The Detoxifying Antioxidant Everyone Should Know About

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Let’s say you’re on a game show and the host asks you the best way to increase antioxidant levels. I bet maybe you'd mention superfoods, or talk about increasing intake of vegetables and fruit, or perhaps taking a few supplements like vitamins C and E. Those would all be correct answers, but the main star in your antioxidant echelon doesn’t get tons of glory, and very little of it comes from your diet.

I’m talking about glutathione, which your body manufacturers from adequate amounts of the three amino acids cysteine, glutamate, and glycine. Scientists label glutathione the "master antioxidant" because it recycles other antioxidants like vitamins C and E, alpha-lipoic acid, and coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10). When you increase glutathione levels, you also boost these and other antioxidants.

Glutathione, detoxification, and optimal health.

Among its duties, sufficient glutathione helps maintain energy, reduces muscle pain, improves sleep quality, gives you glowing skin, and boosts your immune function. Glutathione also plays a major role in detoxification, which makes sense considering levels are highest in your liver and kidneys—your body’s primary detoxification organs where glutathione breaks down waste, toxins, and heavy metals into less harmful compounds.

Glutathione especially becomes a workhorse during phase two detoxification, when toxins bind directly to glutathione (scientifically called "glutathione conjugation") and eliminate from your body. The only problem is that during that process, glutathione sacrifices itself, so your body must continually generate more. Otherwise, toxins can build up, and havoc ensues as glutathione levels continue to get depleted.

What a deficiency can do to your health.

Glutathione levels also decline as we age, and deficiencies are common among the elderly, alcoholics, and athletes who overtrain. And that's a big deal, since some studies show folks with the lowest glutathione levels are 30 percent more likely to have a heart attack compared with the highest levels. You can understand, then, why optimizing glutathione levels becomes so crucial. Glutathione deficiencies can be also linked to a number of serious illnesses including cancer, neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases, arthritis, diabetes, cystic fibrosis, HIV infection, and chronic fatigue syndrome. Unfortunately, maintaining solid glutathione levels is especially challenging as we get bombarded by thousands of toxins daily.

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How to optimize glutathione levels.

Want to live longer and maintain glowing health? Optimize glutathione levels with food, supplements, and the right kind of exercise. Here's what to do:

1. Eat food rich in glutathione building blocks.

Photo: Rob and Julia Campbell

A large percentage of oral glutathione breaks down and oxidizes in your digestive tract, only a small fraction making it into your bloodstream, tissues, and cells. Regardless, you can increase your glutathione levels to some degree by consuming foods rich in glutathione and its building blocks. Here are a few ways to do that:

  • Dairy products, cereals, and breads are generally low in glutathione, while fruits and vegetables have moderate to high amounts, and freshly prepared meats are relatively high.
  • Cooking raw vegetables destroys nearly 100 percent of their usable glutathione. Similarly, glutathione available in meat, dairy, and eggs are only significant when the foods are consumed raw. You’re probably not a fan of raw meat and eggs, but fortunately the top glutathione-containing foods are plants like asparagus, avocado, and spinach.
  • Other foods may boost your levels by providing nutritional building blocks to support your body’s own glutathione production. Sulfur-rich cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage are my go-to’s. So are garlic, onions, parsley, spinach, beets, turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom, and black cumin.
  • High-cysteine foods can also boost glutathione levels. Raw dairy is the best source of this amino acid; pasteurized dairy is one of the worst.
  • Other nutritional compounds play important roles in glutathione synthesis. Your body can’t make optimal glutathione without vitamin C, vitamin D, zinc, green tea, and minerals like selenium.
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2. Supplement for more of this master antioxidant.

While technology has evolved, oral glutathione supplements remain controversial, although you’ll find a number or oral glutathione supplements as well as intravenous (IV) glutathione. To get the nutrients your body requires to build sufficient glutathione, use a professional-quality multivitamin-mineral to cover any gaps you might not get from food. Beyond that, these four nutrients can help you boost glutathione levels:

  • N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC): This acetylated form of cysteine is a precursor to glutathione. Research shows it helps upregulate glutathione levels, though the effect tends to be temporary. NAC also has some reported risks and side effects like nausea, diarrhea, and muscle cramps.
  • Alpha-lipoic acid: Alpha-lipoic acid, sometimes called lipoic acid, is important for recycling glutathione and restoring sufficient levels. Food sources of lipoic acid include organ meats and spinach, although your body has difficulty extracting it from foods. Getting therapeutic amounts from a supplement can help build glutathione and provides additional antioxidant benefits: Lipoic acid helps recycle other antioxidants like vitamins C and E as well as being its own antioxidant.
  • Whey protein: High-quality, un-denatured whey protein powder provides the correct glutathione-building amino acids, the sulfur-containing amino acids cysteine and methionine, as well as molecules with specific physiological benefits like immunoglobulins, lactoferrin, and alpha-lactalbumin to boost glutathione levels. If you’re dairy-intolerant, you might want to skip this one. Regardless, choose a whey powder that’s professional-quality, free of additives, and low in sugar.
  • Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM): Sulfur is a key compound in glutathione. Beyond eating lots of sulfur-rich foods, MSM can provide additional sulfur. Animal studies show MSM can promote glutathione synthesis and up-regulate the activity of glutathione enzymes.

3. Exercise for optimal glutathione levels.

Want to boost your glutathione naturally? Get off the couch. The first longitudinal study measuring exercise’s effects on glutathione levels found a positive connection. In other words, physical activity was associated with increased glutathione, and a combination of cardio and weight training proved most effective. Exercise is the No. 1 way to increase the number of mitochondria in your muscles for increased energy and ATP. Interestingly, low glutathione levels suggest that your cellular ATP is also low, and studies show glutathione depletion can also cause ATP shortage—so exercising is a win-win for your mitochondrial health and glutathione levels.

So if you want higher glutathione levels, you have to get your body to make more. This requires the right building blocks and ample energy to fuel the operation. Moving your body, improving your diet, and reducing your toxic load are the best strategies for accomplishing the task.

Check this out, it will tell you why your skin needs antioxidants. And did you know your skin might need probiotics, too?

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