What is Glutathione?
Coined “The Mother of All Antioxidants” by Mark Hyman, MD, glutathione is one of the hottest topics in both natural health and medical circles today.
Pronounced “gloota-thigh-own,” over 160,000 scientific articles have addressed this powerhouse molecule, and experts are now recognizing that an alarming rate of people is deficient in this molecule.
Some reasons for this deficiency include chronic stress, environmental toxins, genetically modified foods, infections, injuries, overuse of antibiotics, poor nutrition, preservatives like thimerosal, radiation therapy, sweeteners such as aspartame, etc etc. Its levels also decline with age.
Glutathione is an antioxidant produced in cells. It’s made from three amino acids (protein building blocks): glutamine, glycine, and cysteine.
In addition to being produced naturally by the body, glutathione can be given intravenously, topically, or as an inhalant. It’s also available as an oral supplement in capsule and liquid form. However, oral ingestion of glutathione may not be as effective as intravenous delivery for certain conditions.
What are the Benefits of Glutathione?
Direct administration and promotion of production of glutathione have been used effectively in a wide range of diseases: Parkinson’s, peripheral obstructive arterial disease, cystic fibrosis, emphysema, COPD, preterm infants autism, contrast-induced nephropathy, chronic otitis media, lead exposure, nail biting(!), nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, exercise-induced fatigue—the list is long and surprisingly diverse. (1) The following is a brief discussion of just some of the benefits of glutathione.
1. Reduces oxidative stress
Oxidative stress occurs when there’s an imbalance between the production of free radicals and the body’s ability to fight them off. Too-high levels of oxidative stress may be a precursor to multiple diseases. These include diabetes, cancer, and rheumatoid arthritis. Glutathione helps stave off the impact of oxidative stress, which may, in turn, reduce disease.
An article cited in Journal of Cancer Science and Therapy indicated that glutathione deficiency leads to increased levels of oxidative stress, which might lead to cancer. It also stated that elevated glutathione levels raised antioxidant levels and resistance to oxidative stress in cancer cells.
2. May improve psoriasis
A small study (2) indicated that whey protein, when given orally, improved psoriasis with or without additional treatment. Whey protein had been previously demonstrated to increase glutathione levels. Study participants were given 20 grams as an oral supplement daily for three months.
3. Reduces cell damage in alcoholic and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)
Cell death in the liver may be exacerbated by a deficiency in antioxidants, including glutathione. This can lead to fatty liver disease in both those who misuse alcohol and those who don’t. Glutathione has been shown to improve protein, enzyme, and bilirubin levels in the blood of individuals with alcoholic and nonalcoholic chronic fatty liver disease.
A foundational study (3) by Italian researchers in 1995 reported that glutathione was most effective when given to people with fatty liver disease intravenously, in high doses. The study also showed reductions in malondialdehyde, a marker of cell damage in the liver.
A more recent pilot study (4) in 2017 found that orally administered glutathione had positive effects on people with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease following proactive lifestyle changes. In this study, glutathione was provided in supplement form in a dose of 300 milligrams per day for four months.
4. Improves insulin resistance in older individuals
As people age, they produce less glutathione. Researchers at Baylor School of Medicine (5) used a combination of animal and human studies to explore the role of glutathione in weight management and insulin resistance in older individuals. Study findings indicated that low glutathione levels were associated with less fat burning and higher rates of fat storing in the body. Older subjects had cysteine and glycine added to their diets to increase glutathione levels, which spiked within two weeks, improving insulin resistance and fat burning.
5. Increases mobility for people with peripheral artery disease
Peripheral artery disease occurs when the peripheral arteries become clogged by plaque. It most commonly happens in the legs. One study (6) reported that glutathione improved circulation, increasing the ability of study participants to walk pain-free for longer distances. Participants receiving glutathione rather than a saline solution placebo were given intravenous infusions two times daily for five days and then analyzed for mobility.
6. Reduces symptoms of Parkinson’s disease
Parkinson's disease is the second most common neurodegenerative disease, affecting over a million people in the United States alone, and is characterized by symptoms such as tremors and mobility problems. It currently has no cure. One review paper (7) documents that the main feature of Parkinson’s is the loss of dopamine-producing nerves in an area of the brain called the substantia nigra. However, the cause of this loss is still not understood fully. One of the earliest biochemical changes seen in PD is a reduction in the levels of total glutathione.
A case report (8) in 2018 documented intravenous glutathione’s positive effects on symptoms such as tremors and rigidity. While more research is needed, this case report suggests that glutathione may help reduce symptoms and improve the quality of life in people with this disease.
7. May help fight against autoimmune disease
The chronic inflammation caused by autoimmune diseases can increase oxidative stress. These diseases include rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, and lupus. According to one study (9), glutathione helps reduce oxidative stress by either stimulating or reducing the body’s immunological response. Autoimmune diseases attack the mitochondria in specific cells. Glutathione works to protect cell mitochondria by eliminating free radicals.
8. May reduce oxidative damage in kids with autism
Several studies (10 & 11), including a clinical trial reported in Medical Science Monitor (12), indicate that children with autism have higher levels of oxidative damage and lower levels of glutathione in their brains. This increased susceptibility to neurological damage in children with autism from substances such as mercury.
The eight-week clinical trial on children aged 3 to 13 used glutathione oral or transdermal applications. Autistic symptom changes were not evaluated as part of the study, but children in both groups showed improvement in cysteine, plasma sulfate, and whole-blood glutathione levels.
9. May reduce the impact of uncontrolled diabetes
Long-term high blood sugar is associated with reduced amounts of glutathione. This can lead to oxidative stress and tissue damage. A study published in Diabetes Care (13) found that patients with uncontrolled type 2 diabetes have severely deficient glutathione levels. They were given dietary supplementation with glutathione building blocks cysteine and glycine, which boosted glutathione levels. Despite high sugar levels, this lowered oxidative stress and damage in people with uncontrolled diabetes.
Study participants were given capsules containing 0.81 mmol/kg of cysteine and 1.33 mmol/kg glycine daily, and improvements were seen in just two weeks.
10. May improve recovery after exercise
Prolonged, high-intensity, or unaccustomed exercise can result in the free radical generation and increased oxidative stress. This review article (14) explains how that can damage muscle cells and how glutathione may be beneficial for optimal performance, recovery, and overall health.
11. May the body fight infection and protect the lungs from damage
This review article (15) from 2011 goes into great depth as to how glutathione may help to improve the immune system and decrease inflammation when fighting infections such viral infections like influenza, HIV, tuberculosis, and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). They note that the picture that emerges from many studies is that glutathione is not just an inhibitor of inflammation, but it is required to allow a proper response to infection and “direct” the migration of inflammatory white blood cells away from the lung and toward the infection instead.
Dietary Sources of Glutathione
Glutathione is found in some foods (16 & 17), although cooking and pasteurization diminish its levels significantly. Its highest concentrations are in:
- Raw or very rare meat (especially grass-fed organic beef liver)
- Unpasteurized milk and other unpasteurized dairy products
- Freshly-picked fruits and vegetables, such as avocado and asparagus.
Glutathione contains sulfur molecules, which may be why foods high in sulfur help to boost its natural production in the body. These foods include:
- cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and bok choy
- allium vegetables, such as garlic and onions
- lean protein, such as fish and chicken
Other foods, herbs, and supplements that help to naturally boost glutathione levels include:
- Milk thistle
- Whey protein
- NAC (N-acetylcysteine)
- Alpha lipoic acid
- Methylation nutrients (vitamin B6, B9, B12 & biotin)
- Guso seaweed
- Vitamin C & E
Glutathione is also negatively affected by insomnia. Getting enough rest regularly can help increase levels.
Side eﬀects and risks
A diet rich in glutathione-boosting foods does not pose any risks. However, taking supplements may not be advisable for everyone. Talk to your doctor about glutathione to determine if it’s right for you. Possible side effects may include:
- Abdominal cramps
- Trouble breathing due to bronchial constriction
- Allergic reactions, such as rash
- Herxheimer’s reactions
Glutathione is a powerful antioxidant that’s made in the body’s cells. Its levels decrease due to aging, stress, and toxin exposure. Adequate availability of glutathione is critical for maintaining health, protecting the body from toxins, and promoting longevity. Fortunately, there is much we can do to optimize glutathione levels: primarily decrease toxin exposure (including alcohol) and promote production with regular consumption of whey or NAC. IV Glutathione may also be of benefit for those with more advanced concerns.