The Link Between Glutathione, Oxidative Stress & Mental Health
As we've learned more about mental health over the years, the clearer it's become that psychological states of mind can have biochemical origins. The connection between messaging chemicals called neurotransmitters and depression, for instance, is quite clear.
Neurotransmitters as well as hormones can be involved in the development of anxiety disorders, too. Less studied, but still significant, is the fact that some forms of depression and anxiety may be linked to oxidative stress. And one way that scientists have determined this is by discovering the presence of low glutathione (GSH) levels in people suffering from these psychological conditions.
How does glutathione affect mental health?
In 2017, researchers from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and Weill Medical College of Cornell University joined together to publish a paper on adolescent depression. Using magnetic spectroscopy (a magnetic resonance test that looks at biochemical changes in the brain), the group compared the glutathione levels of adolescents suffering from depression1 with those of healthy control subjects.
They found that the depressed adolescents had significantly lower levels of GSH. Other studies have also shown that glutathione is in shorter supply in depressed individuals as well as in animals exhibiting anxiety-like behavior2.
Glutathione and oxidative stress.
When researchers look at glutathione levels in these studies, the question they are often asking is: Does oxidative stress play a role in this particular disorder?
Oxidative stress is the unfavorable ratio of antioxidants to free radicals, and glutathione is a marker of oxidative stress. If glutathione is low, it indicates that it's been used up fighting free radicals.
To me, the more salient question is: If more glutathione was available, would the problem be averted? That's something we don't know the answer to right now, though I hope it will be addressed in the future.
Many factors can be involved in depression and anxiety. Among them is dysfunction in the brain chemicals serotonin and dopamine. Some researchers believe that glutathione helps dopamine in the brain become more effective and increases sensitivity to serotonin.
If this is the case—and it still hasn't been proved yet—then glutathione may one day be used to help treat depression. Right now, I don't know of many doctors treating either anxiety or depression with GSH. However, as we learn more about the relationship between oxidative stress and psychological disorders, we may find that glutathione has an important role to play.
Glutathione and the 3 types of stress.
While we're on the topic of states of mind, it seems a good time to ask: Are glutathione and psychological stress—i.e., the stress you experience over such things as fluctuating finances, marital woes, and professional pressures—at all linked? The answer is no—but, indirectly, also yes.
There are basically three types of stress we humans experience:
- Physical stress: occurs when you get ill or injured or the body is pushed to its natural limits.
- Chemical stress: a byproduct of exposure to or ingestion of some type of toxin or pollutant.
- Psychological stress: the consequence of anything that weighs on our minds.
Glutathione is primarily involved with chemical stressors. Its job is to get rid of anything harmful in the body, be it heavy metals or free radicals.
Psychological stressors are mostly handled by the adrenal glands, which releases the hormone cortisol to help your body cope with anything your brain sees as a threat. So, in that sense, glutathione isn't called upon to assist you in dealing with road rage when someone cuts you off in traffic or the tension you feel when you've got a big project due at work.
Psychological stress doesn't "use up" GSH. However, reducing stress in your life can help your body get the most out of glutathione. Here's why: Stress raises the heart rate and interferes with how deeply you breathe. These are two things that can inhibit glutathione's job of detoxifying the body.
To help slow the heart rate and breathe more deeply, I recommend short meditations. They can increase the oxygen in the body and allow you to have a better exchange of gases through the lungs, both of which will give GSH an assist in the detoxification process.
While there's no definitive link between the antioxidant glutathione and mental health disorders, a lack of GSH may be associated with oxidative stress and neurochemical dysfunction.
Meditation and stress management are useful ways to manage stress and maintain mental health. The practice may also help optimize glutathione functioning by lowering the heart rate and improving breath.
Nayan Patel, PharmD is an internationally recognized expert, consultant, and lecturer on glutathione, and has been a respected pharmacist for 25 years. Patel received his Pharm.D degree from the USC School of Pharmacy, where he now serves as an adjunct faculty member. He has traveled the world educating practitioners and pharmacists on advanced biochemistry and anti-aging science. He lives with his family in Southern California.