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Could the cure for trichotillomania be found at the local health food store? Trichotillomania is the gentle or not so gentle act of compulsively pulling one’s own hair.
This disorder is surprisingly common with up to two million people in the United States alone inflicted with this puzzling condition that confounds doctor and patient alike.
Now, there could be hope for people with this condition – antioxidant treatment. Can a widely available antioxidant pill treat trichotillomania?
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Trichotillomania Antioxidant Treatment: A New Way to Help Hair-Pullers?
A study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry looked at the effectiveness of an antioxidant called N-acetylcysteine (NAC) for treating sufferers of trichotillomania. This natural supplement is an altered form of the amino-acid cysteine, a protein-precursor needed to make glutathione, one of the strongest antioxidants in the body. Thus, NAC has indirect antioxidant benefits by promoting the synthesis of glutathione.
When researchers gave fifty people with trichotillomania either n-acetylcysteine or a placebo, 56% of the hair-pullers who took the NAC experienced improvement in their symptoms after only nine weeks, whereas only 16% in the placebo group improved – a significant difference.
This was a randomized, controlled study, which adds credibility to the results, but, unfortunately it only included fifty people – and was short in duration. Still, it offers hope that antioxidant treatment with n-acetylcysteine could be effective for treating trichotillomania.
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How Does NAC Antioxidant Treatment for Trichotillomania Work?
N-acetylcysteine alters levels of another amino acid called glutamate in the brain, which helps to suppress unwanted habits and behaviors. This is exciting news since it might also help in the treatment of other unwanted habits such as nail biting, nose picking, picking at scabs, or thumb sucking.
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Is NAC Widely Available for Treatment of Trichotillomania?
N-acetylcysteine is sold in most health food and vitamin stores and is used to treat other conditions as well. It’s used in hospitals and other clinical settings to treat acetaminophen overdoses.
Although it holds promise for treating tricotillomania, larger studies are needed to confirm its long-term benefits as well as its safety when used for longer periods of time. It’s not clear whether N-acetylcysteine is safe for treating children with trichotillomania.
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Antioxidant Treatment for Trichotillomania: The Bottom Line?
NAC could well be a promising treatment for trichotillomania according to this small study, but more research is needed before most doctors will feel comfortable recommending it to their patients.
Currently, the standard treatment for trichotillomania is behavioral therapy. Even if NAC proves to be effective for reducing hair-pulling behavior, it will most likely be used in conjunction with behavioral therapy. Otherwise, the compulsive hair-pulling could return once NAC is stopped.
It will be interesting to see what future research reveals about trichotillomania antioxidant treatment
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Trichotillomania Learning Center (http://www.trich.org.) "N-acetylcysteine for Trichotillomania, Skin Picking, and Nail Biting"
Time Magazine. "Study: Help for Chronic Hair Pullers?". Published July 12, 2009.