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The Master Detoxifier and Mother of All Antioxidants: Glutathione

glutathione antioxidants

By Graeme Bradshaw

Glutathione is probably the single most important molecule your body produces to protect you from disease. It is the master detoxifier becasue it bounds to toxins and then carries them into the bile and the stool, and out of the body. It protects our cells’ delicate chemical machinery, and helps energy metabolism run efficiently. It is also integral to our immune system, especially for resistance to viruses through activating natural Killer Cells.

Glutathione protects your tissues from ageing, helps you to fight viral infections, and is the key antioxidant to prevent cancer, heart disease, dementia, MS and some other chronic diseases.

One interesting study found that high glutathione levels are related to increased survival and longer life. Centenarians—those who live to 100-105 years old—have higher glutathione and glutathione enzyme levels compare to average people aged 60-79. Additionally, elderly with the highest functional capacity are found to have the highest glutathione levels.2

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.”

There are other detox compounds in our body, but none remove as much of the pollutants and also our more toxic estrogenic hormones as does glutathione. Glutathione removes about 50% the toxins we get exposed to daily—when we have enough of it!

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. When there are free radicals, the effect is like tiny sparks flying about in the cells, a spark that can ignite a fire if there are insufficient antioxidants. The oxidized target sites within the cells then become 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 lower mental and physical energy, rapid tissue aging and diseases.

Think of antioxidants like glutathione as being the fire brigade of the cells. There are different fire brigade squads, each with different skills, but glutathione is the most versatile of them all. Without it and the other antioxidants the oxidizing effect of free radicals on the insides of the cells damages the DNA and the mitochondria. Mitochondria is organelles that act like the batteries inside each cell, it is where the energy (ATP) comes from. So damage to mitochondria causes a lack in energy available— for the brain and muscles especially. You need glutathione to protect your mitochondria, and thus preserve healthy energy levels.

Free radicals may be formed through natural human physiological processes especially intense sports, or they can be the result of a high carbohydrate glucose burning diet, as well as smoking, alcohol, BBQ meats and trans fats, or exposure to pollutants such as mercury, and volatile organic compounds from fumes and so on.

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 food sourced antioxidants include the red and blue coloured fruit flavenoids and polyphenols, as well as sulphur compounds in cabbage, onion and garlic - they work along with vitamin C, E, plus the carotenoids from plants and, of course our super fire brigade, Glutathione.

The Importance of Glutathione

Glutathione is important because it does 2 things: it recycles other antioxidants and it binds to poisons. That second feature is what makes is uniquely potent - and uniquely vulnerable. Binding to toxins such as mercury can mean glutathione itself is taken out of action, making that fire brigade recycling leadership role much weaker. Once a certain threshold of toxicity is crossed, the glutathione is all bound up and depleted, then the other antioxidants fail to work well, too.

“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,” summarizes Dr Hyman.

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 and the elderly pollution related coughs, with allergy and possibly asthma symptoms occur as the glutathione is depleted. Boosting glutathione is one way to address these issues.

For most adults the damage is to the liver, when glutathione cannot keep up with the toxic insult of the city, especially combined excess calories.

Calories, especially glucose from carbohydrates tends to burn with more reactive oxygen free radicals being released in the mitochondria. Surprising but true is that burning fats especially ketones as a primary fuel source, such as on fasting or on a calorie restricted Paleo or modified Atkins diet actually relieves the mitochondria of oxidative as well as inflammatory stress from glucose and insulin. This type of diet is fast gaining credence as it spares glutathione as well, and actually the overall result is more energy production by the mitochondria, more vital ATP is available for exercise, for thinking and for healthy functions.

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.

Severe glutathione deficiencies may cause:

  • Decreased movements and extreme fatigue
  • Seizures or unusual muscle spasms and or confusion
  • Decreased reaction time
  • Delays in speech
  • Loss of coordination
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Pale or yellow skin

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
  • Cigarettes and other inhaled fumes—Volatile Organic Chemicals (VOCs) such as formaldehyde 
  • Air pollution from cars and busses, power stations
  • POPs (persistent organic pollutants)
  • Nutritional deficiencies (especially active forms of B complex such as methyl B12 needed in the production process, or of the amino acid cysteine needed as part of the glutathione molecule, or of the mineral needed for recycling glutathione which is selenium. Vegetarian diets may be vulnerable to these deficiencies)

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 40% of our population is missing GSTM1 function, resulting in lowered levels of glutathione and 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. With the DNA assessment we can more confidently overcome the problem.

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”) when 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.

However, the “Liposomal” form of glutathione acts differently. Liposomes are a wrapping of healthy oils (phosphatidyl choline extracted from lecithin) around the active ingredient, in this case glutathione. This liposomal wrapping stops the digestion of the glutathione and allows the liposomal form of glutathione to enter the blood and enter the cells where it is active at doing the protective antioxidant and detoxification process. When liposomal glutathione is held in the mouth it directly passes into the blood and is able to enter the cells.

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.”4

A 1-month pilot clinical study of oral liposomal glutathione (GSH) administration at two doses (500 and 1000 mg of GSH per day) was conducted in healthy adults. GSH levels were elevated after 1 week with maximum increases of 40% in whole blood, 25% in erythrocytes, 28% in plasma and 100% in PBMCs occurring after 2 weeks.5

At IMI, liposomal glutathione is available for individuals with the slow DNA polymorphisms, or low blood levels, or to those with a high toxicity load, for example of mercury, until they recover. The dose of 3 “squirts” twice daily will provide amounts used in the above study.

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.6

At our clinical practice in IMI, we find a sufficient daily dose is 1,000 - 2,000mg of NAC which can effectively be given to people troubled by pollution, perfumes, fumes or smoke, particularly if there is a mucous producing reaction by the nose or lungs. NAC also dissolves mucous. It restores people’s capacity to handle the pollution load in Hong Kong, so that the high pollution days or other toxin exposures have little effect.

We usually 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 of the bound toxin right out of the gut, fully eliminating the poisons.

More information about supplements can be found in the next section.

7 Tips To Up-regulate Your Glutathione Levels

You can do many things to increase the glutathione level in your body. These 7 tips will help you improve your glutathione levels, improve your health, optimize your performance and live a long, healthy life:

1. Regular 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.

2. Eat Foods that Support Glutathione Production. 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 sulforaphane. 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 seed sprouts, mustard, horseradish, or wasabi—the spicier the better. Such combinations will provide more sulforaphane 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, it rapidly loses the compound, along with it many of the health benefits. So you may consider a broccoli seed extract (see below).

3. Discover the power of Sulforaphane from Broccoli Seed Extract. Broccoli sprouts produce sulforaphane, which when consumed instructs our DNA (especially in an area called Nrf2) to produce more glutathione. It is a medicinal strength effect at boosting several other antioxidants and detoxification enzymes as well, making it the most wide acting and effective herbal supplement for detoxification and cell protection. Sulforaphane is better at boosting glutathione than even the supplements as the genes produce more than a supplement will provide—and sulforophane has extra anti-cancer properties in a more potent dose than the broccoli, kale, and cabbage vegetables are known to have.

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 sulforaphane compound from degradation, making it shelf stable. As it works to stimulate our genes, broccoli seed extract works to support many other detox enzymes, the key overall effect being a reduced cancer risk according to hundreds of scientific studies. See my report on sulforaphanes for the references.

4. 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. Choose non-pasteurized and non-industrially produced milk that contains no pesticides, hormones, or antibiotics. IsoWhey Protein Powder fits this description.

5. Methylation nutrients (folate and vitamins B6 and B12): Methylation aids the production and recycling of glutathione as well as supports other types of detoxification. Take folate (especially in the active form of 5 methyltetrahydrofolate), B6 (in active form of P5P) and B12 (in the active form of R5P). These can be found in these recommended supplements: Vital Nutrients’ B Complex or Innate Response’ Complete Multi Powder.

6. Selenium: This important mineral helps the body recycle and produce more glutathione. Just 50-200mcg is ample. Taking 2 EnduraCell Plus and a scoop of Innate Response’ Complete Multi Powder provides around 100mcg of selenium daily.

For the active forms of B Vitamins, as well as Vitamin C, D, E, Selenium and a good level of whole food derived antioxidants with minerals all together in one product, I recommend to take Innate Response’ Complete Multi Powder.

Vitamin C recycles glutathione. You can add vitamin C (Innate Response’ C Complete Powder) for an extra boost of vitamin C nightly for a 24 hour supply of vitamin C.

6. Alpha lipoic acid: This is 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 Lipoic Acid 300mg is readily available. We usually recommend this if there are diabetic complications.

7. Liposomal Glutathione by Quicksilver. Typical oral delivery of glutathione is greatly inhibited by breakdown in the stomach. Quicksilver Delivery Systems™ protects glutathione from breakdown in the digestive system that otherwise prevents absorption of oral glutathione supplementation by packaging the glutathione into liposomes. In addition to greatly improving bioavailability, the liposomal delivery format enables intracellular delivery of glutathione. In cell cultures, liposomal glutathione has been demonstrated to be 100 times more efficiency for intracellular delivery than non-liposomal glutathione.

The dose of 3 “squirts” twice daily will provide amounts used in the above referenced liposomal glutathione study.

 


References

1. Nuttall S, Martin U, Sinclair A, Kendall M. 1998. Glutathione: in sickness and in health. The Lancet; 351(9103):645-646 
2. Andersen HR, Lower Activity of Superoxide Dismutase and High Activity of Glutathione Reductase in Erythrocytes From Centenarians. Age and Ageing, 1998; 27:643-648.
3. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.atherosclerosis.2007.05.012.
5. PMID: 28853742
6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21795440