If someone was to ask you to name a compound produced by the body which impacts everything from detoxification of cells to promotion of immune cell function, would you know how to answer? Unfortunately, many people could not. Glutathione may be one of the most useful compounds produced by our bodies, yet it seems to have been largely overlooked outside the medical community in the past. Thankfully, this is changing. As awareness of its importance increases, people have been seeking out glutathione supplementation in hopes of boosting their health and apparent vitality.
Our bodies are complex and rely on many interconnected processes to operate correctly. For example, we have a circulatory system run by our heart which transports many compounds throughout the body via the blood, and a digestive system that breaks down food to obtain nutrients for energy. Like these more apparent functions, we have also evolved highly effective systems of defense against harmful compounds and foreign invaders. It is in this capacity that glutathione does its work.
What work, you might ask? Among several other roles, glutathione’s primary jobs are as follows:
You’ve probably heard of antioxidants before, perhaps in the context of antioxidant-rich foods. But what does an antioxidant actually do? To understand this, we first must understand the concept of free radicals. These are compounds missing half an electron pair (i.e. – a pair of negatively charged particles in an atom) somewhere in their structure. Without both electrons in place, they can be highly reactive; in the body, this can mean damage to DNA, proteins, carbohydrates, or lipids.
Antioxidants are compounds whose structure can effectively neutralize the activity of free radicals. As discussed above, the reduced form of glutathione is abundant in healthy cells and has a hydrogen bond to a sulfur atom in its molecular structure. When a free radical is encountered, the hydrogen atom can be donated from glutathione, thus stabilizing the free radical and preventing cellular damage.
Where do free radicals come from? Well, every day our bodies are under stress, both from our environment and within. Externally, we encounter such sources as smoke, radiation, and pesticides. Internally, some of the byproducts of our complex cellular processes can be harmful, such as is seen in mitochondria, instances of inflammation, even post-exercise. An excess of these stressors can cause what is called oxidative stress in the body, which appears to be linked to many diseases and even aging.
While some foods can be a source of antioxidants, glutathione is one of your body’s natural antioxidants. It is credited with an array of direct antioxidant actions, including neutralizing reactive oxygen and nitrogen products in the body. Beyond this, glutathione also helps facilitate other antioxidant processes in the body and even will work to restore vitamins C and E (antioxidants we take in via food).
While glutathione is an incredible antioxidant, this is not its only function. Scientists have also noted that it plays a big role in supporting our immune system! The immune system is the body’s defense against foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses. We have both an “innate” component and an “adaptive” component to this system. Innate cells are formed from stem cells in the bone marrow and will attack invaders non-specifically; adaptive cells (collectively known as lymphocytes) learn to recognize invaders they have seen before and will seek out and destroy them.
It turns out that our lymphocytes use glutathione as a means of regulating themselves. The concentration of glutathione in these cells has to be optimal; even slight changes can disrupt their function. For example, studies have shown that when one of our lymphocytes known as a “T cell” has its stores of glutathione drastically reduced, its ability to grow and reproduce is likewise reduced. When stores of glutathione were restored, the T cells once again proliferated.
Further research has found that certain T cells known as regulatory T cells will call for decreased production of glutathione. Their purpose is to seek out other T cells that are not functioning correctly (i.e., attacking their own body cells, not invaders) and prevent those T cells from functioning.
It is also worth noting that glutathione’s antioxidant properties also come in handy to the immune system too. Glutathione’s ability to neutralize free radicals can prevent these compounds from wreaking havoc on our immune cells so they can do their job and keep us healthy.
Given all the ways glutathione keeps our body-safe, it should come as no surprise that low levels in the body are associated with a number of poor health outcomes. As mentioned above, oxidative stress is a condition in which the body has too many free radicals and not enough antioxidants. Without glutathione to keep the balance, oxidative stress can lead to disease formation.
Low glutathione is also associated with aging. It appears that sufficient glutathione is needed to maintain mitochondrial DNA integrity, which is directly correlated with a person’s longevity. Further, evidence shows that simply growing older also decreases a person’s level of glutathione in the body. This is quite the depressing feedback loop: as you age you lose glutathione, but losing glutathione also makes you age.
Thankfully, that’s not the end of the story. Studies suggest that raising glutathione levels may actually have a positive impact on certain diseases and effects of low glutathione. But how can a person actually raise their glutathione levels?
It is possible to ingest foods and supplements which promote the production of glutathione in the body. N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC) is one such compound that can deliver cysteine to the body without being destroyed by digestion. Cysteine is needed by the body to make glutathione and is considered “rate-limiting”, meaning once cysteine runs out, no more glutathione can be produced. Other compounds offer similar support in glutathione production or work as similar antioxidants themselves. Many of these compounds can be found in supplement form or in foods. Glutathione foods are those rich in glutathione itself or some precursor compounds like NAC. These include asparagus, avocado, green beans, and spinach.
It is important to eat a diet of glutathione-rich foods and maintain a healthy lifestyle, but often your body still has a deficit of glutathione. An effective way to increase your glutathione levels is to take a daily supplement that helps your body produce glutathione naturally. As the body’s master antioxidant, glutathione regulates oxidative stress and strengthens your immune system. Glutathione supplementation can be an effective way to improve your overall health and well-being as you age.
Immunomodulatory Effects of Glutathione, Garlic Derivatives, and Hydrogen Sulfide, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6412746/
Free radicals, antioxidants, and functional foods: Impact on human health, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3249911/
Overview of the Immune System, https://www.niaid.nih.gov/research/immune-system-overview
Glutathione and Immune Function, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11115795/
Age-related changes in glutathione availability and skeletal muscle carbonyl content in healthy rats, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15036413/
A Review of Dietary (Phyto)Nutrients for Glutathione Support, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6770193/