Glutathione: The ‘Master Antioxidant’ That Your Body Needs

natural glutathione food sources

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  • Known as the “master antioxidant,” glutathione helps protect your cells against oxidative damage
  • Glutathione is a powerful antioxidant that is naturally produced by the body. It’s one of the most talked about supplements nowadays, as it provides a long list of benefits

Glutathione is a powerful antioxidant that is naturally produced by the body. It’s one of the most talked about supplements nowadays, as it provides a long list of benefits — from helping prevent oxidative damage to improving skin health and protecting the immune system.1 It’s also found in, and used by, every cell and tissue in the body, making it a vital molecule for a number of physiological processes.2

However, there’s a variety of factors that may deplete your body’s glutathione levels over time, resulting in a number of health issues, including weakened immune system, cell mutations and higher susceptibility to cancer.3 Read on to find out more about the importance of this natural antioxidant and the ways to maintain normal levels of it in your body.

What Is Glutathione?

Glutathione is a small tripeptide molecule that’s made up of three amino acids: glutamate (aka glutamic acid), cysteine and glycine. It’s often labeled as the “master antioxidant” or “mother of all antioxidants,” as it helps recycle and maximize the function of other antioxidants, such as vitamin C, vitamin E, coenzyme Q10 and alpha-lipoic acid.4,5

There are two forms of glutathione: the reduced glutathione (GSH), which is also called L-glutathione,6 and the oxidized glutathione (GSSG). When the GSH molecules exert their antioxidant effects on the reactive oxygen species, they oxidize and turn into GSSG.7,8 The commercial glutathione products available today contains reduced glutathione, since this is the active form.9,10

According to a study published in the Journal of Integrative Medicine, the ratio of GSH to GSSG determines the cellular redox status. A ratio of 1-to-10 means that the cells are exposed to oxidant stress.11 The glutathione system is also composed of two groups of enzymes: glutathione peroxidase (GPx) and glutathione S-transferases (GSTs) — both of which mediate its antioxidative effects.12,13,14 Even though glutathione is naturally synthesized in your cells, your body’s levels of it may still decrease, especially as you age; glutathione also does not act alone in your body — it needs coenzymes to perform its various enzymatic roles.15

Your glutathione levels may also be affected by certain diseases, such as cancer, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), Type 2 diabetes, hepatitis and Parkinson’s disease.16 Other external factors that may deplete this essential substance include:17,18

Poor diet

Pollution

Toxins

Medications

Stress

Trauma

UV radiation



Some people turn to oral glutathione supplements in capsule or liquid form to optimize their glutathione levels. One type of glutathione supplement that’s said to be formulated for optimum absorption is the liposomal glutathione.19,20 Keep in mind, though, that oral supplementation is expensive and may not be effective, since glutathione is broken down in the intestines, thereby preventing it from entering the cells intact.21,22,23 Glutathione is also given intravenously, intramuscularly, topically or as an inhalant.24

One of the best ways to increase your glutathione levels is by eating foods that help boost its production in your body, particularly those that contain high amounts of sulfur, like high-quality whey powder.25

Foods to Eat if You Want to Optimize Your Glutathione Levels

Glutathione naturally occurs in some foods, including raw asparagus, almonds, spinach, broccoli, walnuts, garlic, tomatoes, cucumber, watercress and chives. However, it may not be well-absorbed from these dietary sources. Cooking, storage and farming methods may also reduce the amount of glutathione in foods.26,27,28,29

Fortunately, you don’t have to eat glutathione-rich foods just to obtain this antioxidant naturally, since you can also maximize your body’s ability to synthesize it by eating foods that are rich in its precursors, including:30,31

Whey protein powder: Whey protein provides the amino acids that your body needs to produce glutathione.32 Plus, it contains a unique cysteine residue known as glutamylcysteine, which is highly bioactive in its affinity for converting to glutathione.33 When buying whey protein powder, make sure that you choose a cold-pressed product that’s derived from grass fed cows to guarantee that it’s free from harmful chemicals, hormones and sugar.

Allium and cruciferous vegetables: Allium vegetables, like garlic, onions, leeks and chives, as well as cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage and Brussels sprouts, have high amounts of sulfur-containing amino acids that are essential for glutathione production.34,35

Grass fed meat and pastured eggs: Grass fed meat and pastured eggs are also excellent sources of sulfur-containing amino acids.36

Selenium also plays a role in the formation of glutathione,37 so consuming foods that are rich in this nutrient may help improve your body’s glutathione levels. Some dietary sources of selenium include wild-caught seafood and organ meat.38 Foods that contain alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) may also promote the production of glutathione in the body. These include organ meats, spinach, broccoli and Brussels sprouts.39

The Many Benefits of Glutathione to Your Well-Being

Glutathione provides a wide array of health benefits, thanks to its powerful antioxidant properties. Some of these benefits include:

Helps fight oxidative stress: Low levels of glutathione have been linked to high oxidative stress, which may lead to a number of serious health issues, like diabetes, cancer, and rheumatoid arthritis, to name a few.40

Studies have shown that maintaining normal glutathione levels may help protect the body against oxidative damage.41

Helps control inflammation: According to a 2009 study published in the journal Autoimmunity Reviews, glutathione may help regulate inflammation by stimulating or inhibiting your body's immunological response.42

Helps keep age-related health problems at bay: Research shows that improving glutathione synthesis through higher dietary cysteine intake may help stave off age-related health issues, as it has a favorable effect on muscle and vascular health, bone density and cognitive function.43

Helps in the management of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease: Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease are both linked to oxidative stress and low levels of glutathione.44,45

Increasing the amount of this antioxidant in your body may help slow or ameliorate the progression of these neurodegenerative disorders.46,47

Helps fight infections: According to a 2013 study published in Biochimica Et Biophysica Acta, glutathione may help fight against microbial, viral and parasitic infections while enhancing the functional activity of immune cells and improving your innate and adaptive immunity.48

Aids in the management of autism: Study shows that children with autism have lower levels of glutathione, putting them at a higher risk of neurological damage caused by oxidative stress.49,50

Helps reduce the impact of uncontrolled Type 2 diabetes: Uncontrolled hyperglycemia is often accompanied by low glutathione levels, which may lead to higher oxidative stress and tissue damage.

Research shows that increasing your body's level of this antioxidant may help protect you against oxidative damage despite persistent hyperglycemia.51

Helps improve heart health: Studies have shown that increasing your glutathione levels may reduce your risk of heart attack and other cardiovascular diseases, since it protects the heart tissues against oxidative stress.52,53

Helps improve skin health: A 2017 study published in the Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology shows that the reduced and oxidized forms of glutathione may help reduce the appearance of wrinkles and improve skin elasticity.54

Helps increase the mobility of people with peripheral artery disease: A study shows that glutathione may help improve leg arterial circulation and prolong pain-free walking distance (PFWD) of patients with peripheral artery disease.55

Helps treat psoriasis: Psoriasis vulgaris is a common autoimmune disease that's linked to higher levels of oxidative stress and systemic inflammation.

Research shows that increasing glutathione levels by consuming whey protein may help treat patients with psoriasis.56

Helps prevent anemia in patients with chronic renal failure: Research shows that glutathione may help increase the levels of red blood cells in in patients who are suffering from chronic renal failure and undergoing hemodialysis, making it a useful compound for the treatment and management of anemia in patients with kidney disease.57

In addition to the benefits mentioned above, glutathione may also be used for treating cataracts, glaucoma, hepatitis and respiratory disorders such as idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and cystic fibrosis.58 It may also help reduce cell damage in people with nonalcoholic and alcoholic fatty liver disease.59

Studies Show That Glutathione Deficiency Is Linked to Various Health Problems

Glutathione deficiency makes you more susceptible to oxidative stress, which is why it’s considered a key factor in the pathogenesis of many health problems.60 Numerous studies have confirmed its influence on the development, progression and prognosis of various diseases.

For instance, a study published in the Journal of Inherited Metabolic Diseases shows that glutathione deficiency contributes to the progressive nature of mitochondrial diseases, as it hinders the body’s ability to fight oxidative stress and impairs the activity of the electron transport chain (ETC),61 which is essential for proper cellular function.62

A separate study also linked glutathione deficiency to the progression of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), a lung disease with unknown etiology. The level of glutathione in the lower respiratory tract of IPF patients was compared to that of the healthy, nonsmoking participants. Result shows that the glutathione level of IPF patients is lower than the healthy participants, confirming the role of antioxidant deficiency in the pathogenesis of IPF.63

Decreased glutathione levels may also be observed in patients with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection. According to a 2012 study published in the Clinical and Developmental Immunology, people with HIV infection are found to have lower levels of GSH and higher levels of GSSG, which decreases the body’s antioxidant activity, resulting in a loss of immune function in HIV patients.64

Some of the other diseases that may be affected by low glutathione levels include Alzheimer’s disease, liver disease, sickle cell anemia, cancer, stroke, diabetes and heart issues, among others. Additionally, male fertility may be negatively affected by low glutathione levels and was found to be a possible therapy for sperm health and numbers.65

Side Effects That You May Encounter When Taking Glutathione Supplement

Glutathione is considered safe to use when taken orally, intravenously or through inhalation, but it may still cause side effects, including:72

Abdominal cramps

Bloating

Flatulence and loose stools

Allergic reactions, such as rash and itchiness

Researchers are still unsure if glutathione is safe for pregnant and/or breastfeeding women, so if you fall under either of these categories, it’s wise to avoid glutathione supplements to guarantee your and your baby’s safety. You should also avoid using glutathione inhalants if you have asthma, since it may exacerbate your symptoms.73

Adopt a Healthy Lifestyle to Maintain Healthy Glutathione Levels

As I have mentioned above, consuming foods that contain the precursors of glutathione is one of the best ways to stimulate the production of this antioxidant in your body. But aside from this, you should also practice healthy lifestyle habits to maximize your body’s ability to fight off free radicals.

Eliminating sugar, grains and processed foods from your diet is a great way to lessen oxidative stress. Make sure that you’re also getting ample amounts of appropriate exercise to increase your body’s ability to produce glutathione. Managing your stress and getting enough sleep also helps inhibit the damaging effects of free radicals.

Frequently Asked Question (FAQs) About Glutathione

Q: What is glutathione used for?

A: Glutathione is used for its powerful antioxidant properties and detoxification effect. These benefits make glutathione useful in the management of several health issues, such as autoimmune disorders, respiratory problems, neurodegenerative disorders and peripheral artery disease, among others.

It’s also popular for its ability to improve skin health and delay the process of aging and is used to lower the toxicity of chemotherapy and radiation in cancer treatments.74,75,76

Q: How can you increase your body’s glutathione levels?

A: You can naturally increase your glutathione levels by eating foods that are rich in its precursors, particularly sulfur-containing amino acids. Some good examples are whey protein powder, raw cruciferous and allium vegetables, grass fed meat and pastured eggs.77

Practicing healthy lifestyle habits, such as getting enough sleep, learning how to manage stress, and exercising appropriately, may also help maintain high levels of glutathione in your body. Some people also opt to take glutathione intravenously, orally or topically.78

Q: What does glutathione do?

A: Glutathione helps protect your cells against oxidative damage by scavenging a wide array of free radicals, including nitric oxide, superoxide anion, and hydroxyl and carbon radicals. It also helps maximize the performance of other antioxidants, including vitamin C, vitamin E, coenzyme Q10 and alpha-lipoic acid.79

Q: Are glutathione soaps safe?

A: Yes, glutathione soaps are generally considered safe. If you’re planning to buy this product, make sure that you get it from a reputable brand, since there are cases wherein counterfeit glutathione soaps contain harmful ingredients like bleach, which may cause permanent damage to your skin.80

Q: How is liposomal glutathione made?

A: Liposomal glutathione is made by wrapping the GSH molecule in lipids or fats, which act as a protective cell membrane. This allows the GSH molecule to be transported safely throughout the gut and into the bloodstream.81,82

+ Sources and References
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