Glutathione is one of the most popular and heavily-researched antioxidants around. Once you hear about the health benefits, it’s only natural to want to rush to the store and pick up some supplements.
Unfortunately, there’s a ton of confusion about this. Do the supplements even work? Is the whole thing just a scam? Today’s post gets into the gritty details – and explores what else you can do to raise your levels naturally.
What Is Glutathione?
Before we get into supplements, let’s take a second to figure out why they’re such a big deal.
Glutathione is a molecule (a peptide, to be precise) made up of three amino acids:
- L-glutamic acid (1)
Your doctor and the Internet have been raving about this stuff because it’s an antioxidant. Some people even call it the “master antioxidant” because of its presence throughout the body and wide-ranging effects.
The key difference between this and other antioxidants: your body makes glutathione all on its own. You’d drink wine to ingest resveratrol or eat blueberries for anthocyanins. But glutathione is produced within the body naturally, which is why it isn’t considered an “essential nutrient.”
This unique characteristic has a big impact on the supplements’ effectiveness. More on that in just a bit.
What Does Glutathione Do?
Scientists continue to explore potential health benefits, but the results so far have been quite impressive. Over 130,000 studies (and counting) have been published on the PubMed database exploring these very topics (2).
Here are some of the most crucial health benefits:
1. Protects Against Oxidative Stress
Above all, glutathione is regarded as being a powerful antioxidant.
This antioxidant neutralizes free radicals, unstable oxygen molecules, and heavy metals within the body. This helps you avoid the consequences, which span everything from premature aging and fatigue to gut disorders and neurodegenerative issues (3).
A review published in the journal Biology and Pharmacotherapy reviewed glutathione’s importance in biological processes. The researchers noted glutathione’s ability to target reactive oxygen species. They also described connections between inadequate glutathione levels and aging, cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases (4).
2. Strengthens the Immune System
Glutathione has a significant effect on the immune system.
One fascinating study published in the journal The Proceedings of the Nutrition Society describes how the process works. In individuals with strong immune systems, the lymphoid cells contain a precise balance of glutathione. Even slight changes in glutathione levels can disrupt the entire system because certain biological functions, like DNA synthesis, are “exquisitely sensitive” to reactive oxygen (5).
Research published in Clinical Immunology explored this further. In that study, the researchers found that glutathione improved immune system function by protecting activated T-cells (6).
3. Regulates Risk Factors of Cardiovascular Problems
Glutathione is also good for your heart!
One major risk factor of cardiovascular problems is something called endothelial dysfunction. This occurs when the endothelium (the inner lining of your blood vessels) fails to function properly (7).
That’s where glutathione comes in. One study gave glutathione to patients with atherosclerosis and found that it significantly improved endothelial function by enhancing nitric oxide activity (8). Another study confirmed the effect on rabbits (9).
4. Detoxifies the Liver
Glutathione binds to toxic chemicals before your body excretes them. As a result, it plays a huge role in helping your body process toxins from your food and environment. One study compared the livers of healthy men to those with liver cirrhosis, and found the key difference was reduced glutathione levels (10).
Another study focused on over 200 people in northern Sweden who ate fish several times a week or more. The researchers tracked mercury exposure and found that the level of mercury retained in the body was connected to genes regulating glutathione synthesis. The less glutathione made, the greater the mercury exposure (11).
5. May Help Prevent Certain Types of Cancer
Some of the most exciting research focuses on anticancer effects.
A review published in the journal Cell Biochemistry & Function gives a nice overview. The researchers noted it is “crucial in the removal and detoxification of carcinogens” thanks to its antioxidant effects (12).
This effect works both ways, however. As research in the journal Hindawi pointed out, we can also intentionally deplete glutathione from tumor cells to make them more susceptible to chemotherapy treatments – a process known as “chemosensitization” (13).
More research needs to be done to fully understand the mechanisms by which these processes work. But some researchers are already starting to credit increased rates of cancer to glutathione deficiency (14).
What Causes a Glutathione Deficiency?
Certain risk factors increase the likelihood of deficiency.
- Age. Research comparing young and elderly people found that some elderly people become glutathione deficient because their bodies synthesize it slower than young people’s bodies do (15).
- Gut diseases. Conditions like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) have been shown to decrease production (16).
- Adrenal gland issues/chronic fatigue syndrome. Researchers have noted decreased levels in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome (17).
- Athletes who train too hard without adequate nutrition and rest. Regular, moderate exercise helps raise glutathione levels, but overdoing it can actually decrease production (18).
- Diabetes/blood sugar issues. Research on people with uncontrolled type 2 diabetes found “severely deficient” glutathione levels (19).
If you fall into any of the categories above, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have a deficiency. Just take it as a warning sign to be careful!
What’s the Deal with Glutathione Supplements?
All of this brings us to the most important issue: figuring out how to address a glutathione deficiency.
Why not just take a supplement?
It’s only natural you’d think this way. After all, that’s how endless pharmaceutical ads have conditioned us to react (have a problem, take a pill). And, while the supplement route works just fine for other nutrient deficiencies, it isn’t the best choice here.
The key issue is absorption.
Our bodies have a difficult time absorbing a significant amount of glutathione from external sources. The vast majority of it is broken down during the digestion process. So even if you eat glutathione-rich foods or take supplements, only a small fraction of the amount affects your actual levels.
One study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine tracked the effects of oral glutathione supplements and found “no significant changes” in the biomarkers of oxidative stress (20). Other studies had significant results, but typically by using tremendous amounts of supplements and/or combining oral supplements with injections or transdermal skin patches (21, 22).
Supplements offer a convenient (and often expensive) “solution” to a complex problem. Remember that I mentioned that glutathione is among the most important antioxidants in the body? A deficiency usually indicates deeper health issues.
Oral glutathione supplements don’t work that well. Even if they did, relying on them to solve the problem would be like taking caffeine to overcome chronic fatigue. You’re treating a symptom of the problem – instead of the problem itself.
Supplement manufacturers probably aren’t trying to be manipulative. It’s just easy to latch onto the idea that their products will fix the problem with little effort on your end.
Getting to the root of the issue, however, takes more effort. Instead of trying to ingest as many supplements as possible, you can work to optimize your body for glutathione production.
How to Naturally Boost Your Glutathione Levels
Supplements aren’t a cure-all for a deficiency. Fortunately, there are other things you can do to increase your levels naturally.
Let’s take a look at the diet and lifestyle factors:
Because glutathione is involved in so many biological functions, it interacts with these nutrients regularly. A deficiency in one nutrient can increase the likelihood of a deficiency – it’s all connected.
The following nutrients have been shown to be especially important for adequate glutathione production:
In addition to making sure you get enough of the nutrients above, you can also eat more glutathione-rich foods. Here, though, we again run into the issue of your body not being able to absorb the majority of external glutathione – just like with supplements.
But eating more glutathione-rich foods certainly won’t hurt. If you eat enough of them, you can still raise your levels.
A wide variety of Paleo-friendly foods contain glutathione. If you’re looking for the richest sources around, give these a try:
In addition to the dietary tweaks above, you can streamline your lifestyle to encourage more glutathione production.
It might be time to cut down on your alcohol consumption. We already touched on glutathione’s important relationship with the liver. Research found that chronic alcohol abuse lowers stores of this antioxidant in the liver (27). On the flip side: some people even use glutathione supplements before drinking to prevent hangovers!
Also make sure to exercise. You don’t have to train too hard or every day. But one study found that a moderate exercise regimen increased glutathione intake. A combination of resistance training and cardio led to the highest increase (28). Try circuit training to kill two birds with one stone!
Notice the general trend here: lifestyle changes that are good for your glutathione levels are also good for your health overall.
The Bottom Line
Glutathione is one of the most important antioxidants. It’s so crucial to our health that our bodies make the stuff themselves. This humble molecule can help protect you from oxidative stress – and all the health conditions that come with it.
But raising your levels isn’t as simple as eating glutathione-rich foods or taking a supplement. The relationships between this antioxidant and other aspects of your health are complex.
Our best bet is to do everything we can to optimize our bodies for glutathione production. Then we can let Mother Nature take care of the rest!
Have you ever worried about your glutathione levels before? Tried any supplements? Leave a comment below and share your experience.
(Read This Next: Milk Thistle: Nature’s Detox Plant)