Q: I am desperate and hope you can help. I suffer from trichotillomania. I pull hairs constantly, and this leaves little bald spots. No matter how hard I try, I cannot stop. I seem to recall hearing on your radio program something about an amino acid that could calm the compulsion. Please tell me what that is.
A: Trichotillomania is a mysterious condition in which the victim feels an overwhelming urge to pull out hair. Stress often triggers people to pull hair from their heads, eyebrows, eyelashes or even pubic area. Physicians don’t understand what causes this problem, and there is no Food and Drug Administration-approved treatment.
Researchers reported in the Archives of General Psychiatry (July 2009) that the amino acid N-acetylcysteine could help ease trichotillomania symptoms. Subjects were randomly assigned to receive either 1,200 mg per day of the dietary supplement or placebo. If there was no improvement after six weeks, the dose was increased to 2,400 mg.
The investigators concluded that, “This randomized, double-blind, clinical trial indicates that N-acetylcysteine is safe and more effective than placebo for the treatment of trichotillomania.” Although no adverse events were reported in the study, some people may experience headache, itching, flatulence, increased blood pressure or fatigue.
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist and Teresa Graedon is an expert in medical anthropology and nutrition. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.