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Glutathione: The mother of all antioxidants...

Posted Sep 17 2008 12:12am 2 Comments

It's the most important molecule you need to stay healthy and prevent disease -- yet you've probably never heard of it.

It's the secret to prevent aging, cancer, heart disease, dementia, and more, and necessary to treat everything from autism to Alzheimer's disease.

There are more than 76,000 medical articles about it -- but your doctor doesn't know how address the epidemic deficiency of this critical life-giving molecule.

What is it?

I'm talking about the mother of all antioxidants, the master detoxifier and maestro of the immune system.

It is GLUTATHIONE (pronounced "gloota-thigh-own").

The good news is that your body produces its own glutathione.

The bad news is that poor diet, pollution, toxins, medications, stress, trauma, aging, infections, and radiation all deplete your glutathione.

This leaves you susceptible to unrestrained cell disintegration from oxidative stress and free radicals, and to infections and cancer.  And your liver gets overloaded and damaged, making it unable to do its job of detoxification.

Then what happens?

Well, let me tell you what I've learned.

In treating chronically ill patients with Functional Medicine for more than 10 years, I have discovered that glutathione deficiency is found in nearly all very ill patients.

These include people with chronic fatigue syndrome, heart disease, cancer, chronic infections, autoimmune disease, diabetes, autism, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, arthritis, asthma, kidney problems, liver disease, and more. 

At first I thought that this was just a coincidental finding, but over the years I have come to realize that our ability to produce and maintain a high level of glutathione is critical to recovery from nearly all chronic illness -- and to preventing disease and maintaining optimal health and performance. 

And so have the authors of 76,000 medical articles on glutathione!

==>  So what exactly is glutathione?

Glutathione is a very simple molecule that is produced naturally all the time in your body. 

It is a combination of three simple building blocks of protein or amino acids -- cysteine, glycine, and glutamine. 

The secret of its power is the sulfur (SH) chemical groups it contains.  Sulfur is a sticky, smelly molecule.  It acts like fly paper and all the bad things in the body stick onto it, including free radicals and toxins like mercury and other heavy metals.

Normally glutathione is recycled in the body -- except when the toxic load becomes too great.  And that explains why we are in such trouble.   

In my practice, I test the genes involved in glutathione metabolism. These are the genes involved in producing enzymes that allow the body to create and recycle glutathione in the body. 

These genes have many names, such as GSTM1, GSTP1, and more.  

So why are these genes impaired in some people?

Well, humans evolved in a time before the 80,000 toxic industrial chemicals of today were introduced into our world, before electromagnetic radiation was everywhere, and before we polluted our skies, lakes, rivers, oceans, and teeth with mercury and lead.

That is why most people survived with just the basic version of the genetic detoxification software encoded in our DNA, which is mediocre at ridding the body of toxins. 

We just didn't need more.

Who knew we would be poisoning ourselves and eating a processed, nutrient-depleted diet?

Because of this, almost of half of the population now has a limited capacity to get rid of toxins -- they are missing GSTM1 function. 

Nearly all my very sick patients (including me, which is why I became mercury poisoned and suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome) are missing this function. This is the one-third of our population that suffers from chronic disease.

==>  So why is glutathione so important?

Glutathione recycles antioxidants. 

You see, dealing with free radicals is like handing off a hot potato.  They get passed around from vitamin C to vitamin E to lipoic acid and then finally to glutathione which cools off the free radicals and recycles the other antioxidants. 

Then the body can "reduce" or regenerate another protective glutathione molecule.  And we are back in business.

The problem occurs when we are overwhelmed with too much oxidative stress or too many toxins. 

Then the glutathione becomes depleted, leading us toward illness. 

We can no longer protect ourselves against free radicals, infections, or cancer and we can't get rid of toxins, leading to further sickness.

But that's not all.

Glutathione is also critical in helping your immune system do its job of fighting infections and preventing cancer.  That's why studies show that it can help in the treatment of AIDS.

Glutathione is also the most critical and integral part of your detoxification system.  All the toxins stick onto glutathione, which then carries them into the bile and the stool -- and out of your body.

And lastly, it also helps us reach peak mental and physical function. Research has shown that raised glutathione levels decrease muscle damage, reduce recovery time, increase strength and endurance, and shift metabolism from fat production to muscle development.

If you are sick or old or are just not in peak shape, you likely have glutathione deficiency.  

In fact, the top British medical journal, "The Lancet," found the highest glutathione levels in healthy young people, lower levels in healthy elderly, lower still in sick elderly, and the lowest of all in the hospitalized elderly. (i)

Keeping yourself healthy, boosting your performance, preventing disease and aging well depends on keeping your glutathione levels high.

I'll say it again.

Glutathione is so important because it is responsible for keeping so many of the keys to UltraWellness optimized. 

It is critical for immune function and controlling inflammation.  It is the master detoxifier and the body's main antioxidant, protecting our cells and making our energy metabolism run well. 

Now, the good news.

==>  You can do many things to increase this natural and critical molecule in your body.

You can eat glutathione-boosting foods.

You can exercise.

You can take glutathione-boosting supplements.


* Sulfur-rich foods. The main ones in the diet are garlic, onions, and the cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, kale, collards, cabbage, cauliflower, watercress, etc.).

* Bioactive whey protein. This is great source of cysteine and the amino acid building blocks for glutathione synthesis.  As you know I am not a big fan of dairy. But this is an exception -- with a few warnings.  The whey protein MUST be bioactive and made from non-denatured proteins (denatured means the breakdown of the normal protein structure).  Choose non-pasteurized and industrially produced milk that contains no pesticides, hormones, or antibiotics.  Immunocal is a prescription bioactive non-denatured whey protein that is even listed in the Physician's Desk Reference.


* Exercise boosts your glutathione levels and thereby helps boost your immune system, improve detoxification, and enhance your body's own antioxidant defenses.  Start slow and build up to 30 minutes a day of vigorous aerobic exercise like walking or jogging, or play various sports.  Strength training for 20 minutes 3 times a week is also helpful.


It would be easy just to take glutathione as a pill. But the body digests protein -- and you don't get the benefits.  The production and recycling of glutathione in the body also requires many different nutrients.

Here are the main supplements that need to be taken consistently to boost glutathione. 

(In fact, besides taking a multivitamin and fish oil, supporting my glutathione levels is the most important thing I do every day for my health.)

* N-acetyl-cysteine. This has been used for years to help treat asthma and lung disease and to treat people with life-threatening liver failure from Tylenol overdose. In fact, I first learned about it in medical school and while working in the emergency room.  It is even given now to prevent kidney damage from dyes used during x-ray studies. 

* Alpha lipoic acid. This is a close second to glutathione in importance in our cells and is involved in energy production, blood sugar control, brain health, and detoxification.  The body usually makes it, but given all the stresses we are under, we often become depleted.

* Methylation nutrients (folate, vitamins B6 and B12). These are perhaps the most critical to keep the body producing glutathione.  Methylation and the production and recycling of glutathione are the two most important biochemical functions in your body (see my blogs on methylation for more details).  Take folate (especially in the active form of 5 methyltetrahydrofolate), B6 (in active form of P5P), and B12 (in the active form of methylcobalamin). 

* Selenium. This important mineral helps the body recycle and produce more glutathione. 

* A family of antioxidants including vitamins C and E (in the formed of mixed tocopherols), work together to recycle glutathione.

* Milk thistle (silymarin) has long been used in liver disease and helps boost glutathione levels.

So follow this plan, and see how it works for you.

Now I'd like to hear from you...

Had you ever heard of this important nutrient before?

Have you tried any of the advice in this article?

What effects have you noticed on your health?

Please click on the Add a Comment button below to share your thoughts.

To your good health,

Mark Hyman, M.D.

Comments (2)
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I have been using glutathione in the form of whey for 11 months now.  My body is changing in shape continuously as I stored a lot of fat before.  It is very exciting to be experiencing the lean muscle.  My memory is better, my skin is less dry and my body aches less.  I have experienced high levels of stress in my life and I am not in optimal health yet but much improved.  Can one get too much glutathione in the body?  My age is 54.  Jeannette H

Thanks for the great information about glutathione.

 I have recently begun taking a proprietary supplement called MaxONE. The patented ingredient is "riboceine" which is "300% more effective than NAC in raising liver glutathione levels." A friend who got sucked into their multi-level marketing pyramid gave them to me because he knows I've been struggling with poor health and was recently diagnosed as having one of the MTHFR gene variations for poor methylation. I can't tell the difference since taking it. Well, actually, something is making me feel worse (brain fog, exhaustion, headache) but it may not be this new supplement. After carefully going through my supplements, I realized that I had confused my B6-P5P with something else, so I wasn't getting that for a couple weeks outside my multi and my B complex.

One thing I've noticed is that when I take anything that up-regulates my methylation cycle, I can start suffering from the depletion of another nutrient. For instance, when I started taking l-tyrosine, I started having cramps in my legs and feet. I think it increased methylation which sucked out all my magnesium. One of the early signs of this syndrome was pernacious (B12) anemia and corresponding increased MCV.

I take all the supplements you mention and also find zinc and magnesium to be helpful. Exercise is critical to my survival, as is a strict gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free diet (all sweeteners except stevia, not even fruit). I recently gave up alcohol (which I miss very much) but I just wasn't getting better. I also have a genetic gluten sensitivity and hypothyroidism (Hashimoto's) which does not respond very well to treatment and mercury toxicity (done about ten IV chelations but it wasn't working) and suspect yeast overgrowth. My six year old son has been diagnosed with chronic arsenic exposure (we haven't tested for stored heavy metals because his yeast overgrowth is too daunting to use DMSA) and also has inherited my genes for the gluten sensitivity and the poor methylation (I have two copies of each). My son's behavior is affected, although he's responded well to targeted amino acid therapy and methylation support (not really sure which is helping most). We are currently doing slow, gentle chelation with cracked cell chlorella and cilantro. If you have any thoughts or advice, I can use all the help I can get!

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