Since it was discovered in 1888, Glutathione has been the subject of some 150,000 studies. Scientists have found that glutathione plays many important functions and is as critical to human health as food or water.
Why is glutathione so important?
Glutathione is your body’s most powerful antioxidant. You may have heard the term “antioxidant” before, and maybe you know that you need them to stay healthy, but what are they really? Antioxidants are cellular guardians that protect your body against toxins called free radicals — molecules that are created when your body processes foods and other substances such as alcohol and pollutants. Without enough antioxidants, free radicals build up in your body and can some serious damage to your cells. That damage is called oxidative stress.
Glutathione is the most efficient antioxidant for neutralizing those harmful free radicals, but when your body is under significant stress — either physical stress from intense exercise, toxins from food or drink, or medications it’s struggling to detoxify from your system — its supply of glutathione is quickly depleted as it races to clear your system of free radicals. However, if you’re not providing your body with enough amino acids in an easily digestible form, then your body will struggle to recycle its used-up glutathione and you won’t have any more available to neutralise those toxins.
Glutathione supports three key bodily functions that are essential for your health:
1. It keeps your energy powerhouses working at full capacity
Glutathione protects the mitochondria from damaging oxidative stress, which is important because the mitochondria are the organelle in your cells responsible for making all of your energy. These usually only contain low levels of glutathione, as they use most of it to remove free radicals. Because mitochondria can’t make their own glutathione, they must import it from other cells that can — this uses up a lot of energy (ATP) to carry the glutathione across the mitochondrial membrane.
That’s why it’s super important to keep your glutathione levels up — your mitochondria need to stay protected, so they can continue to manufacture ATP. Your mitochondria also use glutathione in the production of ATP, so they require a steady supply in order to continue that vital process.
2. It helps detoxify your liver
As the biggest reservoir of glutathione (the kidneys and red blood cells also store the antioxidant), the liver exports the antioxidant to other organs, and uses it to detoxify your body waste products and heavy metals. Many of these toxins are fat-soluble, not water-soluble, so your body can’t easily get rid of them.
Glutathione assists the liver in the detoxification process by neutralizing the free radicals around the toxins, making them less harmful. In doing this, glutathione helps reduce the risk of liver damage (5).
However, in aiding the detoxification process, glutathione is depleted, which is why it is so important for your body to have consistent glutathione levels.
3. It removes imbalances that can damage your DNA and cell communication systems
The instigator of oxidative damage is an imbalance between antioxidants and harmful free radicals; an increased number of free radicals in your system inflicts serious damage on your cells that can interfere with your DNA, and the system your cells use to communicate to the rest of your body. As an antioxidant, consistent glutathione levels relieve that imbalance, therefore preventing potential damage to the DNA (4).
Glutathione neutralises the harmful free radical by donating a spare electron (the smallest particle that makes up an atom) to the molecule, binding it and preventing it from causing any further damage (5). Amazingly, glutathione can then recycle itself back into its active form so it is capable of neutralizing more free radicals, which is why it is such a vital protector of our cells.
Another of glutathione’s unique qualities is its ability to recycle other antioxidants such as vitamin C, vitamin E and alpha-lipoic acid — these antioxidants can’t recycle themselves, so glutathione donates spare electrons to them, too, to help recycle them for further use in fighting oxidative stress. It is this regulation of other antioxidants that has earned glutathione the title of The Master Antioxidant.
What do stress and a poor diet do to your glutathione levels?
Your glutathione levels can be depleted by numerous forms of stress, including mental, physical and metabolic. When you don’t have enough glutathione in your system, free radicals can cause further cell damage beyond damage caused by the initial stressors, and the resulting oxidative stress can suppress an important process called apoptosis (this is normal, controlled cell death) (3), which could lead to a rapid growth of cancerous cells. Oxidative stress caused by glutathione depletion has also been linked to aging and numerous chronic and degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, heart attacks, cancer, liver diseases and hearing loss.
Common activities that can reduce your glutathione levels
- A western diet high in fat, sugar, grains and processed foods (7,8)
- Stress caused by the release of adrenaline and cortisol
- Poor sleep
- Oxidative medications including chemotherapy (9)
- Alcohol consumption
- Environmental toxins from exhaust fumes, pesticides and industrial waste
- Free radicals created by intense physical exercise and high energy burn (but regular exercise is still good for you, as we’ll explain later!)
Your glutathione levels can be depleted by many modern activities that we consider normal, and are likely part of your everyday routine. When our daily lives contribute so many toxins to our system that deplete our glutathione levels, while also requiring glutathione to detoxify them, you’re bound to throw up your hands and ask, “how am I supposed to fix this?”
How do you boost your glutathione levels?
Almost all of your cells can make glutathione naturally, but they need the right fuel. Here are some of the steps you can take to support your cells’ production of glutathione.
Moderate exercise increases glutathione levels and your number of muscle mitochondria (11). Research shows that a mixture of aerobics and weight training is the best way to raise glutathione levels, although even activities like meditation can help (3).
Note: Intense exercise and overtraining can lead to a depletion of glutathione and oxidative stress. Elite athletes and highly active individuals are at further risk of glutathione depletion and should take further measures to support glutathione levels.
Any food rich in glutathione, its building blocks (amino acids cysteine, glutamate and glycine), or anything else used in its production, can help you raise your glutathione levels. It is best to eat raw foods, as cooking destroys much of glutathione’s functionality.
Foods to include in your diet:
A whey-rich diet can boost your glutathione levels
Scientific studies have found that a diet rich in native, undenatured whey leads to significantly higher liver and heart glutathione levels compared to normal or casein-rich diets. Whey-rich diets are also linked to increased longevity (13), while clinical trials in cancer, HIV, hepatitis B, and heart disease have shown benefits in using whey (3, 9).
Undenatured whey gives you the highest concentration of peptides and intact precursors:
- Cystine — bonded cysteine molecules, vital for glutathione production
- Methionine — necessary for sulphur production
- Lactoferrin — an antioxidant that helps your body fight off bacterial infections, and plays a key role in gut health and immune support (3,9)
Glutathione is a widely versatile antioxidant that plays major roles in several of our body’s most important processes, but keeping your levels up isn’t as simple as eating the right foods — especially if your lifestyle puts you at the mercy of daily toxins and stressors. Adding an undenatured whey supplement to your daily routine could increase your glutathione levels and proactively safeguard against the development of numerous potential issues, from chronic disease, to sports-related injuries, to visible signs of aging like wrinkles.
Are supplements an effective way of increasing glutathione levels?
Most oral glutathione supplements are not effective, as the vast majority of this type of whole glutathione is broken down and oxidised in the gut, and therefore cannot be utilised by our cells.
Rather, it is more effective to provide your body with the building blocks it needs to manufacture its own glutathione: amino acids. Not only is this the most effective way of increasing glutathione levels, it also encourages your body’s natural processes by kickstarting its innate glutathione production.
The most efficient way of providing these amino acids is by adding a complete protein supplement to your diet. Because cysteine is the most critical building block for glutathione production, you’ll want to make sure the protein is plentiful in cystine. The precursor to cysteine, cystine is made up of two cysteine molecules and is much easier for your body to utilize, as it stays intact during digestion (12).
The Mother of All Antioxidants
If you had to pick one antioxidant to protect your cells, it has to be glutathione. As MD Mark Hyman describes, it is the 'mother of all antioxidants' – with a proven ability to boost your athletic performance, combat aging, and increase your longevity by fighting oxidative stress. However, we all need to take proactive measures to maintain healthy levels of glutathione in our bodies before we see the effects of oxidative damage. Adding an undenatured, native whey protein supplement is an effective method of naturally increasing your glutathione levels.
- Nuttall, S., Martin, U., Sinclair, A., Kendall, M. (1998). Glutathione: in sickness and in health. Lancet, 351(9103), p. 645-646.
- Forman, H., Zhang, H., Rinna, A. (2009). Glutathione: overview of its protective roles, measurement, and biosynthesis. Molecular aspects of medicine, 30(1-2), p. 1-12.
- Pizzorno, J. (2014). Glutathione! Integrative medicine, 13(1), p. 8-12.
- https://www.foundationalmedicinereview.com/blog/a-closer-look-at-the-benefits-of-glutathione-supplementation/ accessed May 15th 2019.
- Kidd, P. (1997) Glutathione: Systemic Protectant Against Oxidative and Free Radical Damage Dedicated to the memory of Professor Daniel Mazia, my PhD mentor and a pioneer in cell biology. Alternative Medicine Review x, 2.
- Van Konynenburg, R (2016): Theory of Glutathione Depletion and Methylation Blockade in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome [online] accessed May 15th 2019
- Wu, G., Fang, Y., Yang, S., Lupton, J., Turner, N. (2004). Glutathione Metabolism and Its Implications for Health. The Journal of Nutrition, 134(3), p. 489-492.
- https://articles.mercola.com/vitamins-supplements/glutathione.aspx accessed May 15th 2019.
- Marshall, K. (2004). Therapeutic applications of whey protein. Alternative Medicine Review, 9(2), p. 136-157.
- Erden-Inal, M., Sunal, E., Kanbak, G. (2002). Age-related changes in the glutathione redox system. Cell Biochemistry and Function, 20(1), p. 61-66.
- Elokda, A., Nielsen, D. (2007). Effects of exercise training on the glutathione antioxidant system. Eur J Cardiovasc Prev Rehabil, 14(5), p.630-637.
- Winter, A., Ross, E., Daliparthi, V., Sumner, W., Kirchhof, D., Manning, E., Wilkins, H., Linseman, D. (2017). A Cystine-Rich Whey Supplement (Immunocal®) Provides Neuroprotection from Diverse Oxidative Stress-Inducing Agents In Vitro by Preserving Cellular Glutathione. Oxidative medicine and cellular longevity, 2017, Article ID 3103272.
- Bounous, G., Gervais, F., Amer, V., Batist, G., Gold, P. (1989). The Influence of Dietary Whey Protein on Tissue Glutathione and the Diseases of Ageing. Clinical and Investigative Medicine, 12(6), p. 343-349.