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Glutathione – the great multi-tasker

Glutathione—The Great Multi-tasker


Glutathione is widely recognized as the most powerful of all antioxidants, and one scientist has referred to it as “the great multi-tasker” in a 2006 article. As you read his article, keep in mind: MaxGXL® is not a glutathione supplement, but rather provides the body with the precursors it needs to manufacture and absorb glutathione.
Glutathione – the great multi-tasker
JOE SCHWARCZ, Freelance, Montreal Gazette
Published: Saturday, November 25 2006

Our body doesn’t take chemical insults lying down. It fights back. And one of its most powerful weapons in the battle against toxic invaders is glutathione, a molecule synthesized inside our cells from glycine, glutamic acid and cysteine, three amino acids found in the diet.

Glutathione turns out to be a great multi-tasker. It has antioxidant properties, it improves the activity of vitamin C, it helps white blood cells fight invaders, and it induces the formation of enzymes that help solubilize potentially dangerous substances so they can be eliminated in the urine. Given all of this, it stands to reason that higher levels of glutathione in the blood should correlate with good health. That does seem to be the case, at least if we go by a study carried out at the University of Birmingham in England.

Researchers measured glutathione levels in healthy volunteers, old and young, as well as in elderly patients who either suffered from chronic diseases, or had recently been admitted to a hospital with an acute problem. If glutathione were indeed related to health, such an analysis should muster evidence, the scientists suggested.

They were not disappointed. The healthy young volunteers had the highest plasma levels of glutathione, followed by the healthy elderly, then the elderly outpatients, and finally the elderly hospitalized patients. At the School of Public Health, University of Michigan, Mara Julius and colleagues also found that higher glutathione levels were associated with fewer illnesses such as arthritis, diabetes and heart disease. We also have data from animal experiments about the chemoprotective properties of glutathione. Rats exposed to aflatoxin, a potent carcinogen, fared better when given glutathione.

Animals not treated with glutathione died within two years of exposure to the carcinogen, but 80 per cent of treated animals were alive at the end of that period.

So why are we not wolfing down glutathione supplements? They are available, and there certainly is no safety issue. Nobody has shown any hazard associated with oral glutathione. The problem is that nobody has shown any major benefit either. How come? Unlike rats, humans do not absorb glutathione to any significant extent from the small intestine.

That doesn’t mean oral glutathione is useless. It can be used for benefit by cells that line the intestine. These often become damaged in diseases such as AIDS or cancer, resulting in impaired nutrient absorption, which leads to physical wasting with loss of weight and muscle mass. Oral glutathione has been shown to repair intestinal cells and has been used to advantage in AIDS patients. But for other health benefits, oral glutathione won’t do.

Since oral glutathione is ineffective, we have to look at ways of helping cells make more of the compound. The best way is by ensuring they have an ample supply of the raw materials needed to do this. Glycine and glutamic acid are plentiful in the diet, but cysteine presents a difficulty. It has limited solubility, on top of which it is readily destroyed before it can enter cells. Cysteine therefore becomes the component that determines the amount of glutathione that can be formed in cells. Because of the solubility and destruction issues, oral supplements of cysteine are not the answer either. But cysteine can be readily converted in the laboratory into N-acetylcysteine (NAC), which is more soluble and less prone to destruction in the bloodstream.

After absorption into cells it is reconverted into cysteine, which is available for glutathione synthesis. The many people who have been brought from the brink of death after overdosing on acetaminophen can attest to the efficacy of NAC.

Acetaminophen (Tylenol is a common trade name) is a widely used pain reliever. In the recommended dosage it is very effective, but like any medication, it’s a problem when abused. Overdosing on acetaminophen, which is facilitated by alcohol consumption, can lead to severe liver problems and possibly death. Suicide attempts with acetaminophen are not unheard of. Often, though, they remain only “attempts,” because of quick medical intervention with NAC. Our body recognizes acetaminophen as an intruder and tries to eliminate it by converting it into a more soluble compound.

Unfortunately, this compound, N-acetyl-p-benzoquinone-imine (NAPQI), is the one that is toxic to the liver. But fortunately, a glutathione-induced enzyme stands ready to help the kidneys excrete it.

When the acetaminophen dose is too high, however, glutathione stores are depleted and liver damage ensues. Unless, that is, NAC is quickly administered to replenish the cellular levels of glutathione.

If NAC works so well to boost glutathione, why are we not being urged to take it in supplement form to prevent disease? Well, we are, by manufacturers of NAC. While there is no major toxicity concern, nausea is a possible side effect. And nobody has really examined the consequences of taking NAC over a long term, or possible interactions with other medications. It would be great if an innocuous way of increasing our glutathione levels were available. And maybe there is. (Visit here for more information on increasing glutathione levels).

Cheese-making requires the separation of the curds from the whey, a liquidy residue that harbours proteins rich in cysteine. When processed in a special way, these proteins can deliver their cysteine content to cells where it can be released to enhance glutathione formation. Some studies have indicated that these special whey preparations have increased endurance in athletes, presumably by reducing free radical damage to muscles. Laboratory work has shown increased glutathione levels in human prostate cells exposed to whey protein, suggestive of protection against prostate cancer.

Animals fed the protein concentrate are more resistant to carcinogens, and whey has been seen to increase glutathione in normal cells, while it depletes it in cancer cells, making these more susceptible to chemotherapy or radiation. Of course we need more evidence before jumping on the bandwagon, but as far as glutathione supplementation goes, we may have found a “whey” to go.

Joe Schwarcz is director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society

Connie Clark

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