N-acetylcysteine supplementation increases exercise performance and reduces oxidative stress only in individuals with low levels of glutathione

Free Radic Biol Med. 2018 Feb 1:115:288-297. doi: 10.1016/j.freeradbiomed.2017.12.007. Epub 2017 Dec 9.


Most of the evidence indicates that chronic antioxidant supplementation induces negative effects in healthy individuals. However, it is currently unknown whether specific redox deficiencies exist and whether targeted antioxidant interventions in deficient individuals can induce positive effects. We hypothesized that the effectiveness of antioxidant supplements to decrease oxidative stress and promote exercise performance depends on the redox status of the individuals that receive the antioxidant treatment. To this aim, we investigated whether N-acetylcysteine (NAC) supplementation would enhance exercise performance by increasing glutathione concentration and by reducing oxidative stress only in individuals with low resting levels of glutathione. We screened 100 individuals for glutathione levels and formed three groups with low, moderate and high levels (N = 36, 12 per group). After by-passing the regression to the mean artifact, by performing a second glutathione measurement, the individuals were supplemented with NAC (2 × 600mg, twice daily, for 30 days) or placebo using a double-blind cross-over design. We performed three whole-body performance tests (VO2max, time trial and Wingate), measured two systemic oxidative stress biomarkers (F2-isoprostanes and protein carbonyls) and assessed glutathione-dependent redox metabolism in erythrocytes (glutathione, glutathione peroxidase, glutathione reductase, superoxide dismutase, catalase and NADPH). The low glutathione group improved after NAC supplementation in VO2max, time trial and Wingate by 13.6%, 15.4% and 11.4%, respectively. Thirty days of NAC supplementation were sufficient to restore baseline glutathione concentration, reduce systemic oxidative stress and improve erythrocyte glutathione metabolism in the low glutathione group. On the contrary, the 30-day supplementation period did not affect performance and redox state of the moderate and high glutathione groups, although few both beneficial and detrimental effects in performance were observed. In conclusion, individuals with low glutathione levels were linked with decreased physical performance, increased oxidative stress and impaired redox metabolism of erythrocytes. NAC supplementation restored both performance and redox homeostasis.

Trial registration: ClinicalTrials.gov NCT01530646.

Keywords: Antioxidants; Exercise; Individuality; N-acetylcysteine; Precision nutrition.

MeSH terms

  • Acetylcysteine / administration & dosage
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Dietary Supplements
  • Double-Blind Method
  • Erythrocytes / physiology*
  • Exercise / physiology*
  • F2-Isoprostanes / metabolism
  • Glutathione / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Oxidation-Reduction
  • Oxidative Stress*
  • Physical Functional Performance*
  • Placebos
  • Young Adult


  • F2-Isoprostanes
  • Placebos
  • Glutathione
  • Acetylcysteine

Associated data

  • ClinicalTrials.gov/NCT01530646