevented therapeutic levels of NAC thereby limiting the beneficial effects.”

How to Use NAC for Hangovers

Recommended Dosage

In the Nature study, the subjects got between 600-1800mg. This is a normal dose for NAC, and what you’ll typically find in supplements (often beginning at 500mg or 600mg per capsule). As such, this is a decent place to start. However, it’s crucial to consult a healthcare provider for taking NAC

When to Time Your NAC For Hangovers (Before, During, or After Drinking)

In the Nature study they took it while drinking. In theory, it might help before drinking, as it can help replenish glutathione levels in the liver, preparing it for the detoxification process. However, this isn’t any research to back this up.

Potential Side Effects

NAC is generally a safe supplement. But it has some potential side effects.

These may include gastrointestinal issues like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Additionally, NAC could potentially interact with certain medications, such as nitroglycerin, leading to a drop in blood pressure.

The Best NAC Supplement for Hangovers

*Note: We do have affiliate links, which means we receive a commission if you purchase from any of our links.

Yes, you can select from an array of simple NAC products. However, specifically for this use, I recommend a supplement called PARTY from Morphogen Nutrition. It’s advertised as “Pre-Party Harm Reduction.” It has 400mg of NAC, but contains much more than that. Since NAC’s impact on hangovers seems modest at best, this product gives you a full-spectrum approach to “pre-party harm reduction.”

Morphogen Nutrition Party Pre-Party Harm Reduction

Check Lowest Price And Use Code “ROMAN10” For 10% Off

For more NAC products, check out our article on the best NAC supplements.

NAC vs. Other Hangover Remedies

“Hangover remedy” doesn’t really exist, so all of these have their downsides. With that said, here’s how they compare to common “hangover remedies.”

Hydration

One of the primary causes of hangover symptoms is dehydration. Rehydrating with water or electrolyte solutions is a fundamental step in hangover recovery. While NAC may aid in liver detoxification, it does not address dehydration, making hydration a complementary and essential remedy.

Vitamins and Minerals

Supplements like Vitamin B and C are often touted as hangover remedies due to their role in metabolism and immune function. While NAC primarily focuses on liver detoxification and glutathione replenishment, vitamins and minerals offer a broader range of metabolic support. Combining these could offer a more holistic approach to hangover management.

Activated Charcoal

This remedy is thought to absorb toxins, although its effectiveness in treating hangovers is not scientifically proven. Unlike NAC, which has a specific biochemical role in the liver, activated charcoal’s mechanism of action is less targeted.

Herbal Remedies

Ingredients like milk thistle and ginger have been traditionally used for hangovers. While these remedies have different mechanisms of action, such as anti-inflammatory and digestive aid, NAC offers a more direct approach to liver detoxification.

Over-the-Counter Medications

NSAIDs like ibuprofen are often used to alleviate hangover symptoms like headaches and inflammation. However, these medications can be harsh on the stomach and liver, especially when combined with alcohol. NAC, on the other hand, supports liver function but should not be considered a substitute for pain relief.

Amino Acids

Other amino acids like L-Theanine are sometimes used for their calming effects. While they may alleviate some hangover symptoms like anxiety, they do not offer the detoxification benefits that NAC does.

Wrapping Up

I know, I know, you still want to be able to drink without it getting in the way of your fitness goals. However, alcohol, no matter how often or what you do, will still have negative impacts. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t drink, it just means that there are trade-offs, no matter how many hangover cures you hunt for.

If you’ve found this article helpful, share it with your college friend who seriously needs a check on their alcohol intake. For more on NAC, check out this article on NAC for sleep.

College student with hangover

Don’t be like this guy, whose head is pounding

FAQs

Does NAC help with hangovers?

Maybe. As discussed, the 2021 Nature study showed conflicting but interesting results.

Should I take NAC before or after drinking?

We don’t know. Theoretically, before can prepare the liver better, although we have no research to back this up.

Does NAC protect the liver from alcohol?

No. Alcohol will still damage the liver. However, it can raise glutathione levels, which may help prepare the liver better.

How much NAC should I take?

Most research uses between 600-1800mg of NAC. There hasn’t been any research on NAC for hangovers at doses above this.

Are supplements approved to help with hangovers?

No, they’re actually forbidden from doing it. Here’s some insider baseball for you, as someone who’s worked extensively in the supplement space. Companies can’t make claims that their products help with anything the FDA considers a “disease.” Hangovers can fall into this category, and the FDA has even sent warning letters to companies for marketing their products as hangover cures. This is why you won’t find this type of information on product pages for NAC.

What’s the best way to reduce a hangover?

The best way is to not drink in the first place. Problem solved.

Talk to your healthcare provider before using any supplement, including NAC.

About the Author

David is a writer and strength coach and co-owner of Roman Fitness Systems. In addition to helping run RFS, he's also the head editor for prohockeystrength.com., the official website of the Strength and Conditioning Association of Professional Hockey. You can also check out his Instagram, he's pretty easy on the eyes.

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