Glutathione (GSH) is a tripeptide consists of glutamate, cysteine, and glycine. Glutamate is a non-essential amino acid, which the body can produce in whatever quantity it needs. Cysteine, a semi-essential amino acid, is only made in adequate quantity under normal conditions. Whenever the body is dealing with stress, disease or advancing age, it needs cysteine supplements to function well. The third amino acid is glycine, which is also non-essential and doesn’t require supplements.
The cleanup process oxidizes GSH, which must then be reduced so it can keep working. It is the ratio of reduced to oxidized glutathione that scientists use to measure oxidative stress. When the cells experience this stress, they need more reduced GSH to regain a healthy state. Doctors administer this antioxidant, in either inhaled or injection form, to treat various symptoms and diseases. Glutathione is also taken orally as a dietary supplement.
Although GSH was first isolated in the late 19th century, it took almost fifty years for scientists to figure out its chemical structure. It was another few decades before its function as an antioxidant was discovered. Following years to determine the usefulness of antioxidants in the treatment of disease, the first health products containing glutathione were approved for use by the FDA.
How the Body Processes Glutathione
Amino acids are linear molecules that consist of a carbon chain with a carboxyl group (COOH) at one end, an amine group (NH2) at the other and, except for glycine, a side group. It is usually that side group that is responsible for the molecule’s function. Glycine’s compact size, due to it only having a single carbon, instead of a chain, and no side group makes it able to function as a hormone and a neurotransmitter.
Glutamate has a short carbon chain and a second carboxyl group as its side chain. It is classified as a weak acid because it only gives up some of its acidic hydrogen atoms in solution. In contrast, a strong acid gives them all up readily. Its acidic nature allows it to perform many functions as a metabolite, neurotransmitter, nutrient, and even a flavor enhancer. It is the thiol (SH) side chain on cysteine that gives it and, to a much greater extent, glutathione their antioxidant functionalities.
The cleanup process oxidizes GSH, which must then be reduced so it can keep working. It is the ratio of reduced to oxidized glutathione that scientists use to measure oxidative stress. When the cells experience this stress, they need more reduced GSH to regain a healthy state.
Autism – children on the autism spectrum can have glutathione levels as much as 20-40% below normal. This is due, at least in part, to abnormalities in the cellular pathway that produces the antioxidant. Autistic children who are taking GSH supplements to normalize their levels are getting positive results.
- Liver Damage – Oxidative stress causes liver damage. The liver’s job is detoxifying the body. It uses glutathione for some of this work. When exposed to a high-fat diet, it produces more GSH to help deal with the extra load. Oral doses of this supplement can prevent fatty liver disease, not related to alcoholism.
- Male Infertility – One of the few known causes of male fertility is the effect of oxidative stress on sperm production. Accumulation of free radicals interferes with the body’s ability to generate enough healthy sperm for reproduction and can also increase the risk of miscarriage when impregnation occurs. Glutathione supplements can increase both the counts and quality of sperm produced.
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Areas That Need More Research
One such disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a chronic disorder affecting the large intestine that can have a negative impact on the quality of life. People who suffer from this disease have impaired glutathione synthesis and oxidative stress leads to the damaged mucosal tissue. This damage contributes to the symptoms of IBS. GSH is important to the process of repairing gut wall damage that results from this disorder.
The biological process of aging is due, in part, to oxidative stress damage. Research shows that glutathione levels tend to decline as we age. This can become a self-perpetuating process over time. The damage becomes greater as the body’s ability to repair it declines. Decreasing GSH levels is one cause of osteoporosis. Drugs that have been effective in treating age-related osteoporosis do so by increasing glutathione levels.
One reason for the damage caused to the brain by Alzheimer’s disease is oxidative stress. Accumulation in the brain of TDP-43, a protein that regulates gene splicing during DNA transcription, occurs in patients with Alzheimer’s. This accumulation results in a lowering of cerebral glutathione levels. Research shows that reducing oxidative stress by increasing GSH can prevent and, possibly, reverse the memory deficits associated with Alzheimer’s.
Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative, neurological disease that probably results from both genetic and environmental factors. The damaging effects of this disease result in loss of neurons involved with motor control. Oxidative stress is a contributing factor in the death of these brain cells. Scientists believe that there is a connection between glutathione levels in the brain and progression of the disease. More research is needed to further explore the possibility of this connection.
Although Schizophrenia and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) are two very distinct psychiatric disorders, there are similarities between the two. Both exhibit oxidative stress and decreased levels of GSH in the central nervous system. People suffering from either also tend to be more symptomatic when they’re under psychological stress. Research on mice shows that exposure to stressful situations can decrease cellular levels of glutathione. More study may help find whether treatment with GSH could lessen the symptomatic response to these stressors in humans.
One of the leading causes of atherosclerosis, fatty deposits in the arteries, is oxidative stress. As this arterial plaque grows, blood flow becomes increasingly restricted. If a blood clot forms, there is a risk that it could break loose and travel to vessels that feed the heart, resulting in a heart attack. Low glutathione levels, in people with atherosclerosis, are associated with increased risk of heart attack. This could explain the relationship between diabetes, which can cause low GSH levels, and the risk of cardiovascular events.
Toxicity and Side Effects
Take care when using glutathione for conditions involving chronic, particularly autoimmune, inflammation. The inflammatory condition can increase oxidative stress, which GSH can help resolve. However, in the case of autoimmune conditions, the immune system attacks the body’s own cells because it doesn’t recognize them as being “self.” Improving the health of cells within the immune system might make the autoimmune response more robust and lead to negative side effects.
GSH has an extremely short half-life. It only takes 15 minutes for the body to use up half the amount administered. This is probably due to the fact that this is a substance that is also found in endogenous form, so the cells are well-practiced at processing it.
Research supports that there is a link between elevated cellular GSH levels and longevity. It is the body’s most powerful antioxidant and its effectiveness at reducing cellular oxidative stress can maintain health and fight disease throughout the body.