Glutathione Treatments 101: Part 1 — The Mother of All Antioxidants
By: BioDesign Wellness Center Staff
June 20, 2018 | Category: Functional Medicine
If you are aging prematurely, feeling run down or depressed, or are suffering from lung disease, diabetes, thyroid dysfunction or any of a number of auto-immune or inflammatory conditions, one of the underlying issues could be that your body is running low on reduced glutathione (GSH). A powerful and normally abundant antioxidant, glutathione protects cells from oxidative stress — a condition that ensues when free radicals overwhelm the body’s ability to regulate them.
Abundant amounts of glutathione are required in the liver and brain to reduce inflammation, support healthy detoxification, reduce infection, protect DNA, and support the clearance of medications. As the “mother of all antioxidants,” glutathione has a wide array of positive impacts on the body. It can help to support the liver following alcohol consumption, reduce some of the negative impacts associated with smoking, and speed recovery from viruses, infection, exercise, and injuries.
In Part 1 of this two-part series, we explain the importance of maintaining a healthy ratio of reduced-to-oxidized glutathione, present common illnesses that arise when imbalances are left untreated, explain the benefits of glutathione, and reveal the risks of having too much GSH. In Part 2, we will cover how we use glutathione at the BioDesign Wellness Center in many of our treatments for a wide range of health conditions.
Maintaining a Healthy Ratio of GSH-to-GSSG
The body actually has two forms of glutathione: reduced (GSH) and oxidized (GSSG). GSH has a free electron it can donate to reactive oxygen species, such as free radicals, to neutralize them, thus preventing them from damaging cells. By donating its free electron, the GSH is transformed into GSSG.
In healthy states, the body has a ratio of GSH:GSSG of 30:1 up to 100:1. In a state of oxidative stress, the ratio can be as low as 10:1, and in severe states of oxidative stress as low as 1:1. (The GSH:GSSG ratio is predictably low in patients with various forms of cancer.)
The good news is that a healthy body living in a relatively healthy environment produces all the glutathione it needs within its cells by combining three amino acids: cysteine, glycine, and glutamate. However, stores can run low due to a number of factors, including a genetic inability to produce sufficient amounts; exposure to environmental toxins, including mold, cigarette smoke, and alcohol; poor diet; weight gain; poor sleep; and a host of other environmental and lifestyle factors. All of these factors can contribute to poor production of glutathione (or of the enzymes that help glutathione to do its work), and many also deplete the GSH that the cells produce (by converting it into GSSG).
Health Issues That Arise from Low Glutathione
The right balance of free radicals and antioxidants is essential for healthy physiological function. When antioxidant levels are insufficient to keep the free radicals in check, the free radicals start to damage proteins, lipids, and DNA, triggering various illnesses and health conditions, including the following:
- Lung diseases: Oxidative stress, such as that caused by smoking tobacco products, is related to a number of lung diseases, including asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), acute lung injury (ALI), pulmonary fibrosis, and lung cancer.
- Diabetes: Diabetes is associated with oxidative stress and inflammation, impacting the blood vessels throughout the body and the brain. Glutathione is required in higher amounts in diabetics — more than they can produce.
- Depression and stress: Today’s research suggests that the underlying cause of most depression is inflammation.
- Mold illness: Mold toxins deplete glutathione. Those who have been exposed to a water-damaged dwelling or workspace and are feeling sore, achy, fatigued, and just plain sick typically have low GSH:GSSG ratios. They may also have a genetic tendency that reduces their glutathione production.
- Leaky gut and brain fog: Research supports that leaky gut is a key component in autoimmunity, and leaky gut is often associated with leaky brain and brain fog. Glutathione shows great promise in balancing and calming the immune system and can have a huge impact on those suffering with autoimmunity. By restoring glutathione levels in the gut, inflammation can be managed, thus reducing the autoimmune response.
- Physical recovery from exercise or injury: Exercise is great, but it traumatizes muscle cells. For those struggling to recover after workout, glutathione can reduce the impact of exercise-induced inflammation. The same holds true for someone who has had an injury.
- Thyroid: 75 to 85 percent of all cases of hypothyroid are actually problems with the immune system and oxidative stress. Glutathione reduces oxidative stress that may be the cause of the thyroid dysfunction.
Recognizing Why Glutathione Is Beneficial
Many common health conditions are chronic, and these conditions are at least in part associated with the many pathways that regulate inflammation and oxidative stress. Like most functional medicine practices, a large part of our practice involves treating chronic conditions, because conventional medicine, for the most part, is concerned solely with symptom relief.
The typical integrative or functional medicine practice sees patients with a variety of chronic illnesses including, but not limited to, autoimmunity, heart disease, diabetes, COPD, neurodegenerative states, and the gray area of undiagnosed unexplained nonspecific inflammation as evidenced by lab evaluations and physical presentation. The inflammatory mechanisms that damage cells, tissues and organs in these chronic conditions is perpetuated in part from increased oxidative stress and lowered intracellular GSH pools.
Glutathione appears to have a role in regulating the immune response during infection, which is a key trigger for autoimmunity. Lower pools of reduced glutathione have been associated with the severity of the autoimmune response, cell apoptosis (death), and autoantibody production. Increasing intracellular glutathione shows promise in controlling symptoms and progression of tissue destruction associated with autoimmunity.
Recognizing the Potential Downside of Glutathione Supplementation
The objectives of glutathione supplementation are to increase the GSH:GSSG ratio and establish a healthy balance between antioxidants and free radicals. However, because glutathione is so good at neutralizing reactive substances, too much of it can deplete other nutrients that the body needs for proper function. This can be a problem in people whose levels of these nutrients are already low.
Proper glutathione supplementation begins with lab tests, along with patient history and presentation of symptoms. The individual’s labs reveal any deficiencies that need to be accounted for during glutathione supplementation, such as deficiencies in B vitamins and other cofactors that GSH needs to optimize its effectiveness. This is why we discourage our patients from trying to “self-medicate” with over-the-counter GSH supplements.
Administered appropriately, under professional supervision, glutathione replenishment can restore cellular health, thus improving a patient’s overall health, with very little (if any) downsides.
To find out more about how we use glutathione supplementation at BioDesign Wellness Center in Tampa, Florida, tune in for our next post, “Glutathione Treatments 101: Part 2 —Treat Common Health Conditions with GSH.”
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