Published: January 29, 2018 Healthy Living
Glutathione is a relatively unknown molecule in human health. This is surprising, given that it is such a powerful substance, so much so that numerous nutritional experts from both conventional and alternative viewpoints champion its importance for both the prevention and resolution of chronic disease.
Chris Masterjohn PhD, well known in the traditional foods community, has been singing its praises for a number of years, describing it as “ever the underdog, few people have heard of this molecule, yet it supports nearly every aspect of our health.” (1)
That is some introduction for a relatively obscure antioxidant! What is the big deal about glutathione, frequently referred to as “the mother of all antioxidants” or “the master antioxidant”? Why is it more potent than other antioxidants? How can we get more of it in our diets either via whole foods or supplementation? Are there downsides or side effects to ramping up intake to reap its many health benefits?
Let’s explore this crucial antioxidant in detail that can actually kill you if levels get too low ….
As mentioned above, glutathione (GSH) is an important antioxidant found everywhere in the plant and animal kingdoms. Like other antioxidants, it prevents or helps repair cellular damage from free radicals. In addition, it is protective of important cellular components vulnerable to exposure from rancid fats and heavy metals.
From a structural point of view, GSH is a tri-peptide. Peptides contain amino acids, the building blocks of protein. Specifically, the unusual peptide bonds between the amino acids glutamic acid, cysteine, and glycine (best found in homemade bone broth) form GSH.
GSH is unique in that it plays a crucial role in protecting us from a wide variety of substances that can do significant damage to our tissues Those suffering from many chronic diseases such as AIDS, advanced diabetes, and cancer have very low levels, hence the obvious importance in human health and why researchers continue to study it. (2)
Sometimes you will come across the term “reduced glutathione” in scholarly articles or on supplement labels. While the name implies reduced GSH levels or potency, this is not accurate.
Ironically, “reduced” glutathione is the most ideal form of GSH – stable, effective, and absorbable.
The Liver Produces GSH
While many foods contain [reduced] glutathione (more on that below), an important and frequently overlooked source is the liver. This vital organ has the ability to make glutathione, and LOTS of it, as it is essential for proper detoxification. It is also responsible for recycling GSH for later use.
Hence, optimal liver function is very important to maintaining glutathione levels in the body. Coffee enemas stimulate the liver to increase GSH production by as much as 700%, which is why it is a widely used therapy for rapid detoxification in some holistic cancer treatment protocols.
Chris Masterjohn notes other GSH benefits including:
By helping cells grow, multiply, and repair themselves, it supports growth in children, helps you heal after injury, and helps you get fit in response to exercise. In the lungs, it keeps mucus fluid, preventing congestion, and it opens up the airways, preventing asthma. (3)
There is a lot of research to support such a stellar report card for this little molecule too, so its benefits are not at all theoretical, but on solid ground in the scientific realm.
There are a lot of reasons someone may benefit from increasing glutathione intake via food or supplementation.
Numerous illnesses and conditions deplete our glutathione stores and can reduce our ability to recycle it. So does chronic stress.
Illness and infections also increase the need for it. Not surprisingly, smoking and excessive alcohol consumption reduce GSH levels.
Obviously, any sort of digestive impairment could play a role in glutathione deficiency. When food is not digested properly, then it is difficult to optimally experience its full nutritive benefits.
Some genetic conditions increase our need for glutathione or impair the liver’s ability to synthesize and recycle it. Some medications can do the same or even deplete or hamper the body’s ability to absorb it. In particular, oral contraceptive pills (OCP) appear to stimulate or reduce glutathione levels in the body. Researchers postulate that this is likely due to the free radicals produced during metabolism of the Pill which provokes the activity of antioxidant enzymes. (4)
Exposure to toxins, including mold and potentially even fungal infections or systemic candida, increase the biological need for GSH. As we age, levels tend to decrease as well.
Carb restricted diets also reduce glutathione levels and impair its recycling by our bodies. This is a very important and frequently overlooked aspect by those who choose to pursue Paleo or Keto type diets particularly over long periods of time.
In a nutshell, there are a LOT of things that can increase the need for dietary or supplemental glutathione to optimally support GSH absorption, metabolism, and recycling.
Good news! There appears to be no downside or risk to glutathione supplementation other than the expense. Furthermore, it appears to have no known contradictions or drug interactions. However, if you have a chronic condition or are on medications, make sure you check with your doctor first before commencing a GSH supplement regimen. (5)
Also, supplementation need not continue indefinitely. For example, start with regular dosing and if your health improves as levels increase, start to back off. Once GSH levels improve, you can slowly reduce supplementation to serve as a support as long as you continue to observe benefits.
If you desire, measuring GSH levels is possible, but the testing is fairly expensive. You can find out more about testing glutathione levels in this article.
Oral glutathione: does it actually get absorbed?
There are conflicting opinions on this question, but at this time, the best answer appears to be yes. While some oral GSH is not absorbed particularly well, the price difference between better absorbing GSH supplements is generally more than offset by their higher cost. In other words, go for quality especially if you suffer from a digestive complaint that may impair nutrient assimilation.
Chris Masterjohn’s take on oral GSH:
Scientists have shown that oral glutathione is absorbed intact in laboratory animals, and that glutathione crosses human intestinal cells intact. They have identified some of the transporters involved, and have shown that oral glutathione increases glutathione status in both animals and humans. (6)
How to Get More Glutathione in Your Diet
High protein whole foods such as meat are the best sources of glutathione. Plant foods high in this anti-oxidant include buckwheat and quinoa.
These high GSH dietary sources come with important caveats. First, canning completely degrades glutathione in fruits and vegetables. Even simply cooking fruits and vegetables reduces it substantially with studies showing losses between 30-60%. (7)
Method and length of cooking also appear to matter, so the longer and hotter a food is cooked, the more glutathione is lost.
As someone who loves the Insta-Pot, I do wonder what impact pressure cooking has on glutathione in my family’s diet. As of this writing, I couldn’t find any reliable information one way or another.
I would assume that vegetables and fruits cooked in an Insta-pot would lose all their glutathione, whereas meats would possibly keep similar levels to other methods of cooking, since the time is shortened even though the pressure is higher. But again, I do not know this with certainty and am just trying to extrapolate from the current body of published research.
Juicing, Fermented and Other Methods of Food Processing
Other types of processing, like juicing, reduces GSH substantially in fruits and vegetables. This is surprising, as the juice remains raw and is cold processed. Blanching and even freezing also reduces GSH in food. (8)
Hence, it is important to consume fresh, completely unaltered raw fruits and vegetables in their natural form to ensure adequate dietary intake of GSH! Fermenting foods appears to preserve or even enhance glutathione in some cases.
Cooking meat has only a moderate impact on glutathione levels, so it isn’t as crucial to consume meat raw like it is for some fruits and vegetables. It appears freezing doesn’t negatively impact GSH in meat like it does for plants. (9)
Supporting Healthy GSH Levels
There are a number of other compounds in foods and supplements that can help support glutathione metabolism, recycling, and levels.
Compounds such as N-acetylcysteine (NAC) and alpha lipoic acid (ALA – unrelated to alpha-linolenic acid) are both capable of helping to regenerate glutathione levels.
NAC, an amino acid, is commonly used to treat overdose of acetaminophen (Tylenol), a type of potentially fatal liver poisoning, which can deplete glutathione levels to dangerously low levels. It is also an effective disruptor of pathogenic microbial biofilms for those suffering from gut imbalance.
What Depletes Glutathione
Unfortunately, while we can get glutathione from foods and supplements, we can also end up consuming or doing things in our home environment that rob it from us! These are called glutathione-reactive substances. Obviously, poor diet from processed foods whose metabolism spikes free radical production will deplete GSH. But many other lifestyle factors impair optimal levels in the body including: (6)
- Overly strenuous, regular exercise such as training for or running a marathon.
- Light pollution (near infrared saunas which provides both heat and light therapy can help mitigate these difficult to avoid effects).
- Acetaminophen (Tylenol) and other pharmaceuticals such as birth control pills
- Acetone, solvents, paint removers (nail polish and nail polish remover!)
- Heavy metals such as aluminum, lead and mercury (dental amalgams, vaccines, tattoos etc)
- Pesticides, herbicides, and exposure via highly sprayed nonorganic foods
- Nitrates and other food preservatives of chemical origin (in salami, hot dogs, ham, bologna, smoked foods, etc.);
- Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame (Nutrasweet)
- Synthetic food dyes
- Benzopyrenes (tobacco smoke, BBQ foods, fuel exhaust, etc.)
- Household chemicals (synthetically scented and colored detergents and fabric softeners, air fresheners, mothballs, mildew removers, cleaners and bleach, lawn and plant fertilizers, etc.)
- Houseware chemicals (non-stick coating of pans and skillets, plastic containers and linings of tin cans and other food packaging);
- Formaldehyde and styrene (photocopiers and toner printers)
- Chlorine in unfiltered municipal water and swimming pools
- Medical and dental X-rays
- Excessive UV radiation
- Electromagnetic fields (EMFs)
- Industrial pollutants
Recommended GSH Supplements
From reading a number of articles and studies, my best suggestion if you feel the need to supplement with glutathione is Jarrow brand. Some people may benefit from a high quality sublingual GSH supplement, but note these are significantly more expensive, even if better absorbed. If you have a digestive issue which compromises absorption, this may be the best choice.
John Moody is the director of Steader, author, speaker, farmer, homesteader, and Real Food activist. Most importantly, he is husband to an amazing wife and five awesome kids. John speaks nationally at a wide range of events, along with writing for numerous publications and consulting for farmers, homesteaders, and food businesses. He has two books forthcoming.