Oxygen is essential for life, but we forget that it is a highly corrosive gas. Just like iron exposed to air, our bodies rust every time we breathe. The chemical reactions that take place in all our cells produce free radicals and other “reactive oxygen species”, that is, molecules that oxidize us. Aging and death are essentially a process in which, in the end, oxygen wins the game.
Antioxidants: Get Them From Food, Not Pills
Fortunately, our body has a system to compensate for oxidation using, you guessed it, antioxidants. We are well aware of the antioxidant properties of vitamin C or beta carotene, but not so much about the antioxidant that our own body’s own cells produce to protect themselves: glutathione.
Paracetamol and the other enemies of glutathione
Glutathione is a small molecule found in almost every cell in the human body. It is a small protein made up of three amino acids: cysteine, glutamic acid, and glycine. Glutathione participates in the elimination of toxins from cells, the transport of vitamins and minerals, the regulation of the immune system and, above all, in antioxidant protection. Glutathione binds to toxins and free radicals, neutralizing them.
Having low levels of glutathione is bad news, because it means that our body is unprotected against oxidation and aging. A poor diet poor in nutrients, and exposure to toxins such as tobacco, alcohol and environmental pollution, cause levels to drop. Additionally, glutathione also decreases as we age.
Glutathione has other enemies. Paracetamol, a popular pain reliever, is known to reduce its levels, and in case of very high doses of paracetamollack of glutathione can cause asthma.
The low glutathione levels they can cause anemia, fatigue, and muscle weakness, and increase the risk of certain cancers, such as leukemia and lung cancer. As if that were not enough, when glutathione levels drop too neurological problems increasesuch as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s.
Keep in mind that human brain cells consume about 20% of the oxygen used by the body, but constitute only 2% of body weight. This means a lot of oxidation, and a high demand for glutathione.
How to increase your glutathione levels
With all of this said, our first impulse is to run to the pharmacy to ask for glutathione supplements, which are available without a prescription, as it is non-toxic. Unfortunately, this is the best way to get it. Most of the glutathione is broken down into its component amino acids, so the effect would be the same as eating protein. There may be some absorption of intact glutathione from the gut, but it cannot enter cells, as it must be converted to L-cystine (two L-cysteine molecules linked together) before it can be absorbed.
But this gives a clue: if we increase the supply of L-cysteine inside, it increases the synthesis of glutathione. N-acetylcysteine (NAC) supplements are inexpensive and can be purchased without a prescription. However, they seem to be effective only in those cases where glutathione levels are very low. For example, it has been seen to help people with paracetamol overdose to restore your glutathione levelsbut in these cases it cannot be taken for too long without risk.
Like all supplements, they can correct deficiencies, but they do not give superpowers. NAC supplements increase athletic performance and reduce oxidative stress, but only in people who had low glutathione levels.
As oral glutathione is not very effective, it is being given intravenously to sick people where it can improve their symptoms, although the effects are very short term. For example, glutathione injections have been studied for the treatment of people with fatty liver, a symptom of metabolic diseases such as obesity or diabetes, and which can lead to cirrhosis. The glutathione reduced markers of liver damageeven months after treatment, indicating that it managed to protect these patients.
When a person suffers a myocardial infarction, they are treated with thrombolytics that can increase oxidative stress and cause further damage. Intravenous glutathione was also tested in these patients and was found to reduce oxidation levels.
Outside of the research setting, glutathione injections have also become famous for being offered as a treatment to rejuvenate and brighten skin tone. However, there is no evidence that this works, and if there is any effect, it wears off quickly.
Don’t run out of glutathione
With so much trouble getting glutathione into cells, the best way to increase glutathione levels is to remove obstacles to our own body’s production.
- Eliminate sources of oxidative stress such as tobacco, alcohol and other toxins.
- Consume foods rich in sulfur, necessary for the synthesis of glultathione, such as cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, kale, cabbage, cauliflower, watercress, etc).
- Exercise increases glutathione levels and therefore helps to support the immune system, improve detoxification and increase the body’s own antioxidant defenses.
What is all this based on?