Antioxidants are compounds naturally produced by most cells in the human body. They help protect healthy cells from damage caused by free radicals, which are unstable molecules that are formed when your body converts food into energy or when you exercise.
Cigarette smoke, air pollution and sunlight are other sources of free radicals, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. In effect, antioxidants provide a “protective shield” from free radicals, which can damage healthy cells and may play a role in causing an array of diseases, including:
What Is Glutathione?
Glutathione is one of the antioxidants that your body produces naturally. It’s produced by all cells in the body, especially the liver. These amino acids in the body combine to produce glutathione:
- Glutamic acid.
Other antioxidants, such as vitamin C and vitamin E, come from the food you eat, says Lisa Jones, a registered dietitian based in Philadelphia. Both the antioxidants produced by your body and the antioxidants you get from food protect healthy cells from free radicals.
What Does Glutathione Do?
The antioxidant glutathione provides a broad array of health benefits, says Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum, a board-certified internal medicine physician and author of the book “From Fatigued to Fantastic: A Manual for Moving Beyond Chronic Fatigue & Fibromyalgia.”
Health benefits provided by glutathione produced by the body include:
- Breaking down certain free radicals.
- Blocking excess inflammation.
- DNA production.
- Repair of DNA.
- Supporting the immune system.
- Transporting mercury out of the brain.
In addition, glutathione in the body helps protect against a wide array of health problems, Teitelbaum says. Glutathione, which is also known as GSH, “is critical in almost every system of the body in protecting us from the inflammatory stresses of modern life.”
GSH helps ward off or mitigate the effects of a wide array of health conditions, according to Teitelbaum.
Those conditions include:
Are Glutathione Supplements Effective?
There’s no question that glutathione produced by the body has a number of health benefits. Whether glutathione supplements provide the same or similar benefits is not established, many experts say.
“There’s not enough research to conclude the supplement is effective,” says Dr. Rahul Dixit, an internal medicine physician, gastroenterologist and hepatologist with Digestive Health Associates in Santa Monica, California. “Consumers need to know that more robust clinical trials are needed for glutathione supplements.”
There’s scant research to suggest that taking glutathione supplements provides health benefits, agrees Dr. Sameer Murali, associate professor of surgery with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston and obesity medicine specialist at Memorial Hermann, the largest not-for-profit health system in southeast Texas.
“A more important question might be (to) consider whether the prevalence and/or severity of pro-inflammatory conditions have a deeper common origin, and in fact, they do,” Murali says. “Over and over, researchers have found that lifestyle behaviors like inadequate sleep, physical activity, social connectedness and vegetable intake are linked to the leading causes of death in the United States, such as cancer and heart disease.”
A couple of recent studies suggest GSH supplements could be promising.
Research published in the journal Antioxidants in 2020 suggests that “the use of liposomal GSH (a glutathione supplement) could be beneficial in COVID-19 patients.”
In a very small study published in 2018 in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers wrote that increases of GSH levels in 12 adults who were provided glutathione supplements over a period of one, two and four weeks experienced reductions in oxidative stress and enhancements in immune function.
While many experts say more research is needed to determine the efficacy of glutathione supplements, Teitelbaum says such supplements, particularly slow-release capsules, can be effective. Many glutathione capsules that aren’t slow-release are digested before they can be absorbed, losing much of their potency, he says.
It’s important to keep in mind that supplements are not regulated like drugs and other medications. Instead, they’re regulated by the Food and Drug Administration as food, not drugs.
The FDA sent a letter to one company for claiming that its glutathione supplements were the key to preventing heart disease, dementia and necessary for treating Alzheimer’s and other conditions.
How to Take Glutathione Supplements
Glutathione supplements have been available for decades. You can ingest GSH supplements in a variety of ways, Jones says.
Glutathione supplements can be ingested:
- Orally (in capsule or liquid form).
Slow-release capsules are the most effective form of the supplement, Teitelbaum says. Many glutathione capsules that aren’t slow-release are digested before they can be absorbed, losing much of their potency. Capsules that slowly release their contents can increase glutathione levels in the body by as much as 230% higher than other supplements, according to Teitelbaum.
Getting Glutathione From Food
While many experts believe more research needs to be conducted to determine whether glutathione supplements are effective, you can consume a number of foods that are rich in glutathione, Jones says.
- Brussels sprouts.
- Mustard greens.
What Cancer Patients Should Know
While many experts say more research needs to be conducted to determine whether glutathione supplements are effective, it’s important to know that supplements may not be an option for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiation therapy, Teitelbaum says. These therapies work by creating oxidative stress to kill cancer cells, so some oncologists request their patients avoid antioxidant supplements, like glutathione, during their treatment.