Glutathione is fast becoming a household word for those with an interest in integrated and functional nutrition therapy.
While not new as natural health products (a.k.a. supplement) go, glutathione’s reputation has been slow to catch on but that’s quickly changing.
It is not considered an essential nutrient because the body can make it from 3 amino acids [which comes from protein-rich foods]: cysteine, glutamine, and glycine.
Production declines with aging and lower levels are found in almost all chronic diseases and things like alcohol and acetaminophen deplete glutathione in the liver. Food sources are scarce (broccoli, onions, garlic have a tiny amount) making the idea of supplements ideal.
Perhaps the reason why glutathione has never been as popular like other well-known antioxidants, such as vitamin E, or vitamin C, have is because as a supplement, glutathione was never thought to be well-absorbed given it’s structure.
Because glutathione is a small protein molecule, it was assumed that it would be broken down into its building blocks [amino acids] in the stomach and in the small intestines like other dietary proteins. While the idea of glutathione supplements hold promise for the maintenance of health, it seemed like a far off dream.
What is glutathione?
Glutathione is the major endogenous (made by the body) intracellular (inside the cell) antioxidant.
In fact, every cell in the body makes it and needs it to survive. It has several functions in the body. As an antioxidant it helps to reduce the negative impact of free radicals from everyday sources like smog, pollution, stress, infections, environmental chemicals, cigarette smoke, excessive sunlight, alcohol, drugs and medications.
Glutathione is also involved in maintaining a healthy and functional immune system too.
Another of its star roles is in the recycling of other antioxidants. For example, when vitamin C neutralizes a free radical, it in effect becomes ‘used up’ but glutathione can recycle it back to its active state, in a sense recharging the vitamin C to fight the good fight.
It’s not just vitamin C though that gets this kind of tender loving care. There’s a network of antioxidants that are involved including vitamin E [both tocopherols & tocotrienols], super oxide dismutase, lipoic acid, Coenzyme Q10, catalase and several carotenoids.
Gluathione is the master detoxifier.
This is not to be confused with all the hyperbole and sensationalized claims around detoxing and cleanses but rather the detoxification that occurs naturally in the liver without which you would die.
While there are several nutrients and compounds found in food involved in this process, glutathione is one of, if not the major player, where it neutralizers and detoxifies heavy metals [mercury, cadmium and arsenic] and more.
In fact when a person is experiencing acetaminophen toxicity/poisoning because of glutathione depletion, IV cysteine (an amino acid needed for the liver to make glutathione) will reverse this. It’s the standard of care in the ER for Tylenol overdoses.
Possible benefits of glutathione supplementation
In a recent randomized controlled study, researchers examined the impact of glutathione supplementation on several markers of health and body stores.
It has long been believed that meaningful supplementation with glutathione was not possible because, as mentioned above, it was assumed that glutathione, as a small protein molecule, would be broken down in the stomach.
This study has shown otherwise. Subjects were either given 250 mg or 1000 mg of glutathione per day for 6 months. They found that:
- blood levels of glutathione increased at months 1, 3 and 6, with both doses, compared to pre-study levels
- at 6 months, the level of glutathione in blood, red blood cells, as well as lymphocytes [white blood cells of the immnue system] rose by an average of 30-35% in the high dose group
- the level of glutathione in buccal cells [those lining the inside of the mouth, used as an estimate of tissue saturation & bodily stores] rose by 260% in the high dose group as well
- even at the lower dose, glutathione levels increased by 17 and 29% in blood and red blood cells respectively
- natural killer cell cytotoxicity [the ability of immune cells to fight infections] increased two fold
- a reduction of overall oxidative stress was seen in both groups
Benefits of increase glutathione in cells
This study is one of a few to demonstrate that supplemental GSH increases bodily GSH stores in humans and supports the use of supplements as a strategy to increase tissue and cellular GSH levels.
Increased levels of glutathione in red blood cells and immune cells and the increase in cytotoxicity activity of the natural killer cells is consistent with previous research that has shown even partial depletion of glutathione in lymphocytes can inhibit the immune cells cytotoxic properties, i.e. make them less able to fight infection such as viral, bacterial, fungal etc.
Glutathione: overview of its roles, measurements, and biosynthesis. Molecular Aspects Medicine 2009
The authors note that these findings may have implication in treating diseases associated with depleted levels of glutathione such as HIV/AIDS. glutathione has also been shown to be depleted in those with arthritis, cancer, diabetes, dementia, cardiovascular disease, asthma, and chronic infections; the opportunities for further research using glutathione supplementation as a potential treatment is huge.
It’s important to note that this study used regular glutathione so larger amounts would have been needed to get the desired benefits, however lypo spheric glutathione is absorbed and distributed throughout the body much more efficiently.
As such, a much smaller dose could be used to achieve the same, and greater results. liposomal glutathione is the preferred form of the supplement.
Doug Cook RDN is a Toronto based integrative and functional nutritionist and dietitian with a focus on digestive, gut, and mental health. Follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.