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Glutathione - The Master Antioxidant

Age related illnesses, Immune, Liver | July 19, 2018 | Author: Naturopath

Immune, age related, liver

Glutathione - The Master Antioxidant

Glutathione is known as the “master antioxidant” and is produced by every cell of the body. It is a tri-peptide made up of the amino acids glycine, glutamic acid and cysteine. Because it can be formed from these amino acids, glutathione is not considered an essential nutrient in the diet. Instead, glutathione production occurs within the cell, making it a key antioxidant for cellular metabolism, energy production, and more:

  • Aids in the metabolism of drugs and other nutrients
  • Cofactor for many enzymes, including the antioxidant enzyme glutathione peroxidase
  • Required for inflammation signalling
  • Promotes immune function
  • Regenerates other antioxidants like vitamin C and vitamin E
  • Used in at least seven liver detoxification pathways
  • Transports heavy metals such as mercury out of cells
  • Maintains and protects mitochondria for energy production in cells

Reduced versus Oxidised Glutathione

Glutathione exists within the cell in two states – reduced (known as GSH) and oxidised (GSSG). Looking at the molecules, oxidised GSSG appears to be two GSH molecules combined, bound together with two sulphur atoms. The ratio of GSH:GSSG tells a lot about the wellbeing of a cell. High ratios of GSH:GSSG indicate a healthy cell, while cells that are suffering from heavy oxidative stress show a much lower GSH:GSSG ratio. To deliver more GSH to bump up this ratio, the body can either produce more GSH or regenerate the oxidised glutathione back into its reduced state. Both the creation and regeneration of glutathione can only be achieved with the help of vitamin B1. [2]

Glutathione for Detoxification

Glutathione for DetoxificationGlutathione is a major player in healthy liver detoxification and is involved in at least seven reactions within the phase II detox pathways. In its reduced form, GSH, glutathione conjugates (a form of molecular “binding”) with many toxins, drugs and metabolic bi-products in the liver. By conjugating with these nasties, glutathione renders them harmless and then escorts them into bile, through the gall bladder and finally out of the body through the intestines and kidneys.

The liver is able to regenerate its glutathione supply as long as there is adequate amounts of cysteine, niacin and other cofactors available. [2]

 Glutathione may also be a key detoxifying agent in other tissues, beyond the liver. It is able to protect the body against damage from heavy metals such as mercury in three ways:

1. Glutathione binds to the heavy metal and stops it from causing damage to any cells, proteins or tissues.

2. The glutathione-metal complex can be moved through the liver, gall bladder and kidneys to excrete the metal from the body.

3. Glutathione increase the antioxidant capacity of cells, giving them a defence against free radical damage produced by heavy metals. [4]

Glutathione for Immune Health

The immune system needs glutathione to function properly. The master antioxidant is required for the growth and function of white blood cells, including the “presentation” of pathogens to the immune system so that the good guys can identify which bad guys to fight. Low glutathione levels are associated with susceptibility to infection and many conditions including AIDS, COPD, cystic fibrosis, alcoholism and even the flu [6]. Boosting glutathione levels may help in many conditions. For example, increasing glutathione levels has been shown to improve lung capacity and breathing quality in patients with pulmonary fibrosis [5].

Glutathione for Autism Spectrum Disorders

A 2012 systematic review and meta-analysis found that the available data shows that children with autism spectrum disorders are more likely to have low total glutathione levels, and reduced GSH levels with significantly increased GSSG levels, leading to a lower GSH:GSSG ratio – a major indicator of cellular oxidative stress. [3] The reviewers also showed that cysteine levels are often low in children with ASD, too. While these findings are interesting, they don't indicate that glutathione is an effective “treatment” for ASD. Speak to a qualified nutritionist or naturopathic for personalised advice before taking any nutritional or herbal supplements for ASD.

Glutathione for Healthy Ageing

Glutathione for Healthy AgeingMany aspects of ageing may be due to oxidative stress and damage to cellular components such as DNA, telomeres and transcription proteins. As a powerful antioxidant found within the cell, glutathione can protect against this damage.Longevity research has identified a link between glutathione and life span. The more glutathione found in the cells of the body, the longer we are likely to live!

Glutathione can also help with the aesthetics of ageing. A 2017 study found that taking 500mg of supplemental glutathione per day for 12 weeks improved skin quality and significantly reduced wrinkles in healthy women [1].

How to Boost Glutathione

Vitamin C

When it comes to antioxidants, vitamin C and glutathione are a perfect pair. Vitamin C is the most abundant antioxidant in the human body and it has a reciprocal relationship with glutathione – they  regenerate each other from their oxidised forms into the reduced (and active) forms. Vitamin C also helps to boost glutathione levels by attacking free radicals, leaving GSH intact to do other work like conjugating heavy metals and controlling the immune system! Taking at least 500mg of vitamin C per day can boost glutathione levels in the blood [8].

Milk Thistle

St Mary's thistle or Silybum marianum is a traditional detoxifying herbal medicine. The seeds of the thistle are rich in antioxidants and can directly boost levels of glutathione. Studies have shown that silymarin, an active constituent of milk thistle, directly regenerates GSSG into GSH. Bonus – it can also regenerate vitamin C, which in turn boosts glutathione! [10] Milk thistle is available as a herbal tea, or more potent extracts can be taken as a liquid tincture or in capsules and tablets. 

Sulphur-Rich Foods

How to Boost GlutathioneSulphur is needed for glutathione synthesis. It is found in cystine and methionine – two amino acids that are found in abundance in animal meats. But for extra liver support, you want to go the veggie route – opt for cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, kale, watercress and mustard greens for plenty of sulphur and other glutathione cofactors. Studies have shown that these types of veggies quickly boost GSH levels throughout the body [7]!


You've probably caught onto the turmeric craze by now – this bright orange root is rich in antioxidants and powerful constituents such as curcumin. Research shows that curcumin is able to boost glutathione levels in the liver and support the activity of glutathione enzymes, while also doing some of the heavy lifting by quenching free radicals itself [11]. While turmeric is a delicious addition to your daily diet, potent curcumin extracts are probably required for a tangible therapeutic change – speak to a qualified herbalist or naturopath for personalised advice. 

Glutathione Supplements

Dietary sources of glutathione aren't much help – naturally occurring glutathione is not well absorbed during human digestion. Glutathione supplements are currently only available in Australia by prescription. Speak to a health professional a naturopath, nutritionist, or pharmacist for personalised advice and access to glutathione supplements.  Australia’s best online discount chemist


[1] Weschawalit, S., et al. (2017) Glutathione and its antiaging and antimelanogenic effects. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol., 10, 147 – 153.

[2] Pizzorno, J. (2014) Glutathione! Integr Med., 13:1, 8 – 12.

[3] Main, P. A. E., et al. (2012) The potential role of the antioxidant and detoxification properties of glutathione in autism spectrum disorders: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutr Metab Lond., 9, 35.

[4] Patrick, L. (2002) Mercury Toxicity and Antioxidants: Part I: Role of Glutathione and alpha-Lipoic Acid in the Treatment of Mercury Toxicity. Thorne Research., 7:6, 456 – 471.

[5] Demedts, M, et al. (2005) High-dose acetylcysteine in idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. N Engl J Med., 353:2, 2229 – 2242.

[6] Ghezzi, P. (2011) Role of glutathione in immunity and inflammation in the lung. Int J Gen Med., 4, 105 – 113.

[7] Bogaards, J. J., et al. (1994) Consumption of Brussels sprouts results in elevated alpha-class glutathione S-transferase levels in human blood plasma. Eur J Clin Nutr., 65:8, 972 – 977.

[8] Johnston, C. S., et al. (1993) Vitamin C elevates red blood cell glutathione in healthy adults. Am J Clin Nutr., 58:1, 103 – 105.

[9] Lenton, K. J., et al. (2003) Vitamin C augments lymphocyte glutathione in subjects with ascorbate deficiency. Am J Nutr., 77:1,

[10] Surai, P. F. (2015) Silymarin as a Natural Antioxidant: An Overview of the Current Evidence and Perspectives. Antioxidants (Basel.), 4:1, 204 – 217.

[11] Lee, H. Y., et al. (2016) Turmeric extract and its active compound, curcumin, protect against chronic CCl4-induced liver damage by enhancing antioxidation. BMC Complement Altern Med., 16:1, 316.

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