What is Glutathione? The 'Master Antioxidant' and What it Does for You
Glutathione is a tripeptide, which means it is constructed out of three separate amino acids. These amino acids are cysteine, glutaminic acid and glycine. Glutathione is the most important of all the antioxidants that are produced in the body and this makes it a potent agent for combating free radicals and peroxides.
It also has a number of additional functions all its own, which include:
- Maintaining vitamin C and E
- Regulating the production of hydrogen peroxide
- Neutralizing lipid peroxide by-products
- Assisting in removing unwanted toxins from the body
What is an Antioxidant?
To answer what is glutathione, first we should look at what an antioxidant is in general. Antioxidant is a broad term that describes substances that prevent oxidation in the body. Oxidation happens when molecules called free radicals collide with the cell walls and trigger a reaction. This reaction damages the cell walls and over time, this can actually add up to result in physical changes such as wrinkles and age spots.
But what’s more worrying is that these ‘free radicals’ can eventually completely penetrate the cell walls and make their way into the central nucleus. Here, they might come into contact with the DNA and cause damage to the very code that underlies our cells. This can lead to unwanted mutations occurring, which are then copied and repeated as the cell splits through mitosis. As this area grows, this is what causes a cancerous tumor and this is why it is so important that we use antioxidants.
Antioxidants work by neutralizing the unwanted free radicals. This may mean that they render them inert on contact, or it might mean that they are less likely to be produced in the first place. On top of this, antioxidants can provide a range of other useful benefits, such as combating inflammation and even improving athletic performance!
Where Does Glutathione Come From?
But that still doesn’t answer ‘what is glutathione’. So where does this mysterious substance come from? Specifically, glutathione is synthesized in the body, meaning that you don’t need to get it from your diet.
However, what you do need is the amino acids that the substance is made from. Specifically, that means you need l-cysteine, l-glutamic acid and glycine. The biggest limiting factor here though is cysteine, which is relatively hard to find in your food.
I know what you’re thinking: ‘well, I’ll just take it as a supplement!’. Not so fast, as it turns out that cysteine is actually toxic when taken as a free amino acid and also gets destroyed in the gastrointestinal tract and blood plasma.
So where can you get glycine? The best options are dairy, fish, meat and cheese. However, you can also get it from soybeans, beans, spinach, pumpkin, kale and cauliflower.
Benefits of Glutathione
The real benefit of glutathione then is that it is not just an antioxidant but actually one of the most powerful antioxidants. This is sometimes described as the ‘master antioxidant’ in that it is so powerfully effective at keeping things running well as to be essentially more important than all other types of antioxidant.
Glutathione has a ton of additional benefits, including:
- Strengthening the immune system to reduce the likelihood of sick days and of all illnesses and diseases.
- Improving energy levels and endurance exercise abilities
- Detoxifying the body of unwanted toxins
- Improving the rate of cellular repair
- Slowing down the ageing process
- Boosting brain function
- Improving the mood
What Might Reduce Glutathione Levels
The first thing you want to do to get more glutathione in your body is to eat the fish, beans and cauliflower that will provide you with the glycine. As long as you are getting that in your diet, you should have no trouble producing all the glutathione you could need.
But at the same time as boosting the amount of glutathione, you should also be focussed on avoiding things that can actually diminish it. Just a few things that can cause your glutathione levels to drop include:
- Acetaminophen and other medications
- Solvents, paint removers, fuels and fumes
- Benzopyrenes from tobacco smoke and BBQs
- Housewares such as plastic containers, non-stick pans
- Formaldehyde and styrene
- Chlorine in treated water
While many of these factors are unavoidable, the take-home message is that high levels of glutathione are a by-product of a generally healthy lifestyle. If you get lots of fresh air, avoid alcohol and stress in excess, don’t smoke and avoid cheap plastic containers, you will potentially boost your levels.
Of all these factors, stress is one of the most serious issues to consider. Chronic stress puts us at considerably greater risk of a wide range of different conditions, so consider using techniques to reduce your stress. Stress ultimately comes down to our reaction to and perception of events rather than the events themselves. If you can learn meditation or CBT, then you can bring your stress response under control.
Another thing to consider is that 30-60% of the amino acids needed to create glutathione get lost when cooking and up to 100% when food is canned. Another important way to raise your levels then is to avoid over-cooking, to try and eat some fresh greens (and possible some sushi!) and to certainly buy fresh instead of canned whenever possible.
Interestingly, high quality whey protein has been identified as containing the highest levels of bioavailable glutathione precursors of any food! That’s the protein that comes from the cheese making process and that is used by bodybuilders in order to add to their muscle mass.
Many people look down on the use of supplements to increase strength and size and yet it turns out that this may just be one of the best ways to increase this crucial amino acid. Definitely worth considering for that reason!
Glutathione is a highly important example of your body taking care of itself when you take care of it. Put the right things in, treat it well and you will see amazing results!