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Most people have heard of glutathione and know it to be the ‘master antioxidant’. As impressive as this sounds however, the full force of glutathione’s superpowers aren’t as widely appreciated as they perhaps ought to be. As renowned naturopathic doctor, Dr Joseph Pizzorno has said, “it is hard to overstate the importance of glutathione.” In this article we take a closer look at glutathione, the many ways its role as a master antioxidant play out to actually impact your health and highlight some of its other physiological functions, beyond antioxidant, that are less well known. Think you already know glutathione? Think again…

Glutathione - A brief introduction…

Glutathione is made from the amino acids cysteine, glycine & glutamic acid. It is found in high levels in most cells in the body and exists in cells in two states; reduced glutathione (GSH) & oxidised glutathione (GSSG). Reduced glutathione is considered to be one of the most important scavengers of reactive oxygen species (ROS). In fact, it is a vital intracellular and extracellular protective antioxidant. Under conditions of oxidative stress, GSH is oxidised to GSSG, thus the ratio of GSH: GSSG is altered. The ratio between GSH: GSSG determines cell redox and is considered a valid marker of cellular toxicity. The accumulation of GSSG due to oxidative stress is considered to be directly toxic to cells. In a resting cell, the GSH: GSSG ratio typically exceeds 100:1, while in various models of oxidative stress, this ratio has been found to be as low as 10:1 and in some cases, even 1:1. Even marginal reductions in GSH may increase susceptibility to a wide range of toxins and oxidative damage and low levels of GSH are associated with a wide range of chronic diseases.

So how does glutathione actually influence health? Here’s some of the many ways:

Immune Health
Glutathione supports the immune system’s ability to fight infections effectively. Reduced glutathione (GSH) supports the body’s front-line infection-fighting cells such as natural killer cells and T cells. Glutathione is also crucial for immune balance, and when levels are low, autoimmune disease risk may be increased.

Glutathione has a crucial role to play in keeping inflammation in balance. Chronic inflammation is a hallmark of many common chronic diseases. Supporting optimal glutathione may help to bring chronic inflammation back under control.

A crucial process affecting many aspects of health and intimately connected to glutathione. Low methylation leads to low glutathione and low glutathione slows methylation. In contrast, robust glutathione levels support well-oiled methylation processes and vice versa.

Respiratory health
Low glutathione has been linked to alterations in the lining of the lungs. Optimal glutathione may help to protect lung tissue from inflammation and free radical damage.

Vitamin D
Low vitamin D levels have been linked with low glutathione, and when glutathione is low, vitamin D may not work as well. When low vitamin D has been identified, it is therefore crucial to consider supporting glutathione status too.

Sports performance
It seems glutathione can have a beneficial impact on sports performance too. In one study, eight men were given glutathione before exercise. Compared to the placebo group, they had lower blood lactic acid levels, performed better and felt less fatigued.

Cardiovascular health
Glutathione’s vital antioxidant functions may help to prevent cardiovascular damage and lower heart attack risk by reducing harmful lipid oxidation.

Brain health
The brain is an incredibly energy-hungry organ. Such high levels of energy production generate high levels of reactive oxygen species, which are toxic to cells in high amounts. Glutathione is thus a vital compound for protecting the brain. High levels of oxidative stress and low reduced glutathione levels are typically seen in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. It is also notable that major depressive disorder is usually accompanied by a decrease in antioxidant enzyme activities (such as glutathione peroxidase) and total antioxidant capacity. In one study, researchers found adolescents with depression had lower glutathione levels.

Chronic disease risk
Low glutathione can increase risks of oxidative stress damage and chronic inflammation, both of which are hallmarks of chronic disease. In contrast, when glutathione levels are optimal, this may help to reduce chronic disease risk.

Mitochondria are the energy-producing powerhouses of the cell. They are crucial for health yet highly susceptible to harm from environmental toxins and oxidative damage. Glutathione has a key role to play in protecting mitochondria and thus is an important part of supporting energy levels right at their very foundation.

In addition to its antioxidant roles, glutathione is a major compound needed for phase II detoxification processes. Phase II involves ‘conjugation’ of the toxins which have been partly processed by phase I detoxification. Glutathione-S-Transferase (GST) enzymes attach glutathione to the partly processed toxins, making them less toxic, water soluble and ready for elimination. Without glutathione, our critical detoxification processes simply cannot work effectively.

Oestrogen balance
Glutathione has a vital role to play in the safe metabolism, detoxification and elimination of oestrogens. Some oestrogen metabolites may be readily metabolised to harmful 3, 4 semi-quinones which may be associated with increased cancer risk. Fortunately, the GST enzymes are able to neutralise the 3, 4 semi-quinones before they cause damage. Glutathione is therefore vital for protection against the potentially harmful effects of excess oestrogen or altered oestrogen metabolism.

Healthy ageing & longevity
And finally, it will come as no surprise that glutathione is associated with healthy ageing and longevity. Or, as Dr Kara Fitzgerald puts it, “glutathione is, quite possibly, the secret to lasting health and longevity. Take care to maintain and even boost your levels every day.”

Glutathione - Quite simply, remarkable.

And we could go on and on. Hopefully by now though, the message is loud and clear. Glutathione, the ‘master antioxidant’, is quite simply a remarkable compound that is essential for most aspects of your health. In fact, looking after your glutathione levels could, very possibly, be the most important step you take to protect your health.

Find out more:
How to effectively support glutathione levels
Glutathione: Effects of 21st century diet and lifestyle

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