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Glutathione: Master Antioxidant and Detoxifier
When it comes to the world of antioxidants, vitamins C and E, or carotenoids like beta-carotene, lycopene and lutein seem to get all the attention. Similarily, foods like kale, broccoli or the nutrient fiber also spring to mind when detoxification is being talked about and for good reason, however, a well-known molecule in many ways trumps them all and it's name is glutathione.
Glutathione (GSH) 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, cigarette smoke, excessive sunlight, alcohol, drugs and medications. GSH is also involved in maintaining a healthy and functional immune system.
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 attention. There's a whole network of antioxidants that are involved including vitamin E [both tocopherols & tocotrienols], super oxide dismutase, lipoic acid, Coenzyme Q10 and several carotenoids.
Gluathione is also referred to as 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 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 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
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 GSH 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 GSH in lymphocytes can inhibit the immune cells cytotoxic properties, i.e. make them less able to fight infection such as viral, bacterial, fungal etc.
The authors note that these findings may have implication in treating diseases associated with depleted levels of GSH such as HIV/AIDS. GSH has also been shown to be depleted in those with arthritis, cancer, diabetes, dementia, cardiovascular disease, asthma, and chronic infedtions; the opportunities for further research using GSH supplementation as a potential treatment is huge. Liposomal GSH is absorbed and distributed throughout the body much more efficiently and is the preferred form of the supplement.
Doug Cook RD, MHSc is a Registered Dietitian and Nutritionist with a focus on functional medical nutrition therapy. He uses an integrative and holistic nutritional approach providing science-based guidance on food and diet along with the judicious use of nutritional supplements where appropriate. He is the coauthor of Nutrition for Canadians for Dummies (Wiley, 2008) and The Complete Leaky Gut Health & Diet Book (Robert Rose, Spring 2015). You can learn more about Doug by visiting his Facebook page, following him on Twitter, or by checking out his website www.dougcookrd.com.
Photo credit: Healthy Directions