Harvard Mental Health Letter

In Brief: Supplement may ease compulsive hair pulling

In Brief

Supplement may ease compulsive hair pulling

Trichotillomania, a disorder that causes compulsive hair pulling, is not easy to treat. Cognitive behavioral therapy is effective, but symptoms tend to recur after therapy ends. And no medication has proven effective in controlled trials.

Now a small randomized controlled study has concluded that N-acetylcysteine, an amino acid found in health food stores, was significantly more effective than placebo. In double-blind fashion, investigators randomized 50 people, ages 18 to 65, to 12 weeks of treatment with the amino acid or a placebo.

At the end of the study, 56% of those assigned to the amino acid said they felt much improved, compared with 16% of those assigned to placebo. A clinical assessment found that N-acetylcysteine reduced frequency of hair pulling by a mean of 41% — about equal to that reported by other studies of cognitive behavioral therapy alone or in combination with medication. The people taking the amino acid did not experience significant side effects.

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