It’s called “trichotillomania”: an “irresistible urge to pull out hair from your scalp, eyebrows or other area of your body,” according to the Mayo Clinic.

Sufferers may yank out every single eyelash or eyebrow, and chronic hair-pulling can lead to unsightly bald patches on the scalp.

I’ve known several people who have wrestled with trichotillomania, and they cannot explain their compulsion, which has been described in the medical literature for close to 200 years. Children as young as 1 year may become hair-pullers, and the psychological condition has stumped healthcare professionals for many years.

While there’s no established treatment for the disorder, which affects up to 4% of the population, researchers have found the amino acid N-acetylcysteine appears to reduce symptoms, according to a study published in this month’s edition of Archives of General Psychiatry.

N-acetylcysteine has previously shown promise in treating repetitive or compulsive disorders, according to lead researcher Jon E. Grant, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Minnesota School of Medicine in Minneapolis. After a 12-week course, patients showed “significantly greater reductions in hair-pulling symptoms,” he and his colleagues report.

N-acetylcysteine “is available in health-food stores, is cheaper than most insurance copayments and seems to be well-tolerated,” the authors write. “N-acetylcysteine could be an effective treatment option for people with trichotillomania.”

Check with your healthcare provider before starting a course of N-acetylcysteine, as the researchers believe future studies should evaluate its long-term effects.

For Your Organic Bookshelf: Stay Out of My Hair: Parenting Your Child with Trichotillomania