If biochemistry were the stuff of comic books, antioxidants would be superheroes — with glutathione saving the day.
Though few people recognize its importance, glutathione (gloota-THIGH-own) is the most powerful antioxidant in our bodies. This obscure defender of good health works around the clock to fend off nefarious toxins and diseases.
Experts are just now beginning to understand glutathione’s powerful role in the body. They are seeing the connections, for example, between depleted stores of this antioxidant and the likelihood of chronic disease.
And along with increased attention, glutathione is getting newfound respect. “It’s one of the most important compounds in the body for staying healthy,” says Joel Evans, MD, a member of the core faculty at the Institute for Functional Medicine and founder and director of the Center for Women’s Health in Stamford, Conn.
That’s because glutathione is a triple threat to toxins: It neutralizes free radicals, enhances the immune system, and detoxifies the liver.
But some experts worry that glutathione has met its match. Modern life — with refined foods, over-the-counter painkillers, obesity, and sky-high stress levels — robs our bodies of this vital antioxidant.
“If glutathione levels are low, that’s both a reflection of ill health and a cause of ill health,” warns Evans.
Even if you’re doing everything right, aging works against you. Around age 45, our glutathione levels start slipping; they can fall as much as 50 percent below optimal as we age.
But as the comic books say, fear not. There are many steps you can take to restore this antioxidant superhero. And when you do, your immune system will thank you.
How Glutathione Works: The Players
Found in every cell in our bodies, glutathione protects our cells’ energy-producing factories — the mitochondria — from bacteria, viruses, and toxins. Most antioxidants have a short lifespan, sacrificing themselves whenever they wipe out a free radical.
Glutathione is different: It carries enough zip to not only recharge itself but also to resuscitate other spent antioxidants, including vitamins C and E, explains Leslie Fuller, ND, associate dean at the National College of Natural Medicine in Portland, Ore.
Most glutathione is made inside the body from three amino acids: glutamic acid, cysteine, and glycine. Under healthy conditions, our bodies are able to churn out plenty of glutathione to meet our daily needs. But processed foods, caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes, some medications, stress, and environmental toxins deplete the body’s stash.
Archvillain: Free Radicals
Like all superheroes, glutathione has a nemesis — namely, free radicals. These unstable oxygen molecules are missing an electron, so they rip electrons from their neighbors, creating more free radicals. This snowball effect can disrupt a cell’s integrity, causing it to behave abnormally.
Under healthy conditions, the body will repair or destroy the cell. Unfortunately, though, our bodies must contend with an ever-growing onslaught of free radicals that hitchhike into the body on the backs of chemicals in the air, water supply, and food chain.
The cumulative load is called oxidative stress. “Almost every chronic illness known to humankind has been linked in some measure to free-radical-induced tissue damage,” says Lise Alschuler, ND, FABNO, coauthor of The Definitive Guide to Cancer.
1. Toxic Attack
Every breath we take, every calorie we burn, every muscle we use leaves a wisp of free radicals in its wake. They are a natural byproduct of our bodies’ cellular processes. But when bombarded with toxins and free-radical damage from the sun, pollution, poor nutrition, or chronic stress, our bodies can’t keep up. “We are in a situation where our manufacturing and our recycling of glutathione is maxed out,” says neurologist and functional-medicine doctor David Perlmutter, MD, FACN, ABIHM, author of Grain Brain. “We just can’t detoxify fast enough.”
2. Free-Radical Neutralization
Glutathione neutralizes free radicals — and at the same time bolsters the immune system and detoxifies our livers.
3. Antioxidant Reactivation
Glutathione works in tandem with other antioxidants to battle free radicals, but functions as more than just a good teammate. The so-called mother of all antioxidants, it also helps recharge fellow fighters, including vitamins C and E. This recharging superpower makes glutathione extra important in the body’s fight against oxidization.
Found throughout our bodies, glutathione is concentrated in our livers. The body’s primary detox organ, the liver stores nutrients and filters out toxins. But expelling a toxin isn’t easy. Liver enzymes must first convert the toxin into a compound that can be flushed. Then, glutathione grabs hold of the toxin and drags it out of our bodies via our stool or urine.
How Do You Know If You’re Low?
Most doctors don’t routinely test glutathione levels, but Evans suggests it for all his patients: “It’s good to have a baseline, even if you are not sick,” he explains. A simple blood test can tell you whether your glutathione is low; he uses the Genova Diagnostics test. “Any licensed healthcare provider can order it,” he says.
Whether or not you choose to confirm your glutathione levels, it’s a safe bet to assume that you’ll benefit from boosting them — especially if you’re not feeling your best, says Evans.
In truth, most of us could probably use a boost. The average American consumes only 35 milligrams of glutathione per day, says Alschuler, far short of the optimal daily intake of 250 milligrams. “This, coupled with decreasing glutathione production as we age, leaves most of us deficient.”
Some scientists wonder whether low glutathione levels are at least partly to blame for the free-radical-induced illnesses so common beyond middle age, such as Alzheimer’s, cancer, and heart disease. Indeed, research published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that among people with heart disease, those with the least amount of glutathione in their blood were 30 percent more likely to have a heart attack than those with the most glutathione.
Given that high stress levels, past infections, poor diet, excess weight, and exposure to toxins can all nibble away at your body’s glutathione stash, it makes sense to do whatever you can to increase your levels.
The good news: Safeguarding your glutathione levels is fairly straightforward, says Perlmutter (see “8 Ways to Boost Glutathione” below), and “the health implications can be profound.”