How can you fight free radicals and delay aging?

We can all feel the pressures of busy modern life, but did you know that cells also undergo a certain type of stress? Oxidative stress is caused by reactive oxygen species (ROS), which are also known as free radicals, and can damage cells. This can lead to accelerated aging and age-related disease. To protect against this, our bodies need antioxidants. Glutathione is a powerful antioxidant produced in the body and also available in food that can protect against oxidative stress. So what is glutathione, how does it work, and can it really improve longevity? 

Healthspan vs lifespan

Human beings are living longer, but not necessarily healthier, lives than ever before. While lifespan has increased, healthspan has failed to catch up, leaving many people to linger in ill health during their final years. On average, people can expect to live their last nine years in ill health [1]. The current health care system, or rather ‘disease-care’ system, focuses on treating diseases when they appear, rather than preventing disease or treating aging holistically.

The longevity industry is working to close this gap, with research into therapies that delay aging and prevent disease. In the meantime, many longevity enthusiasts are taking autonomy over their health and practicing their own form of preventative medicine through lifestyle changes. Diet, exercise and sleep are three lifestyle pillars on which healthy longevity is based. Another promising intervention is longevity supplements. 

The need for longevity supplements 

Unlike nutritional supplements, longevity supplements contain active ingredients that work on the nine hallmarks of aging. Theoretically, this may delay aging and protect against diseases. Longevity supplements are becoming increasingly popular, with the global market for complementary and alternative medicine expected to grow by 18% annual compared to the paltry 3% growth of the pharmaceutical market [2].  

With a plethora of pills on the market, it’s difficult to know which ones are effective. A good place to start is with supplements that contain antioxidants. Found naturally in the body and in healthy whole foods, topping up your levels may combat the effects of oxidative stress. 

What are free radicals and oxidative stress? 

Most people have heard of free radicals as a pernicious source of aging and disease. But what exactly are they? For this we need to look at atoms. Usually, oxygen atoms come in pairs (O2). When they are split, they become unstable free radicals. Free radicals are produced during normal metabolic processes in the body, like eating or exercising. They are also triggered by cigarette smoke, pollution, and UV rays. While we can’t avoid eating or exercising, we can limit our exposure to these environmental sources of free radicals. Free radicals can damage fats, proteins and DNA in the body, leading to wider damage known as oxidative stress. 

Oxidative stress is a special type of cell stress that can damage and breakdown healthy cells. Common symptoms of oxidative stress include inflammation, reduced energy, brain fog, disturbed sleep, and poor physical recovery. Long term, this can accelerate the aging process and cause age-related diseases like cancer, asthma, diabetes and dementia. Some scientists even argue that aging itself is partly down to the accumulation of damage from free radicals and oxidative stress.

Now to the good news. By identifying oxidative stress as a cause of accelerated aging, we can target it with antiaging interventions like longevity supplements that contain antioxidants – the natural enemy of oxidative stress.

Protecting against oxidative stress 

Luckily, the body also produces a natural defence against oxidative stress, fittingly named antioxidants. Your body produces certain antioxidants itself, while others are available in food. Usually, our bodies produce the right balance of free radicals and antioxidants. Disrupting this balance can lead to oxidative stress. Unfortunately, as we age, our bodies stop producing enough antioxidants, leaving them exposed to damage. 

By limiting sources of free radicals, we can avoid oxidative stress and, hopefully, delay aging. Ceasing smoking, wearing sunscreen and limiting the following free-radical producing foods can help:

  • Refined carbohydrates and sugars, which can generate free radicals
  • Red meat, which is vulnerable to oxidation due to its high iron content
  • Processed meat like sausages and bacon contain free-radical triggering preservatives
  • Alcohol also produces free radicals
Photograph: GoodIdeas/Shutterstock

How can antioxidants help? 

Antioxidants, produced in the body and found in certain foods, are the enemy of oxidative stress. They neutralise free radicals, preventing damage to the body. Since our antioxidant levels naturally decline with age, antioxidants available in food become especially important. By increasing our antioxidant intake, we can theoretically reduce free radical and oxidative stress levels in our bodies. Good sources of antioxidants include:

  • Whole cereals
  • Pulses
  • Vegetables
  • Raw vegetable oil
  • Tea and coffee 

Red wine contains a variety of antioxidants including resveratrol, flavonoids, and polyphenols. However, considering alcohol is also a cause of free radicals, limiting your daily intake of red wine is recommended. 

Theoretically, since antioxidants limit free radicals and prevent oxidative stress, they should prolong life. While antioxidants do neutralise negative compounds in the body, it is difficult to measure their impact on longevity. 

What is glutathione and where is it found? 

Glutathione is a powerful antioxidant and a popular ingredient in longevity supplements. It is produced in the body and plays a diverse role in antiaging. Glutathione is found in plants, animals, fungi, bacteria and archaea. In humans, it is produced naturally in the liver. It is also available in sulphur-rich foods like mushrooms, onions, broccoli, and cabbage. A tripeptide, glutathione combines the power of the three antioxidants glutamine, glycine and cysteine. These reduce free radicals, mercury, and POPs, all sources of oxidative stress.  

Can you get glutathione from food? 

The body’s glutathione levels decline with age, and this is exacerbated by the stress, low-nutrient diets, and environmental toxins of modern life. Luckily, you can get glutathione from food like cruciferous vegetables, oily fish rich in omega 3, and whey protein. Sources of glutathione are surprisingly varied, one study found that drinking alcohol-free beer raised glutathione levels by an impressive 29%. Reducing the body’s need for antioxidants by reducing exposure to toxins can also help, for example by limiting your alcohol intake, and exposure to smoking and pollutants. 

Benefits to health and longevity 

Glutathione levels vary between people depending on how much their body is able to produce. Low levels have been linked to exposure to alcohol and chemical toxins, as well as certain diseases. Glutathione levels also naturally decrease with age and are thought to be associated with health and longevity. People with low glutathione levels are more likely to develop diseases and reduced functioning associated with aging like:

  • Cardiovascular diseases, like hypertension and myocardial infarction
  • Neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s
  • Autoimmune diseases and immune disorders like HIV
  • Eye diseases associated with aging like glaucoma, cataracts and macular degeneration

In older people, those with higher levels of glutathione had better physical health, self-rated health, and less diseases. Glutathione has also been used to manage diseases like Parkinson’s, cystic fibrosis, COPD and even nail biting.

Evidently, having enough glutathione seems essential to reducing toxins, maintaining health, and improving longevity. However, the problem with food sources of glutathione and other antioxidants is bioavailability, so it is worth considering supplements.

Glutathione supplement dosage and side effects

Glutathione supplements are generally recognised as safe and should be taken daily for best results. Taking supplements is all about consistency.




Photograph: SciePro/Shutterstock
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