There are plenty of great benefits of maintaining a proper glutathione level.
Glutathione has been gaining traction as an antioxidant supplement for good reason, as it is the body’s most abundant natural antioxidant.
However, both the deficiency and elevation of glutathione throughout the body can lead to numerous health conditions.
Keeping glutathione in balance is a great way to maximize your health benefits from this all-important molecule.
What Is Glutathione?
Glutathione is a tripeptide protein made up of cysteine, glycine, and glutamine acid.
While you may be unfamiliar with this molecule, it is actually surprisingly abundant in the cells, present at levels equal to glucose, potassium, or cholesterol.
With its enormous presence in the cell this humble molecule must have some really important purpose, right? And indeed it does.
So what exactly does glutathione do?
Glutathione is naturally synthesized by the body. It plays an essential role in the various oxidation mechanisms in your body including metabolic health, apoptosis, and vitamin recycling. It may be regulated by the CFTR channel, but more research must be done.
Cellular Oxidation and Glutathione Synthesis
Glutathione actually comes in two major forms in the body GSH (the reduced form) and GSSG (the oxidized form).
About 98% of the body’s glutathione can be found in the reduced GSH form. When glutathione in GSH form encounters a dangerous reactive species it neutralizes that species and becomes oxidized itself.
When it becomes oxidized it links up with another GSH molecule to form a GSSG molecule.
More specifically, while glutathione does have powerful effects against traditional oxygenous and nitrogenous reactive species, it has a particular niche for dealing with oxidants that are found in persistent organic pollutants, like chemical and natural pesticides, and in heavy metals, like mercury.
What this mechanism tells us is that glutathione is an antioxidant. In fact, it is your body’s most abundant and prevalent oxidation-fighting molecule.
The body makes reduced glutathione, GSH, in two ways. It takes the available cystine and turns it into glutathione, or the body also converts oxidized GSSG to GSH to regenerate glutathione. Both processes require energy.
This means that the synthesis of glutathione is largely regulated by the amount of GSH already available as well as the amount of cysteine your body has available to synthesize more GSH.
If you have low levels of cysteine or serine intake then you may run the risk of being more cysteine deficient and be unable to synthesize enough glutathione to keep up with the harsh oxidative demands of the body.
After your cells have made the newly synthesized or regenerated glutathione in the cytosol then it gets pumped into the mitochondria, where the majority of your oxidative stress is produced.
Oxidation, Glutathione, and Nervous Tissue
Taking glutathione may improve nerve health. One animal study gave glutathione dietarily to diabetic rats and how that their symptoms of neuropathy declined.
The brain and spinal cord are some of the most energy-exhaustive organs in the body. Although the brain generally accounts for about 2% of a person’s body weight, it uses about 20% of the oxygen intake.
In fact, 90% of this oxygen is directly dedicated to the process of forming energy in the form of ATP.
The process of forming ATP creates many harmful byproducts. Just like how a power plant in real life creates pollution, your body creates “pollution” in the form of free radicals.
These free radicals can create many harmful effects for your body and damage the various tissues that they can be found in. If the body is missing the all-important antioxidant effects of glutathione that deal with these free radicals then there is nothing stopping the potential damage.
This may be how glutathione was able to help promote nerve health.
However, a deeper look at the mechanism shows that glutathione doesn’t actively affect important nerve tissues since are no receptors to funnel GSH into cells, the blood-brain barrier is generally impermissible, and cysteine -- the rate-limiting precursor to GSH -- is toxic when administering at high enough doses.
Glutathione also has other roles in signaling cascades and other reactions that further increase its importance in the body.
One such reaction that glutathione is involved in is the regeneration of vitamin E and vitamin C. Both vitamin E and vitamin C protect the cell against free radical damage, and when they become oxidized themselves they lose their usefulness.
A recent study showed that the introduction of glutathione was able to reverse the oxidation damage to 60% of vitamins E and vitamin C. Meaning that these vitamins were regenerated for further use in the body.
One characteristic that is important is that this reaction happens enzymatically, meaning that it requires the presence of an enzyme to occur. These reactions also require a bit of energy to take place.
When a cell undergoes self-destruction this is called apoptosis. Mechanisms that upregulate apoptosis are essential to proper body function because they prevent broken cells from replicating.
When a cell begins experiencing more oxidative stress than it can handle it can cause the DNA to mutate at a larger rate. Thankfully, your body has mechanisms that can identify when extensive DNA damage has taken place that can upregulate apoptosis.
One of these mechanisms is glutathione.
When a cell has extensive oxidative stress that it cannot handle then the levels of GSSG will be much greater in the cell. GSSG is directly toxic to cells and induces apoptosis through the activation of the SAPK/MAPK pathway.
One study points out the possibility of the chlorine ion channel coded by the CFTR gene having the capability to transport GSH. This conclusion was reached due to findings of large levels of glutathione inside the cell and minuscule levels outside the cell when this channel was absent.
However, channel proteins are generally pretty specific in what they do and do not let through the cell membrane, so this claim seems rather intriguing and may be incorrect.
One suggestion is that these findings may be due to chlorine and glutathione having the same charge.
Glutathione is generally a negatively charged protein in the body since glutamine acid acts as an acid while the other amino acids in the protein are neutrally charged in the body. Chlorine is also negatively charged, meaning that glutathione and chlorine molecules resist one another.
When the CFTR channel is not open, the chlorine levels accumulate at a higher level outside the cell.
Taking glutathione as a supplement is a potential option for those looking to leverage its antioxidant qualities. One study shows that glutathione can be absorbed through supplementation into the bloodstream and that the increased levels that were observed were not a result of increasing the prerequisite amino acids. This finding certainly shows promise for reducing oxidants in the blood, but how this may impact individual tissues must be taken on a case by case basis.
For instance, recall that neural tissue does not have receptors that can bring GSH into its cells. One thing you might notice about your glutathione supplement is that it is a little bit smelly. This is completely normal. Glutathione is made up of three amino acids.
One of those amino acids, cystine, forms a thiol group when added to a protein. Most proteins with a thiol group like glutathione can be potentially quite smelly. This is because thiol groups contain a sulfur atom. A sulfur-like smell is generally comparable to a “rotten egg” smell.
Glutathione is the most abundant antioxidant synthesized by your body. It is among the most important molecules your cells use every day to manage oxidation.
Glutathione supplements have become available and may have antioxidant qualities for you to take advantage of.
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