Glutathione: Your Body's Defense From Itself!

What is Glutathione?

Functions of Antioxidants

Neutralize/destroy damaging free radicals

Has the potential to help ward off cancer

Protection of the body's cell membrances

Maintains immune system function

Maintains hair, nails, teeth, gums, bones and other connective tissues

Aids in the wound and infection healing process

Prevents damage from UV light, pollutants and open wounds

Other Antioxidant Articles

What Are Antioxidants?

Vitamin C

Vitamin E

Vitamin A and Beta-Carotene



Vitamins and Minerals

About Vitamin Supplements

Water Soluble Vitamins

Thiamine (B1) / Riboflavin (B2)

Niacin (B3) / Pantothenate (B5)

Pyridoxine (B6) / Cobalamin (B12)

Vitamin C / Biotin

Folic Acid

Fat Soluble Vitamins

Vitamin A / Vitamin D

Vitamin E / Vitamin K

Essential Minerals

Iron / Calcium


More Coming Soon!

Contribute your own article!

You may have heard some myths (or maybe reality?) concerning a little molecule known as glutathione. What's the truth? What're the important parts you need to know? Look no further!

glutathione structure

Answer? Gamma-glutamylcysteinylglycine. Did you get that? Take a look at the word again - it's a tripeptide (or three amino acids linked together) containing glutamate, cysteine and glycine. This small molecule is found in most of your body's cells and exists to detoxify hydrogen peroxide and reactive oxygen atoms that are created spontaneously by aerobic metabolism. Let's first understand what aerobic metabolism consists of...

If you read the page on carbohydrate metabolism, you might recall that your body stores complex carbohydrates (from wheat, barley and vegetables) in the form of glycogen in liver and muscle cells. When your body increases its demand for these carbs, like if you were to go for a jog or hit the gym, these stored carbs are broken down into smaller, usable units called glucose 6-phosphate (this is just glucose when a phosphate group attached).

glutathione Glucose 6-phosphate enters glycolysis and follows the normal reaction sequence to produce the body's energy currency: ATP. The creation of ATP occurs using a large complex of related enzymes embedded in the inner mitochondrial membrane. The basic idea is that electrons flow through this system of enzymes via proteins (coenzyme Q, ubiquinone, etc) from NADH which was made from the citric acid cycle. Sometimes, these electrons can leak out and combine with the readily available oxygen, resulting in the dangerous oxygen radicals. These oxygen radicals then go on to react with water to form hydrogen peroxide.

These substances are highly reactive and can cause significant tissue damage! Certain drugs, toxins or environmental pollutants can also cause the formation of these dangerous molecules inside your body. The more you're exposed to these stresses, the more you'll need glutathione to get rid of them successfully.

In the diagram, you'll notice the interconversion of "2 GSH" and "GSSG". What"s going on is that two molecules of reduced glutathione (GSH) are combining together to form one molecule of oxidized glutathione (GSSG) (this reaction involves an enzyme called glutathione reductase). The purpose of this reaction is to convert dangerous oxidizing agents (like oxygen radicals and hydrogen peroxide) into harmless products like water and a molecule of oxygen.

Since this system is activated in the presence of these dangerous particles, the ratio of these two compounds (GSSG and GSH) in each cell can be measured and used to determine a level of GSH activity and toxicity. In normal individuals, the GSSG:GSH ratio is about 1:10. In other words, about 90% of the glutathione in your cells is in the reduced form (GSH) that reacts immediately with the damaging products your body is trying to get rid of. When an increase in GSSG is observed (the oxidized form), this is evidence of increased toxicity and decreased efficiency of the glutathione system.

This is by no means the only way your body rids itself of damaging molecules. There're other nutrients such as vitamin E, vitamin C and beta-carotene that reduce these dangerous oxidizing agents. Eating antioxidant-rich foods, or even taking antioxidant supplements, have been associated with a decreased risk of certain chronic diseases such as cancer. Furthermore, there's an enzymatic system called the Cytochrome P540 System in th eliver that also works to detoxify and remove damaging foreign particles and byproducts from medications, certain food chemicals and free radicals.

What Do Free Radicals Do?

As you know, free radicals (reactive oxygen particles) are extremely reactive. In fact, they'll react with anything and everything in the immediate vicinity. That means nearby cells, tissues, and even organs are at risk of becoming damaged. Problems can arise when this damage becomes too frequent and your body is forced to continuously make new tissues. All these damaged cells are removed and must be replaced!

When your body creates new tissue, this process involves multiple cell divisions along with several rounds of DNA replication. The problem is that each cell in your body has a certain number of times it can replicate before DNA damage occurs. This is called the Hayflick Number...

At the end of each DNA strand, there's a long repeating sequence that works to protect the "coding region" of the DNA strand (a region called the telomere). In each cell division, a short piece of this chain is clipped off. These tiny bits of DNA are then replaced by an enzyme called Telomerase - but the activity of this enzyme decreases with age and number of cell divisions.

In short, the more a cell divides, the closer it gets to the end of its line. And, the closer it gets to the actual DNA coding region, the closer it'll be to damaging itself. This type of damage can release cell signals to keep dividing, resulting in a tumor (cancer).

This is just one scenario, but it's just an example of the extent to which reactive oxygen species can act over time. The more often an area is damaged, the more susceptible it is to developing a tumor later on (by activating oncogenes or deactivating tumor suppressor genes).

You may be thinking, "Well, why don't we just take in telomerase to prevent aging?" It's not that simple. Somehow giving ourselves telomerase will cause cell overgrowth, also resulting in tumors. We'd just be a big tumor blob. There’s no way around aging!

How Else Does The Body Use Glutathione?

Other bodily functions also depend on the presence of glutathione, such as the production of leukotrienes (a part of the immune system) and also flushes out fat-soluble toxins which enter the liver. This is to ensure these toxic chemicals they don't become part of the bile and constantly circulate through the liver and intestine.

Glutathione Supplements

All this talk about free radicals probably gets you thinking a little more about glutathione and, well, antioxidants in general.

You may be wondering if you should be taking some sort of glutathione supplement to make sure you've got the complete ability to remove damaging free radicals and hydrogen peroxide. The trouble with gluathione is that it's not very well absorbed in the intestine. In fact, taking straight glutathione supplements in the form of a pill does nothing to improve the concentration of GSH in your body’s cells. But, remember what GSH is made of? Glutamate, glycine and cysteine... It's actually been found that increasing your intake of cysteine (but not the others) can actually increase the GSH content in cells. A few ways to get this cysteine is through a readily available supplement called N-Acetyl cysteine along with some whey proteins found in organic milk products. The most common (and the one used in studies) is called Immunocol and showed dramatically increased levels of GSH along with increasing muscular performance and recovery. A few other uses of N-Acetyl Cysteine in the medical field are for the treatment of acetaminophen overdose (tylenol) and to thin the mucous of patients with respiratory infections or COPD (the drug is called Mucomyst).

Remember, GSH is made of three amino acids that you normally get in the diet. So, with that said, it's not really necessary to generate it from other sources. Your body will make the stuff! However, increasing GSH levels has been shown to somewhat increase muscular performance, help ward off cancer and other chronic, debilitating diseases generally associated with aging.

Glutathione Deficiency

There are a few ways in which a GSH deficiency may arise (or a low GSH:GSSG ratio)...

  • Alcoholism

  • Acetaminophen overdose

  • Excess Caffeine

  • Drugs

  • Hard Training

  • UV radiation

  • Smoking!!
  • Basically, anything that causes your body to generate more free radicals will cause your body to use up the available GSH more rapidly. With the example of hard training (heck, this is a strength training site), your body is creating a lot of ATP. This means a lot of electrons are being shuttled through the mitochondrial enzyme complexes (see the diagram above to jog your memory).

    Electrons can leak out of the system and react with readily available oxygen (the aerobic fuel for your muscles!). In short, the more you work out, the more damaging free radicals you create! This can overburden the GSH system and cause a deficiency. Just makes sure you’re eating healthy and you should be good to go. Taking glutathione supplements (such as items containing N-Acetyl Cysteine or Immunocol) seems like a good idea at this point - research on this topic is continuous!

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