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Glutathione: the master molecule for detoxification, immune function, energy, and more

By John H. Biggs BSc, NCP - Owner Optimum Health Vitamins                                    Share on Facebook    

Whether you’re talking about offsetting excesses such as alcohol and fat over the holidays or optimizing your strength and energy, recovering from illness, surgery, stress, numerous disease states, or simply maintaining good health, your body’s levels of glutathione are critical.

Ironically, because many find the term “glutathione”, (pronounced ‘gloota-thigh-own’), foreign sounding, people are commonly unfamiliar with it. But with over 89,000 studies attesting to its importance, anyone interested in achieving better health should get to know it. [3]

Glutathione is found in all of our cells. Comprised of the three amino acids cysteine, glutamine, and glycine, it functions as a centrally important antioxidant, and also helps recycle / regenerate other antioxidants such as vitamin C or E. Its antioxidant properties are attributed to its sulfur containing groups and accordingly it has a “sulfury” odor. (It smells like eggs). At the cellular level, the selenium-dependant antioxidant enzyme called “glutathione peroxidise” is ubiquitous throughout the body in different forms, and central to our survival.

The highest tissue levels of glutathione are found in the liver. [1] Here it plays huge roles in deactivating and escorting a wide range of toxins from the body, including the breakdown products from excessive alcohol consumption. [6] (This means adequate levels are important for preventing and or treating hangovers). Other substances that are principally detoxified by Glutathione include acetaminophen, environmental pollutants, and heavy metals, including mercury. [1]

Glutathione also plays critical roles in the mitochondria for energy production. [1] Hence it is necessary for proper oxygen utilization, muscular strength, and has been found helpful in many energy deficit states like chronic fatigue syndrome, and neurodegenerative conditions, most notably Parkinson’s disease. [1,2,4] Low glutathione levels are characteristic of many disease states, including immune deficiency conditions such as HIV and hepatitis, or more short-term infections such as the flu. This is because glutathione is absolutely vital both red and particularly white blood cell function.[1]  http://www.pointofreturn.com/glutathione.html

Like so many other important nutrients, though your body can make its own glutathione, often it is used up faster than you can produce it, and using supplements to increase your body’s production, and/or to replete its stores can pay major health dividends. But this isn’t quite as straight forward as simply taking any glutathione supplement. Though sources are conflicting, it is generally accepted that oral glutathione is very poorly absorbed because the gut breaks it down, and it is not absorbed intact. (see: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1362956?ordinalpos=&itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.SmartSearch&log$=citationsensor )

The exception to this is a supplement that supplies liquid glutathione “wrapped” in phospholipids (i.e.lecithin), which not only protects it from breakdown by the gut, it also enhances the absorption. Such products do have recent supporting clinical evidence that they are absorbed and effective. [5]

Other supplements shown to be effective at raising, and/or sparing and regenerating glutathione,  are NAC (n-acetyl-cysteine), Alpha Lipoic Acid, and the herbs Milk thistle and Schizandra. You can find all these glutathione-boosting compounds along with selenium in a balanced ratio supplement called Opti-Liv Extra, (found at any Optimum Health location). Also, whey protein is commonly used by many practitioners for raising glutathione as it provides all the necessary constituents for the body’s own production. [2].

When someone comes into an emergency ward with acetaminophen, (eg. Tylenol), poisoning, the typical response is to administer intravenous NAC. This quickly repletes glutathione levels, so as to properly detoxify the extremely liver-toxic metabolites that occur with acetaminophen use when glutathione stores run out. (It is important to know that acetaminophen has been identified as the largest cause of liver failure in the U.S.(ref: http://gidiv.ucsf.edu/course/things/Larson.pdf )

Yet some studies have advised caution when using NAC long-term by itself, as it can become reactive, and create its own problematic downstream metabolites. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1952618/?tool=pubmed To offset this result, it is often advised to only use NAC in combination with Alpha Lipoic Acid and Selenium, if not a wider spectrum of antioxidants, and/or herbs, such as Milk Thistle (well known to spare and raise glutathione levels), or the herb Schizandra. (see: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0ISW/is_245/ai_111496970/?tag=content;col1 Glutathione can also be found in a healthy diet in many fruits, vegetables, and meats, though low absorption rates are an issue.

So regardless of whether you are looking to provide immediate short term protection from too much Christmas or New Years cheer, or have a more serious condition you are dealing with, or just want to maintain optimum health, raising your glutathione levels can be extremely important and helpful…all year round

John H. Biggs BSc. NCP



  1. Monograph: Glutathione; Alternative Medicine Review, Thorne Research 2002, p. 184-192
  2. 15th International Symposium on Functional Medicine: The Many Faces of Pain; Institute for Functional Medicine, Carlsbad CA, 2008.
  3. Hyman, Mark ; Essential Glutathione: the mother of all antioxidants; 2011 online article http://drhyman.com/glutathione-the-mother-of-all-antioxidants-504/?utm_source=Publicaster&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=drhyman%20newsletter%20issue%20#45&utm_content=Get+the+story
  4. Leader G, Leader L: Parkinson’s Disease – The way forward; Denor Press, London UK, 2001, p.140-152.
  5. Zeevalk GD, Bernard LP, Guilford FT: Liposomal Glutathione Provides Maintenance of Intercellular Glutathione and Neuro protection in Mesecephalic Neuronal Cells. Neurochem Res, published online June 2010.
  6. Kiefer D: A Little Known Fact: Alcohol is a Carcinogen; Life Extension Magazine; Nov. 2005. online at: http://www.lef.org/magazine/mag2005/nov2005_report_alcohol_02.htm

For further information, please consult the information desk at our 109th street Optimum Health location in Edmonton.