In my first blog post with AOR, I thought I would jump in with both feet and talk about a recent study funded by the National Institute of Health concerning a supplement that helps teens kick their pot habit.
The supplement used in the study was N-acetylcysteine or NAC for short. The study found that adolescents diagnosed with marijuana dependence were twice as likely to remain abstinent when they received NAC vs placebo, in addition to counseling.
The study was conducted over eight weeks and found that 44% of adolescents assigned to take 1200 mg of NAC twice per day tested negative for cannabinoids (marijuana) in their urine, compared to 32% in the placebo group. The effect did not appear to last however as a four week follow up revealed that only 19% of the NAC group and 10% of the placebo group still had negative urine tests for the drug.
The proposed mechanism of action as to why NAC is helpful with this drug dependence is that is has been found to up-regulate a cysteine-glutamate exchanger in the brain that gets suppressed with chronic use of euphoric drugs like marijuana. This up-regulation, in turn, eases the brain’s chemical dependence and curbs the drug seeking behavior over time.
I think the relationship of cysteine to glutamate is important here. Glutamate is an excitatory brain chemical that appears to have a key role in the chemistry of addiction for drugs of abuse. It appears to agitate, creating increased states of anxiety and restlessness. As such, individuals seek to escape these feelings and will often return to their drug of choice to experience their high again. This is one of the vicious cycles of addiction as with more drug use, increased levels of glutamate will be released into the brain. NAC will help to decrease glutamate levels in the brain so the addict will be potentially less likely to return to their drug.
So, it seems that NAC can be helpful to curb the dependence of marijuana in these adolescents but it needs to be part of a long term strategy in conjunction with other program components. So many things factor into addiction besides the drug itself. Blood sugar control, diet, exercise, peer groups, home life quality and family history are all pieces of the puzzle that need to be addressed in each individual. That and the chemistry of adolescence, which is a whole other topic for discussion.
It is promising to note that Health Canada reports that over the past six years, marijuana use is down from 37% to 25% in 15-24 year olds. That being said, rates still remain three times higher than the 25 years and older age group.
So my take home message here is if you have a teen family member or friend who has a dependence on marijuana and wants to work on getting off the drug, consider incorporating N-acetlylcysteine in conjunction with a complete program crafted by a professional. NAC is safe to take long term in therapeutic doses mentioned above. It also has additional benefits of helping to detoxify the respiratory system as well as being a mucolytic, reducing phlegm production from inflamed respiratory passages. Given the relapse rates for drug abuse are so high, any help from a supplement such as this is a worth a try, in my opinion.
Gray K et al. (2012) A double-blind randomized controlled trial of N-acetylcysteine in cannabis-dependent adolescents. Am J Psychiatry. DOI: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2012.12010055
Dean O et al. (2011) N-acetylcysteine in psychiatry: current therapeutic evidence and potential mechanisms of action. J Psychiatry Neurosci. 36(2): 78–86.