The Fountain of Health?
If biochemistry were an action movie, antioxidants would be the crime fighting heroes, scavenging free radicals and making the world a healthier place. And glutathione (pronounced glue-ta-thigh-own), would no doubt be the superhero star. Glutathione is a substance naturally produced by our cells from amino acids that are found mainly in fruits and vegetables. This hardworking molecule acts as a major antioxidant, free radical scavenger, and an essential component of liver detoxification. In addition to protecting cells against the destructive effects of free radicals and detoxifying harmful substances such as drugs and environmental pollutants, it has also been studied for the treatment of a number of serious medical conditions including Parkinson’s Disease, heart disease, kidney disease, HIV and cancer.
Glutathione and Aging
One of the leading theories on aging states that organisms age because cells accumulate free radical damage over time. Free radicals are unstable oxygen molecules created by our metabolism. The instability stems from a missing electron. In an attempt to replace their missing part, these molecules rip electrons from their neighbors. As a result, those molecules also turn into free radicals leading to a snowball effect that can disrupt a cell’s integrity, causing it to behave abnormally.
Many experts agree that almost every chronic illness known to humankind can be linked in some measure to free radical-induced tissue damage. Glutathione’s key role in the aging process has been put to the test by Danish researchers who examined the glutathione levels of centenarians. Their results, published in the journal Age and Ageing, found that glutathione levels were highest in the healthiest seniors. Additionally, they discovered that the centenarians had higher levels of glutathione than people 20 to 40 years younger, hinting that glutathione may be one reason why their subjects had lived to such a ripe age. Another study also showed an association of higher glutathione levels with higher levels of physical health. Seniors with higher glutathione levels had fewer illnesses, lower cholesterol, lower body mass index, and lower blood pressure. On the other hand, participants who had diagnoses of arthritis, diabetes or heart disease had significantly lower glutathione levels than those who were disease-free.
The Great Detoxifier
Our bodies are constantly detoxifying whether we realize it or not. Whenever a toxin is encountered, your cells work hard to break apart and neutralize it, before it can do damage. This leads the average antioxidant to have a short life span, since it sacrifices itself whenever it wipes out a free radical. Glutathione, however, is considered “the mother of all antioxidants” because all other antioxidants, including vitamin C and vitamin E, rely on it to give them a second life. Glutathione carries enough extra energy to not only bring spent antioxidants back to life but also to recharge itself. However, when faced with chronic stress and toxicity, your body uses up more and more of your glutathione stores until it’s gone, leaving you with toxic overload. This can lead to many conditions such as fatigue, joint pain, headaches, muscle aches, and neurological problems such as memory loss.
Speaking of Neurological Problems
Uncontrolled free-radical damage is the common theme in a handful of diseases that target the brain, including schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s. While evidence suggests that a shortage of glutathione can be a factor in these conditions, some of the most compelling evidence has been found in people with Parkinson’s disease. In Parkinson's disease, dopamine-producing neurons in an area of the brain called the substantia nigra die off as a result of free radical-based damage. Researchers had also observed that a high proportion of Parkinson's patients are deficient in glutathione. Several clinical studies now clearly demonstrate that intravenous (IV) administration of glutathione significantly improves Parkinson's symptoms, and may very well retard progression of the disease.
Did you say Intravenous?
Unfortunately increasing your glutathione levels is not as easy as popping a supplement pill. Scientific studies have shown that it does not absorb well from the gut. To get around this problem, Naturopathic Doctors frequently give therapeutic doses of glutathione intravenously. Intravenous (IV) administration is currently the most powerful way to offer protection to the body with a tool that is quick, safe, and effective. Two very interesting medical studies have been published showing dramatic results with intravenous glutathione. One study showed that patients after a heart attack were benefited by intravenous glutathione. Another study, done in Italy, showed significantly improved patients with early Parkinson’s disease after the administration of daily IV glutathione injections.
Glutathione and Cancer
Glutathione is a great tool that can be used in adjunctive treatments of cancer since this therapy can reduce the toxicity of some chemotherapy agents. In one study, the toxicity of cisplatin, a drug used in the treatment of tumors, was greatly reduced. It was also found not to interact with the effectiveness of the medication. The advantage of the combination of glutathione with high doses of cisplatin was demonstrated by the impressive response rate in the treatment of ovarian cancer.
However, glutathione really shines in its role of cancer prevention. Many studies have confirmed that higher levels of glutathione are important for normal cellular functions and protection against carcinogens.
If this is the first time you are hearing about glutathione and its critical role in health, be prepared for more. Glutathione is likely to get much attention in the near future, as researchers begin to connect the dots between depleted stores of the master antioxidant and the likelihood of chronic disease.
Yelena Deshko is a Naturopathic Doctor practicing in Downtown Toronto. She is a general family practitioner with a special interest in anti-aging, preventative medicine, and women's health concerns such as menopause, infertility, PMS and more.