People who live to into their 80s and beyond are found to have higher levels of glutathione. Low levels of glutathione send messages to trigger apoptosis, or cell death.5 Plus, given the critical role glutathione plays at the cellular and mitochondrial levels, the overall health and longevity benefits are vast and wide.
Long story short, the more glutathione in your body, the healthier your cells and mitochondria. The less glutathione in your body, the more likely you are to have cellular breakdown, increased risk of disease, and cellular death.
If you’ve ever made a fruit salad, then you likely know the chef’s trick to sprinkling a little lemon or lime juice over the fruit to keep it from turning brown. In many ways, antioxidants are like that lemon juice. By consistently “sprinkling” your body with antioxidants, you can prevent your body from “browning.”
Antioxidants are the “anti-agers” of the nutrient world, working to protect your body from free radical, or “oxidative” damage. Every time you eat, breathe, or move, your body uses fuel created from the food you eat to produce energy. But just as a car using gas to produce energy releases harmful byproducts of this process as exhaust, so too does your own body’s energy-producing efforts produce a dangerous byproduct—free radicals.
Free radicals are highly reactive forms of oxygen that are missing an electron. When they come into contact with normal molecules, they try to steal an electron, damaging the healthy cell and its DNA. In fact, some estimates show that every cell in your body takes 10,000 oxidative hits to its DNA daily! Antioxidants work to counteract the damage caused by free radicals.
Glutathione is your body’s “master antioxidant,” directly binding to oxidative compounds that damage cell’s membranes, DNA, energy production, etc. It directly neutralizes a wide range of oxidants, including superoxide, nitric oxide, carbon radicals, hydroperoxides, peroxynitrites, and lipid peroxides.6
All across America, people have one day designated as trash removal day. They collect garbage, waste, and recycling that has accumulated throughout the week, put it into specially designated bins, and place it on the curb for pick up and removal.
But did you know your body has the exact same process of waste collection and even recycling? It’s called your detoxification system.
Here’s how it works.
Detoxification has three phases. During Phase 1 detoxification, toxins from car exhaust, smoke, alcohol, caffeine, dioxin, drugs, radiation, heavy metals, pesticides, and other carcinogens are partially processed by specialized proteins inside mitochondria called cytochromes.
Unfortunately, Phase 1 processing can turn partially processed toxins into even more dangerous free radicals. These are not only damaging, but they can single handedly deplete glutathione, creating an imbalance between Phase 1 and Phase 2 (see below) activity.7 Toxic reactions can occur due to buildup of reactive intermediate forms resulting from phase 1 detoxification, so further work needs to be done to process and eliminate toxins.
In Phase 2 detoxification, various enzymes act directly on the toxic substances partially degraded and processed in Phase 1, such as heavy metals and organo-toxins, by binding them with protective compounds, thereby either inactivating the toxins. This binding is called “conjugation” and glutathione is the central figure. One such specialized group of enzymes called Glutathione-S-Transferase (GST) attach glutathione to the byproducts of Phase 1 detoxification and neutralizes their toxic potential while simultaneously making these toxic substances more water-soluble and ready to be eliminated. There are other Phase 2 enzymes and proteins that perform similar functions, but without glutathione, these other enzymes couldn’t adequately function.6
Once conjugated, toxins are ready to be eliminated from your body mainly by the kidneys (urine) and liver (bile). Elimination is considered to be Phase 3 of detoxification.
As we have already discussed, energy production is located in all cells (except red blood cells) inside mitochondria. Glutathione is involved in protecting mitochondria from free radical or other “oxidative” damage. If mitochondria are attacked and damaged by oxidative molecules they slow down and start to make less ATP. With less ATP the rest of the cell also becomes sluggish.
To make things worse, damaged mitochondria also become more error-prone and start to create more “exhaust” or free radicals. In turn, these free radicals cause further mitochondrial damage and so create a vicious cycle of less energy and more damage.
Stress also comes into play in energy production. The higher the energy needs (higher metabolism, exercise, stress, etc.), the harder the mitochondria have to work and the more free radicals they produce.
As we mentioned in the beginning of this article, GSH binds these free radicals and relieves “oxidative stress” not just on the mitochondria but on the rest of the cell. In doing so, GSH becomes oxidized and converts to GSSG. With the help of the enzyme glutathione reductase, it can be recycled and turned back into active glutathione or GSH. However, if this process is overwhelmed or it doesn’t work properly, GSSG accumulates and the ratio of GSH/GSSG becomes distorted.
The ratio of GSH/GSSG can actually be measured and is a very dependable measure of “oxidative stress” or how fast we are aging and deteriorating. This means we can actually measure how susceptible our cell’s DNA, cell membranes, proteins, and cholesterol are to damage.
Healthy cells at rest have a GSH/GSSG ratio >100. However, that ratio drops to 10 or less in susceptible cells exposed to oxidative stress.
How does a low GSH/GSSG manifest? It can be fatigue, lack of mental focus, brain fog, muscle fatigue, and aches and pains.
These symptoms are not only associated with many chronic diseases, but are also a result of “mitochondrial dysfunction,” which occurs when mitochondria lose the protection of GSH, free radicals attack the mitochondria, and cellular energy decreases.8 In fact, autoimmune conditions like multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, Lyme disease, heavy metal load, organotoxins, and more all have “mitochondrial dysfunction,” low levels of GSH, and profound fatigue.
Restoring active glutathione (GSH) levels and the ratio of active reduce to inactive “oxidized” GSH/GSSG can correct some, if not all, of the energy depletion.
And speaking of depletion…