Interest in antioxidants has dramatically increased in recent years due to their ability to fight off infection and inflammation and prevent cancer. These antioxidants are found primarily in herbal medicines, the bark of trees, and the leaves and roots of plants and fruits.
Do you know that you also produce antioxidants naturally? The answer is yes! Your body has a potent antioxidant called glutathione.
What is glutathione?
Glutathione is a protein composed of three amino acids: glycine, cysteine and glutamine. This simple tripeptide chain does wonders for your body.
Literature  surprisingly shows that glutathione levels inside the cells are as high as other vital compounds such as glucose, potassium and cholesterol. This led researchers to conclude that glutathione plays a critical role in cell metabolism. These early researchers were not mistaken, as glutathione remains the body’s leading and most powerful antioxidant.
What are antioxidants and reactive oxygen species?
One cellular metabolism’s byproduct is reactive oxygen species (ROS). ROS are free radicals and reactive molecules that can potentially injure cells and lead to cell death . The body produces antioxidants that detoxify the ROS and prevent cell injury or death. However, when ROS levels are too high compared to antioxidants, the imbalance creates oxidative stress .
Reactive oxygen species include the following:
- Hydroxyl radicals
- Hydrogen peroxide
- Superoxide radicals
Although the body has enormous repair mechanisms and antioxidant activities, oxidative damage is inevitable for organisms that depend on oxygen for cellular metabolism. Recently, oxidative stress has been associated with different diseases, syndromes and a broad range of degenerative processes .
Conversely, reactive oxygen species are not always regarded as harmful byproducts of cellular metabolism. They function as intracellular signalling molecules when present at appropriate levels and are strictly regulated. The ROS relay messages between molecules during a chemical reaction or in a biological pathway. In addition, strictly regulated ROS has been shown to contribute to the following:
What are some of the benefits of ROS?
Interestingly, ROS has multiple benefits in the body when produced in appropriate amounts. Here are some examples:
- Reactive oxygen species can augment the immune system.
- Once white blood cells called phagocytes engulf ROS, it experiences an oxidative burst . Phagocytes increase oxygen consumption, producing superoxide molecules and hydrogen peroxide. These molecules are responsible for killing bacteria and microorganisms engulfed by phagocytes.
- Reactive oxygen species can promote cognitive function. ROS is often seen as detrimental to brain health in the central nervous system. However, studies  suggest that ROS can improve communication between neurons when present in appropriate amounts. This enhances brain functions such as learning, memory and decision-making.
- Reactive oxygen species can promote fertility.
- Tight control of levels of ROS appears to promote the overall development and health of sperm . However, it has been shown that sperms that have flawed morphology have very high levels of ROS .
What is the role of glutathione in addressing excess ROS?
Glutathione is a major antioxidant that removes excess ROS. Excess ROS is identified as a significant factor in the development of various diseases. Glutathione chemically reacts with oxidation products or free radicals and decomposes these harmful products. Glutathione is considered a scavenger of oxidation products and is essential in maintaining the health of the cells, preventing cell death and maintaining the structure and function of the cells.
What does glutathione do for your body?
Every day, cells are bombarded with toxins and oxidation byproducts that can harm or kill them. The presence of glutathione helps maintain balance in the body by ensuring that excess free radicals and ROS are removed from the body.
Here are some examples of how glutathione can help your body remain healthy:
- Glutathione is vital in regenerating vitamins C and E . It has been shown that the presence of glutathione increases the therapeutic and preventive use of vitamins E and C against cellular damage and oxidative stress.
- Glutathione regulates cell growth and death. Glutathione is found essential in the cell cycle and progression. When the synthesis of glutathione is blocked, this leads to decreased DNA synthesis and reduced cell growth . Meanwhile, glutathione is also critical in modulating cell death. Glutathione influence the expression and activity of signalling molecules responsible for apoptosis or cell death.
- Glutathione can help excrete mercury from brain tissues and cells. Mercury is a hard metal that is lipophilic and can enter the brain . Inorganic mercury that enters the brain can be retained for several years. In Alzheimer’s patients, inorganic mercury is elevated in the cerebellum, which leads to a series of reactions that end in oxidative damage of the cells. Reduced glutathione in the brain will bind toxic compounds such as mercury chloride, reducing the levels of mercury in the brain.
- Glutathione can act as a cofactor of multiple antioxidant enzymes. Antioxidant enzymes are crucial in the body since this help fight oxidative damage and early death of cells . Glutathione acts as a helper (cofactor) of these enzymes, which in turn helps maintain the health of the cells.
- Glutathione neutralises free radicals formed when toxins are metabolised in the liver . The liver helps detoxify the body by metabolizing toxins. Glutathione plays an essential role in neutralizing the free radicals form during the metabolism of the toxins. Free radicals can destroy other healthy cells and tissues in the liver. Hence, glutathione helps the liver maintain its function and morphology or form.
- Glutathione is active in the mitochondria and helps protect the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). Animal studies  have shown that depletion and destruction of mtDNA lead to reduced lifespan of the organism. When glutathione levels are reduced, this is associated with a reduction of the mtDNA. Evidence from published literature  reveals that mtDNA depletion is related to developing several health conditions, such as cystic fibrosis and chronic age-related diseases.
Glutathione is a powerful antioxidant that has many roles in the body. Think of glutathione as a compound that drives many enzymatic reactions, protects your body from excess free radicals and prolongs life. However, when glutathione is depleted, this can lead to multiple diseases and aging.
Can I take supplements containing glutathione?
The good news is, yes, you can take glutathione supplements! The safety of these supplements has been documented . However, if you are pregnant, planning to become pregnant, or are breastfeeding, it is best to talk or consult with your doctor prior to taking glutathione supplements. To date, there is still no expert consensus on the use of glutathione for pregnant and breastfeeding women.
When taking glutathione supplements, always consult your doctor for advice on the appropriate dosage and frequency of intake. Always report to your doctor any side effects you might experience while taking glutathione supplements. Some of these may include nausea and vomiting. Talk to your doctor if you are planning on taking the supplement with other medications, as drug-to-drug interactions might lead to adverse events.
If you do not want to take supplements, some foods have been shown to increase the glutathione levels in your body. These include avocado, almonds, turmeric, Baru almonds, green leafy vegetables, broccoli, okra, cucumber and milk thistle . Since these are fruits, seeds or herbs, you can safely take these foods without fearing side effects or adverse events.
Finally, you can choose between glutathione supplements or natural foods that boost glutathione levels in the body. As a powerful antioxidant, glutathione can have protective effects against many diseases and delay the aging process!