Glutathione: 14 Benefits of the Master Antioxidant [Plus Diet and Supplements]
It seems the latest and greatest to cure all of our health woes is invented every month… But maybe the answer exists in your body already.
Glutathione is the most abundant antioxidant in our bodies. In fact, virtually every organism on Earth has some glutathione in its cells.
And for good reason. This “master” antioxidant protects the human body like few others. Without adequate levels of glutathione, you are at risk of dangerous medical conditions, including stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, and heart disease.
But when glutathione levels are healthy, that’s when the magic happens. You can not only prevent health problems, but possibly experience amazing energy, glowing skin, a strong heart, and a sharp brain.
Sound too good to be true? Keep reading to learn about the research that backs this up.
What is glutathione?
Glutathione is a potent antioxidant found in both plants and animals. Often called the “master antioxidant,” glutathione also boosts (recycles) other antioxidants, like vitamin C and vitamin E, as well as alpha lipoic acid and CoQ10.
Glutathione is a tripeptide, which means a very small protein composed of three amino acids:
There are two different forms of glutathione:
- Reduced glutathione (GSH, or L-glutathione) is the active form. It repairs oxidative damage and oxidizes, becoming—
- Oxidized glutathione (GSSG) is the inactive form, which can be recycled back into active GSH.
Glutathione and Mitochondria
Glutathione protects your mitochondria, ensuring your cells are able to make the energy your body needs.
Mitochondria are the “power plants” of your cells. Every one of your cells has mitochondria, which convert glucose, amino acids and fats into energy.
But mitochondria can also sense danger when cell energy levels drop, and are even involved in sending the final "death" message (apoptosis) when a cell is damaged beyond repair and needs to die.
Mitochondria need to be protected, and the “knight in shining armor” who guards our source of energy is none other than glutathione.
Glutathione makes sure that heavy metals, organic toxins, and free radicals generated during normal metabolism don’t damage the mitochondria.
What causes glutathione deficiency?
Age is the most natural reducer of glutathione levels. However, there are a number of environmental factors and medical conditions that increase your risk of deficiency.
Environmental risk factors of glutathione deficiency include:
- Exposure to chemical toxins (including pollution)
- UV radiation exposure
- Cadmium exposure
- Chronic stress
- Excessive alcohol use
- Poor diet
- Certain medications (like Tylenol)
Certain illnesses are known to decrease glutathione levels. Researchers are still determining whether low glutathione causes some of these diseases, or the other way around.
The most common low glutathione-related diseases are:
- Macular degeneration
- Parkinson’s disease
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Liver disease
- Sickle cell anemia
- Cystic fibrosis
- Heart disease
14 Glutathione Health Benefits
The role of glutathione in your bodily function cannot be understated. Healthy levels of glutathione possess some potent health benefits, including anti-aging properties.
These health benefits largely relate to glutathione’s role in these vital bodily processes:
- Enzyme/protein function
- Cysteine carrier/storage
- Gene expression
- Cell differentiation/signaling/proliferation
But the most powerful functions glutathione offers your system are its antioxidant properties. Glutathione fights free radicals and the oxidative damage they cause.
- Glutathione is a Potent Antioxidant
Many people know the chef’s trick of sprinkling a little lemon juice over fruit to keep it from turning brown. Antioxidants are like that lemon juice. By consistently “sprinkling” your body with antioxidants like glutathione, you can prevent your body from “browning” or “oxidizing” which causes damage and aging of cells. Antioxidants are the “anti-agers” of the nutrient world, working to protect your body from free radicals, and the oxidative damage they cause.
Every time you eat, breathe, or move, your body uses fuel created from the food you eat to produce energy. But just as a car releases harmful byproducts as exhaust, so too does your own body’s energy-producing efforts produce a dangerous byproduct: free radicals.
Free radicals are highly reactive forms of oxygen that are missing an electron. When they come into contact with normal molecules, they steal an electron, damaging the healthy cell and its DNA.
In fact, some estimates show that your DNA takes 10,000 oxidative hits daily. Antioxidants work to counteract the damage caused by free radicals.
Glutathione is the “master” antioxidant, directly binding to oxidative compounds that damage cell membranes, DNA, and energy production. It directly neutralizes a wide range of oxidants, including superoxide, nitric oxide, carbon radicals, hydroperoxides, peroxynitrites, and lipid peroxides.
Glutathione offers the all-important antioxidant defense like few others can.
- Glutathione and Detoxification
The role of glutathione in your body’s detoxification system is vital. But your natural processes sometimes need a boost from increased glutathione from your diet or supplements.
Here’s how the detoxification system works, in three phases.
During Phase 1 detoxification, all sorts of toxins and xenobiotics are partially processed by specialized proteins inside mitochondria called cytochromes.
Unfortunately, Phase 1 is an incomplete processing and can turn toxins into dangerous free radicals. These are not only damaging, but they can single handedly deplete glutathione, creating an imbalance between Phase 1 and Phase 2 activity.
In Phase 2 detoxification, various enzymes act directly on the toxins partially degraded and processed in Phase 1. These enzymes use glutathione to neutralize the toxins.
Phase 3 detoxification is the elimination of toxins and xenobiotics. Toxins are removed from your body, mainly by the kidneys (urine) and liver (bile).
Without glutathione, your body would not be able to neutralize and eliminate toxins effectively.
- Glutathione and Energy
Energy production occurs within all cells (except red blood cells) via the mitochondria. Glutathione protects mitochondriafrom free radicals and the oxidative damage they cause. In this way, glutathione is paramount to energy production.
If mitochondria are damaged, they slow down and start to make less energy. The affected “diseased” mitochondria leads to decreased bodily function and efficiency.
To make things worse, damaged mitochondria output more free radicals. In turn, these free radicals cause further mitochondrial damage and create a vicious cycle of less energy and more damage.
GSH binds these free radicals and relieves oxidative stress — not just on the mitochondria, but on the rest of the cell.
- Glutathione for Skin
Whether concerned with acne, wrinkles, dryness, eczema, or puffy eyes, many are seeking flawless, youthful skin. Science says that glutathione is an effective answer.
Fortunately, you don’t have to empty your wallet to restore the youth and health of your skin. You can solve the problem from the inside out. Cells can heal and regenerate themselves, thanks to glutathione.
Glutathione not only decreases the melanin (pigmentation) in your skin, but has also been found to decrease wrinkles and increase skin elasticity.
Glutathione works on the skin pigment production by inhibiting tyrosinase, an enzyme involved in making melanin.
In one study, both GSH and GSSG achieved a skin lightening effect — though it takes a few weeks to develop. The effect on pigmentation is transient, so you would need to continue using glutathione to maintain the skin-whitening effect.
A scientific review of multiple studies confirmed that the use of glutathione results in skin lightening.
Glutathione has also been shown to decrease psoriasis. The glutathione levels in this clinical trial were increased by consumption of whey protein, which contains glutamylcysteine, a precursor to GSH.
The same studies also show that glutathione doesn’t just lighten skin, but it improves skin elasticity and decreases wrinkles.
- Glutathione and Brain Health
How do low levels of glutathione affect brain and mental health? There is a clear link between low glutathione levels and decreased brain health.
As we age, it’s not uncommon to experience a bit of forgetfulness or difficulty concentrating. These are just two examples of neurodegeneration, a process by which the neurons in our brains become damaged and may even die.
This leaves us with “shrinking” brains that don’t function to their full capacity. While this process is unavoidable as we age, it can be slowed, or even reversed, and glutathione (GSH) plays an important role.
Accelerated neurodegenerative diseases, like Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s diseases exhibit high levels of oxidative stress damage to the brain as well as low active glutathione (GSH) levels. GSH can ease and decrease the rate of damage to brain tissue.
While these results are promising, a 2017 study involving Alzheimer’s patients using intranasal GSH found that GSH and placebo had equally good results — after three months. Glutathione produced positive results. However, so did the placebo.
Other neurological illnesses like Lyme disease weaken when your body experiences higher levels of glutathione.
- Glutathione and Heart Health
The number one health related cause of death in the United States is still a heart attack. A lesser known fact is that glutathione may prevent heart attack and other heart disease, thanks to its ability to neutralize the “lipid oxidation” (fat oxidation) process.
Virtually all heart disease starts with the accumulation of arterial plaque inside the artery walls. Bad cholesterol (LDL) is lipid oxidized and damages the lining of the blood vessels, forming a plaque (atherosclerosis).
When these plaques eventually rupture and break off, they can clog your blood vessels and block blood flow that causes heart attacks or strokes.
With the help of an enzyme called glutathione peroxidase, glutathione stops the superoxides, free radicals, hydrogen peroxides, lipid peroxides, and peroxynitrites that cause this lipid oxidation and wreak havoc on your health.
In this way, glutathione helps to prevent damage and lowers the risk of heart attacks.
In a study of 643 cardiac patients who underwent coronary angiography in Germany, those who died of heart attacks had much lower levels of glutathione peroxidase than those who survived.
If we don’t have enough glutathione to neutralize damage to our arteries, we are at increased risk of heart disease and cardiovascular events.
- Glutathione Fights Inflammation
Does glutathione pills help with inflammation? As a matter of fact, glutathione is great at fighting chronic inflammation!
Inflammation has been a hot topic in the natural health world for the past decade; however, many people still don’t fully understand exactly why inflammation lies at the root of most of the health concerns plaguing Americans today.
High levels of inflammation are present in virtually every chronic illness, like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. However, inflammation is also healthy and necessary (in short bursts) to fight infectious invaders.
Injury can also incite an inflammatory response. Whether you are talking about trauma, infection, toxins, or allergies, your immune system answers the same.
First, the blood vessels in the injured area begin to expand and open wide to allow your body’s natural healing compounds to get the injured site as quickly as possible. Because of the increased blood flow, fluid and immune cells flood the area often in overwhelming amounts.
This increase in permeability of the blood and lymph vessels is what causes the physical manifestations of acute inflammation, namely redness, pain, stiffness, and swelling. After the infection or injury is repaired the acute inflammatory response normally subsides and goes away.
The inflammatory response comes to your rescue when it’s needed and cools itself off once the healing is complete. But we don’t live in an ideal world.
In the real world, environmental toxins, your diet, stress, and other lifestyle issues have disabled the checks and balances of this system and inflammation doesn’t subside and go away as it is meant to. As a result, many people suffer from chronic, systemic inflammation.
When this happens, you’re in trouble. You need a lot of extra protection. That’s where glutathione can help.
Glutathione (GSH) controls when inflammation increases or decreases as needed, by instructing and influencing our immune white cells. This is a completely separate mechanism from its antioxidant properties.
Rebalancing glutathione levels reduces chronic inflammation and restores immune function.
- Glutathione and the Immune System
Glutathione helps your immune system stay strong and ready to fight infections. While vitamin C seems to get all the accolades when it comes to immunity, glutathione is the under-recognized supporting actor who deserves the starring role.
Research shows that active glutathione (GSH) primes white cells such as natural killer (NK) and T cells, your body’s front-line infection fighters. GSH-enhanced T cells are able to produce more infection-fighting substances, controlling both bacterial and viral infections.
One clinical trial in particular found that GSH doubled NK cells’ ability to be cytotoxic (kill invaders) after just six months of use. Glutathione actually has a potent antibacterial effect as it helps the immune cells called macrophages fight the bacterium that causes tuberculosis, Mycobacterium tuberculosis.
In another study, researchers found that GSH modulates the behavior of many immune system cells, affecting adaptive immunity and protecting against microbial, viral and parasitic infections.
There are many chronic infections such as EBV, hepatitis, herpes viruses and Lyme, to name a few, which can deregulate and suppress the immune system. Glutathione can modulate and reverse this suppression.
Autoimmune diseases also appear to be hallmarked by imbalanced glutathione levels.
- Glutathione and Athletic Performance
Glutathione pills can boost athletic performance when used before workouts. Best of all, you don’t have to be an ultramarathoner or a bodybuilder. Anyone from the average runner to the weekend warrior can benefit from this exercise enhancer.
In a study of eight men receiving 1,000 milligrams of glutathione before exercise, the glutathione group performed better, felt less fatigued, and had lower blood lactic acid levels than the placebo controlled group.
This is key, since increased lactic acid in the body can result in fatigue, low blood pressure, muscle aches, a drop in body temperature, and respiratory problems.
Glutathione combined with L-citrulline boosted nitric oxide production (NO) better than placebo or L-citrulline alone.
Nitric oxide is well known to dilate blood vessels improving blood flow and oxygen delivery to muscles and tissues. This improves athletic performance and exercise output.
- Glutathione and Autism
1 in 59 children is diagnosed with autism. It’s important to do everything you can to alleviate the more harmful symptoms of autism spectrum disorder. Supplementing glutathione should prevent the oxidative stress that is common in children dealing with autism.
How does glutathione help autism?
Low levels of glutathione are a common finding in autism, among other biomarkers. Promising new research shows that liposomal and transdermal glutathione might help raise levels of GSH in plasma in children with autism. Some evidence suggests that glutathione support may improve function in autism, but double blinded large scale studies are needed to scientifically support this.
- Glutathione and Peripheral Vascular Disease (PVD)
Glutathione supplementation has been linked with reduced symptoms of peripheral vascular disease (PVD). Since PVD affects 10% of Americans, glutathione offers a much needed solution to this circulatory system disease.
PVD occurs when narrowed blood vessels do not supply enough blood supply to muscles when needed — most often muscles in the legs. Fatigue and pain with walking are hallmark symptoms of PVD.
In a double blind study, 40 PVD patients were given IV infusions of either GSH glutathione or placebo, twice a day. The patients receiving GSH were able to walk pain-free much further than the patients receiving placebo injections.
IV clinics which offer glutathione injections, are gaining in popularity. However, these aren’t quite mainstream yet. The extra work of finding such a clinic may be a worthwhile pursuit for those afflicted by PVD.
- Glutathione for COPD
Low serum glutathione seems to lead to abnormalities in the lungs. Preliminary research suggests a clear link between low glutathione and occurence of COPD.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the third leading cause of death in the United States. As damage from smoking or even pollution accumulates to the respiratory tract and the lungs, oxygen and carbon dioxide (CO2) exchange suffers, making it difficult to breathe.
Low glutathione levels have been linked to abnormalities in the lining of the lungs, which can lead to COPD. Having normal glutathione levels protects lung tissue from free radical damage, such as inflammation.
Additionally, animal studies found that intravenous glutathione supplementation maintained normal lung function, when exposed to otherwise toxic levels of oxygen. It also increased lung compliance, decreased swelling, and increased lung tissue.
Researchers concluded that glutathione supplementation promotes normal airflow and lung tissue, as well as lowering the risk of “oxygen-induced lung injury.”
- Glutathione and Vitamin D
Vitamin D3 — the most active form of vitamin D — has been a hot topic in medicine because it controls and modulatesthe immune system. And when glutathione levels are low, vitamin D3 doesn’t work as efficiently.
Initially thought to play a role in calcium metabolism and bone formation only, we now know that low vitamin D3 levels can increase your risk of:
- Heart attack
- High blood pressure
- Multiple sclerosis
- Decreased brain function
What happens to vitamin D with glutathione deficiency? In fact, low vitamin D3 levels have been correlated with simultaneous glutathione deficiency.
Observing animals deficient in vitamin D3, researchers found that supplementing vitamin D3 and cysteine (a GSH precursor) restored glutathione levels, increased the bioavailability of vitamin D3, and lowered inflammation.
Researchers noted that the vitamin D supplements widely consumed by the public “are unlikely to be successful unless the GSH status is also corrected.”
In other words, simply taking vitamin D isn’t enough. You need to be sure you have adequate glutathione levels to make sure that your vitamin D3 is working as it should.
- Glutathione and Methylation
Glutathione production starts with the amino acid cysteine. Cysteine usually comes from homocysteine, a major product of the methylation cycle. Making glutathione depends on a well functioning methylation cycle.
Methylation is critical for human survival. It’s like an electrical switch that turns genes on and off. Methylation regulates neurotransmitters, brain function, mood, energy, and hormone levels.
Conversely, if the glutathione production process (or the “trans-sulfuration” pathway) is not functioning properly, the process backs up and homocysteine levels accumulate putting additional strain on the methylation cycle to remove it.
This is not ideal since high homocysteine levels have been linked to heart disease and atherosclerosis.
In many instances , people can have mutations in the enzymes that catalyze the production of glutathione from homocysteine.
One such enzyme is cystathionine beta synthase (CBS), which catalyzes the first and most important (rate limiting) step in trans-sulfuration from homocysteine to cystathionine. Individuals with CBS mutations will be slow to make glutathione.
Flipping this around, individuals who have poor-functioning methylation cycle enzymes will have lower homocysteine levels. Since it’s the first step in making glutathione, slow methylation can directly lower your levels of glutathione.
By now, you may have heard of the most famous enzymes — MTHFR and MTR — regulating the speed of the methylation cycle. For those of you who know you have MTHFR, MTRR, or CBS mutations, you are likely experiencing low glutathione levels without realizing it.
Clearly, methylation is a critical process — as well as a complicated one. The key message to remember here is that low methylation equals low glutathione and that low glutathione slows methylation. They are interdependent.
Tough stuff, right? But before you run for the hills, take comfort in the fact that there are a few simple steps you can take to restore and replenish your glutathione levels.
How to Achieve a Glutathione-Rich Diet
There are a handful of foods that naturally contain glutathione or glutathione-boosting nutrients.
A variety of factors can affect the levels of this vital nutrient, including storage and cooking. Cooking these foods can reduce their glutathione content by up to 60 percent.
Here are some easy examples of foods you can add to your diet to ensure your glutathione levels are at a healthy level.
Eating grass-fed whey protein can make it easier for your body to make GSH.
Whey protein contains gamma-glutamylcysteine, which is glutamine bound to cysteine.
Because this combination bypasses the tough first step to making glutathione in your cells, it is key in supporting higher glutathione levels through diet.
Allium is a genus of plants rich in sulfur, a precursor to glutathione synthesis. The more sulfur, the more natural glutathione production.
Plant foods belonging to the allium genus include:
Cruciferous vegetables are packed with glucosinolates, which will increase your body’s glutathione levels. These compounds give Brassica plants their distinctive sulfuric aroma.
Great cruciferous vegetables include:
- Brussels sprouts
- Bok choy
- Collard greens
Alpha Lipoic Acid-Rich Foods
Alpha lipoic acid regenerates and increases levels of glutathione within the body. Adding it to your diet should afford you all the health benefits of glutathione.
Good food sources of alpha lipoic acid include:
- Organ meats
- Brewer’s yeast
Selenium is a trace mineral that is part of the building blocks that make up antioxidant enzymes. It is also key in the production of glutathione.
Good dietary sources of selenium include:
- Brazil nuts
- Whole grains
While diet is the most natural way to boost glutathione levels, there are a variety of glutathione supplements available. Glutathione supplementation is a growing trend, especially in America, India, and the UK. Glutathione supplements come in many forms.
Glutathione can be taken orally in its plain powder form. However, powdered glutathione metabolism cleaves glutathione into the three amino acids it is made up of (glycine, glutamine, and cysteine).
This digestive cleaving process is so effective that nearly all of the plain glutathione you would take by mouth would never make it into circulation.
A better option for oral supplementation is to take liposomal glutathione on an empty stomach.
Liposomes are microscopic spheres with an active ingredient like glutathione contained in the center of the sphere. Randomized trials show that liposomal formulations increase GSH levels and absorption.
To use liposomal glutathione, start with 500 milligrams and increase to between 1,000 and 2,000 milligrams per day. Be sure to wait 45 minutes before eating or drinking or taking other supplements to allow for absorption of liposomal glutathione.
Glutathione can also be taken in an inhaled form called a nebulizer. A physician would need to write you a prescription for this form.
Additionally, you can use targeted nutrients to increase your body’s natural production of glutathione indirectly. These include selenium, vitamin E, alpha lipoic acid, NAC, and SAMe.
Glutathione Supplements: A Brief Summary
- Oral glutathione powder is the most commonly found form, though it can have a poor absorption rate.
- Liposomal glutathione formulation is the most powerful and absorbable form, for which you need no prescription.
- Inhaled GSH with special nebulizer requires a prescription, but it’s effective in some people. If you have asthma, avoid using inhaled GSH.
- Transdermals and lotions have various levels of absorption, sometimes unreliable.
- IV is the most direct method of glutathione supplementation, but also the most invasive. Levels spike and diminish quickly.
- Some targeted nutrients can boost your body’s natural glutathione production — such as N-Acetylcysteine (NAC), selenium, vitamin E, and alpha lipoic acid.
Side Effects to Glutathione Supplementation
Use of glutathione as a supplement may bring about rare side effects: abdominal cramps, bloating, loose stools, gas, and possible allergic reactions. These adverse effects are uncommon.
Always consult your healthcare provider before taking dietary supplements, but especially if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Lifestyle Changes for Ideal Glutathione Levels
If you’re worried about your glutathione levels, there are some common sense lifestyle changes we can all apply to our daily lives. Keeping the body healthy means glutathione is less likely to fall out of balance.
Not only can you add cruciferous veggies and selenium-rich foods to your diet, but you should cut out processed foods and processed sugars. Processed foods (such as cheese, cereal, and potato chips) can lead to heart disease, among other things.
It’s also wise to drink eight cups of water every day. That’s half a gallon.
Reducing stress makes it easier for your body to function properly, including your mitochondria.
The US government recommends half an hour of exercise five days a week — and for good reason. The exercise keeps your body healthy and your glutathione levels normalized.
Get your 7-8 hours of sleep every night. As a side note, you shouldn’t exercise within an hour of when you go to sleep.
Consult a healthcare professional before making any major lifestyle changes.
- Glutathione is the master antioxidant, the knight in shining armor to your mitochondria.
- Glutathione possesses so many life-changing health benefits:
- Heart health
- Brain health
- Skin health
- Immune health
- Increased energy
- There are some lifestyle changes that can ensure your natural glutathione levels stay healthy:
- Eat a glutathione-rich diet. Avoid processed foods and sugar.
- Drink 64 ounces of water a day.
- Get 7-8 hours of sleep per night.
- Reduce stress.
- Exercise at least five days a week.
- Glutathione supplementation is also an effective way to enhance glutathione levels.
- Seek medical advice whenever making major changes to your lifestyle or diet.
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