Glutathione is one of the body’s strongest antioxidants and thus an important pillar of our immune system. Among other things, glutathione helps fight viruses and detoxify – and eliminates oxidative stress. You can increase your glutathione levels with targeted measures.
Autor: Dr. med. W. Tönnes
How you can increase your glutathione level
Glutathione is an antioxidant produced naturally in the body. It is formed preferentially in the liver, but is found in all cells of the organism, in particularly high amounts (apart from the liver) in the red blood cells and the cells of the immune system.
As one of the strongest and most powerful antioxidants, glutathione takes care of eliminating free radicals. Free radicals mean oxidative stress. Oxidative stress, in turn, leads to cell and tissue damage and is thus an important contributory cause of many chronic diseases and is largely responsible for the fact that we look older and older in the course of our lives and usually also (sooner or later) feel older and older.
Since glutathione can reduce this oxidative stress, the substance is considered a natural anti-ageing agent. For this reason alone, it seems to make sense to take measures that increase the personal glutathione level
The causes of oxidative stress
But where does oxidative stress come from? Oxidative stress can arise due to the following factors (internal and external):
Internal factors that can trigger oxidative stress
- Psychological or physical overload (too much stress, too much sport, too much work (whether physical or mental)
- Surgerys and injuries
- Diabetes and pre-diabetes
- Lipid metabolism disorders
- Functional disorders of the liver, kidneys and intestines
- Chronic inflammatory diseases
External factors that can trigger oxidative stress
- Environmental toxins (pesticide residues, fine dust, heavy metals, etc.)
- Too much UV radiation or other forms of harmful radiation
- High ozone levels
- Nicotine and alcohol
- Unhealthy and antioxidant-poor nutrition
Glutathione has antioxidant activities, detoxifies and supports the immune system
Apart from its antioxidant activities, glutathione has two other major roles: It is important for the body’s own detoxification and improves the performance of the immune system.
In 2006, the scientific journal Virology even reported that glutathione was able to block the reproduction of influenza viruses (flu viruses), HI viruses (HIV) and herpes simplex viruses in cell experiments. If the glutathione was removed from the cells, this led to increased virus replication (= virus multiplication) (44).
Glutathione levels drop during infections
Since glutathione is so active during viral infections, the glutathione level drops rapidly during corresponding infectious diseases (1). Glutathione levels also decrease with exposure to environmental toxins, which is understandable, as increased toxin influx or disease in the body generates even more oxidative stress than is already the case.
The more detoxification and antioxidation work is now required, the more glutathione is used up, the faster the level drops and the more important it is to take measures to raise the glutathione level again.
Glutathione levels drop in many chronic diseases
It is the same with chronic diseases. In fact, the glutathione level correlates so clearly with a person’s state of health that researchers suggested in an article in Nutrients in September 2019 that glutathione status should be used as a biomarker (measured value) and that a healthy glutathione level should be targeted as a therapy goal for various chronic and age-related diseases (39).
The following diseases have already been found to be associated with low glutathione levels, according to this article (39):
- Alzheimer’s disease and other cognitive impairments
- Chronic liver disease (cirrhosis, hepatitis)
- Cystic fibrosis
- Diabetes (especially poorly controlled diabetes)
- High blood pressure
- Infertility – both male and female
- Multiple sclerosis
- Parkinson’s disease
- Mental disorders
- Old age is also considered to be a factor that causes glutathione levels to continually decrease.
Whether the diseases improve when glutathione levels are raised again is not completely clear. But such a proof might be difficult to achieve, because glutathione is of course not the only substance needed for a healthy life.
It is always the whole package that counts – by which is meant not only certain remedies and substances (vitamins, antioxidants, etc.), but also measures such as sufficient sleep, regular exercise, good stress management, sunlight, a healthy intestine, etc.
Glutathione: What is it anyway?
Most people think of antioxidants as substances that are ingested with food, e.g. lycopene in tomatoes, anthocyanins in red cabbage, EGCG in green tea, etc. Glutathione, on the other hand, is an endogenous antioxidant. It is therefore formed independently by the body. For this purpose, three amino acids are put together in the cells: Glutamic acid, cysteine and glycine. Glutathione is therefore a tripeptide, where “tri-” stands for three (1).
And what does peptide mean? Normally, substances that consist of several amino acids are called proteins. For this, however, there should be more than 100 amino acids (however, this definition is not fixed; there are sources that speak of proteins as of 50 amino acids and sources that speak of proteins as of 190 amino acids; we assume a limit of 100 amino acids).
Substances that consist of fewer amino acids – such as glutathione (3 amino acids) or insulin (51 amino acids) – are called peptides. Of course, peptides are not only found in humans, but also in plants and animals. Even the venom of the Brazilian wandering spider is a peptide. It is called PhTx1 and consists of 77 amino acids – in case you are interested.
The measurement of glutathione levels – The diagnosis of glutathione deficiency
If you want to have your glutathione level measured, this can be done by a doctor or alternative practitioner by means of a blood test (whole blood). Several values are recorded, as it is not only the glutathione level itself that is important, but also the ratio between reduced and oxidised glutathione.
The reduced glutathione is not a particularly cheap glutathione, but the active glutathione, i.e. the one with antioxidant effect. When this reduced glutathione defuses a free radical, it is oxidised in the process, which means that it gives the free radical an electron of its own.
Two glutathione molecules oxidised in this way now combine; this compound is called GSSG. In this form, glutathione can now no longer have antioxidant activity. However, there is an enzyme, the so-called glutathione reductase, which can produce two active glutathione molecules again from one GSSG, which can immediately hunt down free radicals again.
You can see from this that the value of the total glutathione is not necessarily meaningful, because it can also be that the proportion of oxidised glutathione is suddenly very high, but this cannot be seen from the total glutathione value. The proportion of reduced glutathione should be 81 to 93 percent of the total glutathione.
This ratio between reduced and oxidised glutathione is a good parameter for the detoxification capacities of the cell and for the current oxidative load (45). If the proportion of reduced glutathione decreases, this is a sign of strong oxidative stress, a reduced detoxification capacity and/or already of a disease.
If it now turns out that you should increase your glutathione level, at least that of reduced glutathione, it could be that you first toy with the idea of simply taking reduced glutathione, but then come across the information that such a food supplement has no effect on the glutathione level. So should you take glutathione or not?
This is what happens when you take glutathione
For a long time it was said that there was no point at all in taking glutathione because the tripeptide – like every protein – was broken down into its individual amino acids in the digestive system thanks to corresponding peptidases (enzymes that split peptides), so that the glutathione level could not rise either, which was indeed shown by various older studies (39).
In 2015, however, a randomised placebo-controlled double-blind study was published that proved the opposite, namely that taking glutathione can indeed increase glutathione levels (38). At that time, 54 adults (non-smokers) had taken 250 mg or 1000 mg of glutathione daily for half a year. An increase in glutathione levels was observed after only one month, but even more markedly after 3 and 6 months.
After 6 months, glutathione levels (in the 1000 mg group) had increased by an average of 30 to 35 percent in red blood cells, lymphocytes (a specific group of white blood cells) and plasma. In the cells of the oral mucosa even by 260 percent.
The glutathione level also increased in the 250 mg group – and only imperceptibly less, namely by 29 percent in the red blood cells. At the same time, a reduction in oxidative stress was observed (the ratio of oxidised to reduced glutathione improved) as well as a strengthening of the immune system, which was shown by the fact that the natural killer cells worked twice as well as in the placebo group. Natural killer cells are among the most important cells of the immune system. Their main task is to eliminate degenerated cells (cancer cells) and cells infected with viruses.
However, glutathione levels dropped back to baseline within a month of stopping the supplement.
Study: Glutathione reduces arterial stiffness
Now it is suspected that liposomal glutathione or even sublingual glutathione might have a higher bioavailability than “normal” glutathione supplements. This is because two recent (but small) studies from 2017 and 2018 had been conducted with exactly these forms of glutathione and showed a significant increase in glutathione levels.
The 2017 study (41) involved 16 men who were considered to be at risk for cardiovascular disease because they had high blood pressure or dyslipidemia and also because their blood vessels already had some stiffness and loss of function. The men took 100 mg of sublingual glutathione or a placebo twice a day for four weeks. The bioavailability of sublingual glutathione was compared with “normal” L-glutathione beforehand.
In a large proportion of the men, arterial stiffness decreased significantly after glutathione intake.
The 2018 study (40) was conducted with 12 men. They took either 500 or 1000 mg of liposomal glutathione daily for four weeks. After just two weeks, the glutathione level in the blood increased by 25 per cent. Values that indicated the extent of oxidative stress as well as values that help assess the immune system (activity of the natural killer cells and also other defence cells (B-lymphocytes)) all improved, as did the ratio of oxidised to reduced glutathione.
This form of glutathione makes sense as a food supplement
So you can take glutathione if you want to. According to the studies presented, “normal” L-glutathione can also increase glutathione levels. If you want to use sublingual or liposomal glutathione, then a smaller dose is sufficient, as their bioavailability is supposed to be better and thus a larger proportion of it can be absorbed.
Sublingual means that the glutathione in question is already absorbed by the mucous membrane of the mouth and thus quickly enters the bloodstream without first having to pass through the liver.
Liposomal means that the glutathione is encased in tiny liposomes and can thus enter the cells directly without being broken down by the digestive enzymes. Liposomes are vesicles whose envelope consists of two phospholipid layers – very similar to the cell membranes of our cells. The bioavailability of liposomal glutathione is said to be close to 100 percent.
Is sublingual/liposomal glutathione recommended?
The question here, however, is whether it makes sense to trick the body’s own protective systems just because you think a lot helps a lot. Maybe it’s not so good to bypass the liver? Maybe it’s not so good to have a large amount of a single substance flowing into the cells all at once? Maybe it makes sense that some of the glutathione is digested and only as much enters the cells as the body sees fit?
With glutathione, the goal should not necessarily be the highest possible level, but rather a balanced level. Too much of a good thing could have the opposite effect, as antioxidants can have an oxidative effect in too high a dose.
We therefore recommend that it is better not to reach for liposomal glutathione (unless a glutathione deficiency has been diagnosed and needs to be remedied quickly), but to take “normal” reduced L-glutathione and to take additional measures to raise the body’s own glutathione production to a healthy level, because that would be the most natural and possibly also the healthiest way.
How to increase your glutathione levels naturally
We will introduce you to various foods, as well as vitamins, minerals, amino acids and botanicals, which – as always in holistic natural medicine – will not only increase your glutathione levels, but also bring many other health benefits.
Magnesium for your glutathione levels
Magnesium is essential for the body’s glutathione formation. The formation of glutathione takes place in two steps (43):
- From the two amino acids glutamic acid and cysteine, γ-glutamylcysteine is formed (γ = gamma). The corresponding -enzyme that sets this reaction in motion is called γ-glutamylcysteine synthetase. Now the third building block is missing, glycine, which is “attached” in the second step.
- Glutathione is formed from γ-glutamylcysteine and glycine. The corresponding enzyme that sets this second step in motion is called glutathione synthetase.
Both enzymes need energy (ATP) and magnesium for each of these steps. If you suffer from a magnesium deficiency, the production of glutathione may also suffer and your glutathione level will drop. Therefore, make sure you have a good supply of magnesium – either through a magnesium-rich nutrition or a suitable magnesium supplement.
Selenium increases glutathione levels
Selenium is also an important substance for a healthy glutathione level. On the one hand, selenium ensures that glutathione can detoxify properly; on the other hand, there is a connection between selenium levels and glutathione levels.
In phase I of the body’s own detoxification, the enzyme group of glutathione peroxidases ensures that glutathione renders harmless hydrogen peroxide (which is produced e.g. during respiration in the body), but also other peroxides. The glutathione peroxidases in turn contain selenium, so that this detoxification step only works with a healthy selenium level.
If phase I of detoxification cannot proceed properly due to a selenium deficiency, then phase II, in which toxins are converted into a water-soluble form so that they can be excreted via the kidneys, also comes to a standstill. Selenium is therefore extremely important for a good detoxification function.
However, a 2011 study on 336 adults showed how selenium can also directly increase glutathione levels. They took 247 µg of selenium daily via selenium yeast for 9 months, whereupon the glutathione level rose by 35 percent (in the light-skinned participants, but not in the dark-skinned ones).
Be careful not to take too much selenium, however, as overdoses again have an oxidative effect. It is therefore better to stick to a low dosage of e.g. 50 µg per day and wait and see how your selenium level changes. More than 200 µg of selenium per day should not be taken.
N-acetylcysteine (NAC) and the glutathione level.
Of course, attention should also be paid to an adequate protein supply, as proteins provide the three amino acids that make up glutathione: cysteine, glycine and glutamic acid.
Proteins contain plenty of glutamic acid and glycine, but proportionally only little cysteine, which is why this amino acid is also the limiting amino acid in glutathione formation. Limiting means that only so much glutathione can be produced until the cysteine reserves are used up. For this reason, a good supply of cysteine is always urged when it comes to glutathione, and N-acetylcysteine (NAC) is usually recommended as a food supplement in the same breath.
NAC is a synthetic substance that is sold as a cough medicine, but is also used as an antidote for paracetamol overdoses because it is so good at eliminating paracetamol-induced oxidative stress in the liver.
Whether NAC can actually increase glutathione levels is not yet clear, and the studies are inconclusive. In a study with Parkinson’s patients, the intake of NAC led to a worsening of symptoms and had to be discontinued.
Protein powder for your glutathione levels
It is sometimes suspected that taking cysteine alone in the form of NAC does not help much. Glycine should be taken at the same time. In a small study with 8 older people and a control group of 8 younger people, the older people initially had less glycine and less cysteine in their red blood cells and also a lower glutathione level than the younger people.
After 14 days of taking NAC (132 mg per kilogram of body weight) and glycine (100 mg per kilogram of body weight), no more differences could be found in the glutathione levels of the two age groups. Particularly in older people, it could therefore make sense to think about both amino acids, not just cysteine.
Whey protein is often emphasised as a source of amino acids. However, it provides only slightly more cysteine than the purely vegetable rice protein, and even less glycine than the rice protein.
Unfortunately, studies have only been conducted with whey protein. A 14-day intake of 15, 30 or 45 g protein powder daily showed a dose-dependent increase in the glutathione level (by 25 percent with 45 g protein powder).
In a small randomised controlled trial with 23 cancer patients, the intake of 40 g whey protein per day plus zinc and selenium increased the glutathione level by 11.7 percent. Furthermore, some values that indicated a stronger immune system improved.
In any case, it is probably more sensible to consume a high-quality protein than individual amino acids, as it is now suspected that serine – another amino acid – can also increase the glutathione level. Either because glycine can be produced from it in the body or because it can improve the bioavailability of cysteine. Rice powder is also ahead in terms of serine (see above).
Omega-3 fatty acids relieve the glutathione system
Omega-3 fatty acids are known for their anti-inflammatory effects, which is why it has been investigated whether they can also support the body’s antioxidant system around glutathione.
In a 2015 study, depressed participants were given 4000 mg of omega-3 fatty acids (4 capsules of 1000 mg each) containing 1200 mg EPA and 800 mg DHA daily for 12 weeks. Their depression improved (compared to the placebo group). The omega-3 fatty acids were not able to increase the glutathione level, but they relieved the glutathione system, as they themselves have an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effect.
The short-chain omega-3 fatty acids from linseed oil, on the other hand, appear to increase glutathione levels specifically, at least in a 2017 study of Parkinson’s patients. The subjects took 1000 mg of linseed oil together with 400 IU of vitamin E for 12 weeks. Their glutathione levels increased, their antioxidant capacity also increased, while inflammatory markers decreased.
In a review from 2019, in which 9 studies on this topic were evaluated, it was shown that the antioxidant capacity increased thanks to the combination of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E, and the burden of oxidative stress also decreased. The glutathione level, however, did not change significantly.
Make sure you have a good supply of omega-3 fatty acids, if only because of their anti-inflammatory properties and positive effects on the brain. Refine raw food dishes occasionally with linseed oil and take the long-chain fatty acids EPA and DHA in the form of algae oil.
B vitamins activate glutathione
Vitamin B2 (riboflavin) is needed by the enzyme glutathione reductase, which can convert oxidised glutathione back into the active reduced form. You can find a list of B2-rich plant foods here. To be on the safe side, you can also take a vitamin B complex preparation that also contains vitamin B12.
This is because vitamin B12 is directly linked to low glutathione levels. In March 2017, 51 patients who were vitamin B12 deficient were found to all also have low glutathione levels. Their antioxidant capacity levels were also low, while their oxidative stress readings were high.
If a vitamin B12 deficiency is found, discuss with your doctor whether a conventional vitamin B preparation is still sufficient or whether it would be better to take a high-dose B12 preparation or have B12 injections to quickly correct the deficiency.
Vitamin C increases glutathione levels
Vitamin C is itself known to be a valuable antioxidant, but it can apparently also increase glutathione levels – especially if the individuals in question had previously taken little vitamin C. In this case, taking vitamin C increased glutathione levels. In this case, taking 500 to 1000 mg of vitamin C per day (for 13 weeks) resulted in an 18% increase in glutathione levels in the lymphocytes (defence cells).
In another study, after taking 500 to 2000 mg of vitamin C per day, it was found that even 500 mg of vitamin C per day was enough to noticeably increase glutathione levels.
Turmeric, milk thistle and rosemary for glutathione levels
Clinical studies on the effect of the above-mentioned herbal remedies on glutathione levels do not yet exist. However, animal studies indicate that rosemary as well as milk thistle and curcumin in the form of extracts in particular can increase glutathione levels in the liver.
So if you are already taking curcumin anyway, or perhaps a milk thistle extract for your liver, this way you are also supporting your glutathione levels.
MSM increases glutathione levels
The same goes for MSM (methylsulfonylmethane), an organic sulphur compound that many people already take to reduce inflammation and relieve pain from joint problems, for example, or to support muscle and joint recovery after exercise.
MSM can simultaneously increase glutathione levels, or perhaps it is precisely because of this property that it has such a good effect on joints and muscles. In an Iranian study from 2011, 18 untrained men were given 50 mg MSM per kilogram body weight or a placebo daily for 10 days. Afterwards, the glutathione level in the MSM group was significantly higher than in the placebo group. (2)
These foods contain glutathione
As glutathione is a substance produced naturally in the body, it is not an essential nutrient and therefore does not have to be taken in with food.
Nevertheless, glutathione is also present in food, although it is unclear to what extent this glutathione content can actually also contribute to increasing the body’s own glutathione level. For the sake of completeness, you will find the glutathione levels of some foods below. The top-ranked plant foods are asparagus (also cooked) and avocados (13, 39).
Glutathione content of meat, fish, dairy products, tofu and sweets.
Meat is also considered rich in glutathione, e.g. hamburgers (17 mg/100 g), lean pork (23.6 mg), roast chicken breast (13.1 mg), cooked ham (23.3 mg) and sausages (frankfurters 6.2 mg). Fish is rather low in glutathione with 1 to 6 mg.
It is interesting that crisps contain 27 mg glutathione and chips from fast food snack bars still contain 14.3 mg. Less surprising, however, is that sweets, dairy products, coffee, tea and soft drinks are completely glutathione-free. But so is tofu.
What do these values tell us? It cannot be the glutathione content alone that makes a food a healthy one. Otherwise, one would have to be able to achieve a great state of health with daily pork cutlets and crisps, which is quite obviously not the case.
-Cooked food provides significantly less glutathione than raw food
As soon as food is processed, especially heated or even canned, glutathione levels usually drop sharply, sometimes to zero (39) – exceptions prove the rule (see crisps).
Apples, for example, contain 3.3 mg glutathione per 100 g in raw form, apple juice exactly 0.0 mg. (Of course, this does not apply to home-pressed raw juices, but to the usual pasteurised industrial juices).
Spinach in raw form contains 12 mg glutathione per 100 g, cooked only 2 mg. Raw peaches contain 7.4 mg, canned peaches only 2 mg. The glutathione content of meat also decreases when it is fried or otherwise heated. Grilling, for example, reduces the glutathione content in beef by 40 percent (42).
How best to increase glutathione levels
As you can see, the measures to increase or optimise your glutathione levels are not particularly new. As is usual in holistic naturopathy, all measures always have a positive effect on every aspect of health. Therefore, if you eat a healthy diet, take care of a comprehensive supply of vital substances and select helpful food supplements in a targeted manner, your glutathione level will also soon recover (if it should have been too low).
Note on health topics
This information is provided in good faith. It is intended exclusively for interested parties and for further education and is in no way to be understood as diagnostic or therapeutic instructions. We accept no liability for damages of any kind arising directly or indirectly from the use of the information. In case of suspected illnesses, please consult your doctor.
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