Glutathione: The Master Antioxidant

What do you think of when you hear ‘antioxidants’? Often we think of foods that are considered rich in them, things like artichokes, blueberries, strawberries, pecans, goji berries or dark leafy greens. All of these foods do contain high levels of antioxidants, which is essentially a vitamin that works to remove free radicals from the body by slowing down the oxidation process. 

The oxidation process in our bodies is like the oxidation process in life – take a cut-up fruit for example, if you leave it out in open air it starts to turn brown after a while. Free radicals can cause a similar kind of ‘rusting’ in our bodies and although the production of these free radicals is a normal result of our metabolism, in higher amounts they can begin to harm our health. Free radicals are balanced out and controlled by the level of antioxidants in our bodies, and if the scales become uneven – too many free radicals and not enough antioxidants to fight them – it can cause something called oxidative stress. Excess levels of oxidative stress may be a precursor to multiple diseases, including diabetes, cancer, and rheumatoid arthritis.(1)

So where does glutathione come in? While we get most antioxidants through our diet and supplements, we do produce some naturally. Often referred to as the body’s most important and powerful antioxidant, it is found in almost every cell. 

Glutathione is produced in the liver and supports detoxification, helping to rid your body of toxins and waste(2). It helps to stave off the impact of oxidative stress, which may, in turn, reduce disease. Maintaining a healthy level of glutathione has been proven to support a number of various body processes including: liver function, pulmonary function, immune function, bowel health, carbohydrate metabolism, cardiovascular health, cognitive health, and eye health.(3)

The work of glutathione does not stop there, maintaining optimal levels is also believed to be an important factor in healthy aging. While glutathione activity decreases naturally throughout the normal aging process*(4), causing oxidative stress and a decline in cognitive function, negative lifestyle behaviours such as stress, smoking or poor diet, and adverse environmental conditions, including pollution and toxins, can speed up this process. 

Maintaining an optimal level of glutathione can help manage the health concerns that come with the natural aging process and implementing behaviours that can prevent early onset of low glutathione levels is important. In order to maintain and optimize your glutathione levels, ultimately supporting your body’s health, here are a few simple things to keep in mind:

  • Regular exercise. A steady habit of getting regular exercise can help maintain your glutathione levels. However, if you are an athlete participating in high-intensity exercise, then your need for glutathione can be higher. Intense exercise for prolonged periods of time, such as training and competition, can create more oxidative stress and damage, so athletes have a higher need for antioxidants. Anything that exceeds 60-90 minutes daily significantly decreases glutathione levels in the blood, so supplementation is beneficial.(5)
  • Increased sleep. Irregular sleeping patterns can affect us negatively in many ways, only one of which is lowering levels of glutathione in your body.  This can create a chronic state of oxidative stress leading to the aforementioned health concerns. One study found that patients with insomnia had lower levels of glutathione activity than their healthy partners.(6)
  • Eat more sulfur-rich foods. Glutathione is composed primarily of three amino acids: glutamine, glycine, and cysteine. Sulfur contains the amino acid cysteine, so foods rich in sulfur, including beef, poultry, garlic and vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts and kale, can help your body make glutathione.
  • Supplemental Glutathione. Depending on your current status and needs, you may want to boost your internal levels of glutathione with supplementation. This may be to ramp up detoxification, encourage healthy brain function, support athletic performance, or prevent the effects of aging.  One study showed oral glutathione supplements can have various beneficial effects on skin properties and act as an antiaging agent(7). While supplements can be oral, for more immediate effects, glutathione can be given intravenously.

 

While there are various factors that contribute to decreased glutathione levels, these four simple steps can help in fending off oxidative stress within the body and maintain optimal glutathione levels, something which has been shown to drastically improve and support your health. This super antioxidant is naturally produced in our liver and something to protect throughout the aging process. If you would like to learn more, our knowledgeable staff is always on hand to answer any questions or provide personalized recommendations or assessments.

 

Footnotes:
*Contrary to this is the observation that individuals who live to 100 tend to have higher glutathione activity.

References:

  1. Lobo V, Patil A, Phatak A, Chandra N. Free radicals, antioxidants and functional foods: Impact on human health. Pharmacogn Rev 2010;4(8):118-126.  
  2. Glutathione (n.d). Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-717/glutathione 
  3. Uttara B, V. Singh A, et al. Oxidative Stress and Neurodegenerative Diseases: A Review of Upstream and Downstream Antioxidant Therapeutic Options. Current Neuropharmacology 2009; 7(1): 65-74 
  4. Andersen H, Jeune B, Nybo H, et al. Low activity of superoxide dismutase and high activity of glutathione reductase in erythrocytes from centenarians. Age Ageing 1998;27(5):643-648. 
  5. Kerksick C, Willoughby D. The Antioxidant Role of Glutathione and N-Acetyl-Cysteine Supplements and Exercise-Induced Oxidative Stress. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2005; 38 [BioMedCentral] 
  6. Gulec M, Ozkol H, Selvi Y, et al. Oxidative stress in patients with primary insomnia. Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry 2012;37(2):247-251. 
  7. Weschawalit S, Thongthip S, et al. Glutathione and its antiaging and antimelanogenic effects. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol 2017:10:147-153
Rachel

Rachel Erwin, Nutritionist & Content Writer

Rachel is a Nutritionist with a BSc in Biology and Global Health from the University of Toronto, and a Postgraduate Diploma in Human Nutrition from the University of Ulster. She has counselled and educated clients in Hong Kong, whose health goals ranged from weight loss to detox and hormone balancing. Her love of writing led her to complete ‘Writing in the Sciences’, offered by Stanford University, and since then she has contributed several evidence-based health articles to various publications.

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