Glutathione is a very important molecule that helps your immune system to fight infections, and is also a key to prevent aging, cancer, heart disease, dementia and other chronic diseases. Dr. Mark Hyman of Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine calls it “the mother of all antioxidants, the master detoxifier, and maestro of the immune system.”
What is Glutathione? Dr. Hyman gives a concise explanation:
“Glutathione is a very simple molecule that is produced naturally all the time in your body. It is a combination of three simple building blocks of protein or amino acids—cysteine, glycine and glutamine.”
“The secret of its power is the sulfur (SH) chemical groups it contains. Sulfur is a sticky, smelly molecule. It acts like fly paper and all the bad things in the body stick onto it, including free radicals and toxins like mercury and other heavy metals.”
Free Radicals, Antioxidants, and Disease Prevention
To understand why glutathione is important, let’s start with a refresher in Chemistry 101. Our body is composed of many different kinds of cells, and these cells are composed of many different types of molecules. Atoms are the basic building blocks for the molecules.
An electron is a negatively charged particle that orbits an atom in one or more layers of shells. The number of electrons in the outer shell will determine the stability of the atom. When the outer shell is full, an atom is stable and tends not to engage in chemical reactions. Atoms seek to reach a state of maximum stability (a full outer shell), often by sharing electrons with a neighbouring atom. This sharing of electrons joins the atoms together, and is known as a chemical bond.
A free radical is an atom (or a group of atoms) that has an unpaired electron and thus is unstable and chemically reactive. It will try to steal an electron from a nearby atom to stabilize itself, leaving its “victim” short of an electron and becoming unstable. Think of an electron as a little spark at the atomic level, so this effect is like fire, oxidizing. The oxidized victim cell now becomes a free radical itself and needs to steal from the others. This sets off a chain reaction of “electron-stealing” (the fire spreads in the spark analogy) and that damages your living cells and tissues, and eventually leads to poor aging and diseases.
Free radicals may be formed through natural human physiological processes especially intense sports, or they may be the result of diet, smoking, alcohol, inflammations, or exposure to pollutants. Unfortunately, oxygen is very susceptible to free radical formation. Normally your body can handle free radicals, but if antioxidants are unavailable, or if the free radical production becomes excessive, cell and tissue damage can occur. Oxygen free radicals are partially responsible for premature aging, cancer, and inflammation in the skin.
Antioxidants, such as those found in colored fruits and vegetables, can neutralize free radicals by donating one of their own electrons, and remain stable. They are the scavengers that end the “electron-stealing” reaction and prevent cell and tissue damages. The common antioxidants include the red and blue coloured fruit flavenoids - they work along with vitamin C, E, and, of course, Glutathione.
The Importance of Glutathione
Glutathione is important because it does 2 things: it recycles other antioxidants and binds to poisons.
“You see, dealing with free radicals is like handing off a hot potato. They get passed around from vitamin C to vitamin E to lipoic acid and then finally to glutathione which cools off the free radicals and recycles other antioxidants. After this happens, the body can reduce or regenerate another protective glutathione molecule and we are back in business,” explains Dr. Hyman.
“Glutathione is also the most critical and integral part of your detoxification system. All the toxins stick onto glutathione, which then carries them into the bile and the stool—and out of your body… But that’s not all. Glutathione is also critical in helping your immune system do its job of fighting infections and preventing cancer.”
“And lastly, it also helps us reach peak mental and physical function. Research has shown that raised glutathione levels decrease muscle damage, reduce recovery time, increase strength and endurance and shift metabolism from fat production to muscle development.”
“Glutathione is so important because it is responsible for keeping so many of the keys to super wellness optimized.”
It’s therefore no surprise healthy young people were found to have the highest glutathione levels.1 Researchers also found lower levels of glutathione in healthy elderly, lower still in sick elderly and the lowest of all in the hospitalized elderly, according to the British medical journal The Lancet 1
When we are overwhelmed with too much oxidative stress or toxins, the glutathione becomes depleted and we can no longer protect ourselves against infections and diseases.
Our problem here in Hong Kong is that the everyday exposure to air pollution and heavy metals depletes the antioxidants, especially glutathione. Immunity then fails to cope, and all too often in children the coughs, colds and possibly asthma symptoms occur—and the elderly, too. For most adults the damage is to the liver, when glutathione cannot keep up with the toxic insult of the city, especially combined with alcohol.
So once we pass our third or forth alcoholic beverage, the glutathione becomes depleted and the alcohol then damages the liver.
Another interesting study found that high glutathione levels are related to increased survival and longer life.2 Centenarians—those who live to 100-105 years old—have higher glutathione and glutathione enzyme levels compare to average people aged 60-79.2 Additionally, elderly with the highest functional capacity are found to have the highest glutathione levels.2
Clinically we see that glutathione deficiency is found in nearly all very ill patients, include people suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome, heart disease, cancer, chronic infections, arthritis, asthma, kidney problems and liver disease, autoimmune disease, diabetes, autism, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s and other nerve degenerative diseases.
“At first we thought that this was just a coincidental finding, but over the years we have come to realize that our ability to produce and maintain a high level of glutathione is critical to recovery from nearly all chronic illness—and to preventing disease and maintaining optimal health and performance,” Dr Hyman explains.
Do You Have Enough Glutathione?
Glutathione is produced and recycled naturally in your body. However, there are many causes for depletion and leave you susceptible to oxidative stress, free radicals, infections and cancer. The more common causes are:
- Acetaminophen: common cause of liver failure and liver transplants
- Toxic metals: mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic
- Pesticides/herbicides: glyphosate, organophosphates
- Medications and recreational drugs
- Alcohol and Cigarettes
- Air and water pollution
- POPs (persistent organic pollutants)
- VOC’s (Volatile Organic Chemicals like formaldehyde) these outgas from paint, glue, synthetic materials etc
- Nutritional deficiencies (selenium for example)
There is also a common genetic reason for low levels of glutathione.
The genes involved in producing enzymes that allow the body to create and recycle glutathione in the body is known as GSTM1 and GSTT1. About half of our population is missing GSTM1 function, resulting in a limited capacity to get rid of toxins and neutralize free radicals.
The DNA Health test by Nordic Laboratories, which is available at IMI, can reveal your genetic capacity to produce and recycle glutathione. Just like Dr. Hyman’s observation, we have found that most people with these impaired genes to be the ones suffering from common chronic diseases, affecting both mind and body.
Is Supplementation Effective?
Oral supplementation of 1,000mg glutathione over four weeks failed to show an increase of glutathione stored in the red blood cell of otherwise healthy people.
Why? Glutathione (and “reduced glutathione”) taken in an oral capsule is subject to digestion in the stomach and small intestines. There may be some absorption of glutathione intact from the intestines and this may help the liver somewhat, but the small peptide molecule cannot enter the blood stream or the body cells intact. It gets metabolized to form L-cystine (two molecules of L-cysteine bound together) before being taken into our cells.
The “Liposomal” form of glutathione acts differently, however. Liposomes are a wrapping of healthy oils (phosphatidyl choline extracted from lecithin). This liposomal wrapping stops the digestion of the glutathione and allows the liposomal form of glutathione to enter the blood and cells where it is active at doing the detoxification process.
In one animal study the researchers showed reduction on artheriosclerosis. “We… conclude that liposomal glutathione possesses anti-oxidative and anti-atherogenic properties towards lipoproteins and macrophages, leading to attenuation of atherosclerosis development.”3
Other published studies showed that liposomal glutathione is effective in providing maintenance of intracellular glutathione. The researchers in one study concluded that “a liposomal preparation of GSH (glutathione) is 100-fold more potent than non-liposomal-GSH in providing substrates for maintenance of intracellular glutathione in neuronal cells and provides complete protection of neurons in a model of Parkinson’s disease.”
“These findings provide a rationale for in vivo (animal) studies of liposomal-GSH in a variety of disease models where oxidative stress and/or perturbations in the glutathione system are thought to be involved.”4
At IMI, liposomal glutathione may be prescribed to individuals with low blood levels, or to those with a high toxicity load, for example of mercury, until they recover.
Other Supplements Helpful?
Taking the cysteine as N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) is a very effective way of increasing glutathione levels because it is the amino acid that often limits the production. Provision of L-cysteine within the cell is all that is needed to increase glutathione synthesis, and NAC does this efficiently at a lower financial cost than liposomal glutathione supplements.
Glutathione levels can be recycled and blood levels maintained or improved by Vitamin C, selenium and lipoic acid. It has been shown that in the elderly taking NAC and lipoic acid effectively restores youthful levels of glutathione.
Researchers found that oral supplementation of NAC (100mg/kg of L-cysteine, so 50kg person this means taking 5 grams of NAC) and another amino acid for glutathione called glycine (100mg/kg - again approximately 5 grams) – and found these two glutathione precursors restored the glutathione concentrations in elderly patients by 94.6% within two weeks, to the levels and synthesis rates of those seen in youth.5
At our clinical practice in IMI, I find a sufficient daily dose is 1,000 - 2,000mg of NAC with and added 100-200mg of lipoic acid—this is given to people troubled by pollution, perfumes, smoke or alcohol. It restores people’s capacity to handle the free radical load in Hong Kong, so that the high pollution days or other toxin exposures have no effect.
We save the Liposomal Glutathione in a more intensive detox program, say for heavy metal toxicity. In this case we also need two other products to slide the poisons through the liver (“Clearway”) and bowels (Modified Citrus Pectin) to manage that out-sliding fully.
More information about supplements can be found in the next section.
8 Tips To Up-regulate Your Glutathione Levels
You can do many things to increase the glutathione level in your body. These 8 tips will help you improve your glutathione levels, improve your health, optimize your performance and live a long, healthy life:
Eat Foods that Support Glutathione Production
1. Consume sulfur-rich foods. The main ones in the diet are garlic, onions and the cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, kale, collards, cabbage, cauliflower, watercress, etc.). Broccoli and broccoli sprouts contains the largest amounts of glutathione-stimulating sulphoraphane. Sulforaphane from broccoli is efficiently and rapidly absorbed in our small intestine, then is distributed throughout our body, providing really potent health benefits to many vulnerable tissues.
You can pair the broccoli with broccoli sprouts, mustard, horseradish, or wasabi—the spicier the better. Such combinations will provide more sulphoraphane than any one on their own. If you're not a fan of culinary spice, you can use radishes, cabbage, arugula, watercress, and Brussels sprouts. However, if the broccoli is cooked for more than a four-minute steam, broccoli rapidly loses the compound, along with it many of the health benefits. So you may consider a broccoli seed extract (see below).
2. Exercise boosts your glutathione levels and thereby helps boost your immune system, improve detoxification and enhance your body’s own antioxidant defenses. Start slow and build up to 30 minutes a day of vigorous aerobic exercise like walking or jogging, or play various sports. Strength training for 20 minutes, 3 times a week is also helpful.
As explained above, your body digests protein so taking glutathione in a pill or capsule will not efficiently replenish your glutathione levels in the blood. However, the production and recycling of glutathione in the body requires many different nutrients and you can take these:
3. NAC: It has been used for years to help treat asthma and lung disease and to treat people with life-threatening liver failure from Tylenol overdose. It is even given to prevent kidney damage from dyes used during x-ray studies. NAC at 1,000-2,000mg twice daily is a strong and effective dose. NAC goes a long way to restoring youthful glutathione levels, when taken at adequate doses.
As an alternative way to get a lot of cysteine, try bioactive whey protein. This is great source of cysteine and the amino acid building blocks for glutathione synthesis. I am usually not a big fan of dairy, but this is an exception—with a few warnings. The whey protein must be bioactive and made from non-denatured proteins (“denaturing” refers to the breakdown of the normal protein structure). Choose non-pasteurized and non-industrially produced milk that contains no pesticides, hormones, or antibiotics. IsoWhey Protein Powder fits this description.
4. Alpha lipoic acid: This is a close second to glutathione in importance in our cells and is involved in energy production, blood sugar control, brain health and detoxification. The body usually makes it, but given all the stresses we are under, we often become depleted. Just 100-200mg is adequate. Vital Nutrients’ Detox Formula has both Lipoic acid and NAC as well as other support detox nutrients.
5. Methylation nutrients (folate and vitamins B6 and B12): These are perhaps the most critical to keep the brain and liver producing glutathione. Methylation and the production and recycling of glutathione are the two most important biochemical functions in your body. Take folate (especially in the active form of 5 methyltetrahydrofolate), B6 (in active form of P5P) and B12 (in the active form of methylcobalamin) as Vital Nutrients’ B Complex or Innate Response’ Complete Multi Powder.
6. Selenium: This important mineral helps the body recycle and produce more glutathione. Just 100-200mcg is ample.
7. A family of antioxidants including plant sourced natural forms of vitamins C and E (as mixed tocopherols): They work together with selenium and lipoic acid to recycle glutathione. Antioxidants are best coming from plant sources. Our is best product for this is Ultimate Antiox Full Spectrum with phyto-nutrient based antioxidant food extracts, Fruit sourced vitamin C and flavenoids, mixed vitamin E tocopherols and Carotenoids, and herbal extracts in a capsule format.
Alternately for the B Vitamins, Selenium and family of antioxidants with minerals all together in one product— personally I take Innate Response’ Complete Multi Powder. You can add vitamin C (Innate Response’ C Complete Powder) for an extra boost.
8. Broccoli seed extract providing sulphoraphane is a medicinal strength effect at boosting the detox enzymes including glutathione—much better at boosting glutathione than even the supplements as the genes produce more—and sulphorophane has extra anti-cancer properties in a more potent dose than the broccoli, kale, and cabbage vegetables alone.
After studying the multiple benefits of broccoli sprout derived sulforophanes, I have started to take EnduraCell Plus. The effect? My mind is brighter, nasal problems cleared up and for better or worse I have better tolerance to alcohol”. This broccoli seed extract is from an Australian manufacturer who has perfected a way to safely and effectively protect the sulphorophane compound from degradation, making it shelf stable.
The long lasting effects of broccoli seed extract at the cellular level mean that two capsules every alternate day is still beneficial. As it works to stimulate our genes, broccoli seed extract works to support several other detox enzymes. Sulphoraphane really is the best way to improve our glutathione levels. As well it also has the ability to have our immune system upregulate, and this is especially against cancer cells. Studies show an anti cancer effect. See my report on sulforophanes for the references.