If You're Missing This Nutrient, You're Aging Way Faster
This universal and all-important molecule is the mother of all antioxidants: glutathione. It is a ubiquitous molecule that is present in all human tissues, designed to defend against damage caused by free radicals, harmful chemicals, and inflammation. It does all of this (and more) in an effort to protect us against a myriad of insults from environmental toxins, allergens, and infections in our modern world. Indeed, glutathione plays one of the most critical roles in the body—and its deficiency plays a role in many causes of disease. In fact, deficiency of glutathione is recognized as contributing to many conditions, including aging, autoimmune disease, cancer, chronic fatigue syndrome, diabetes, heart disease, infertility, liver disease, Parkinson’s disease, and pulmonary fibrosis, to name a few. Increasing glutathione production can help us to detoxify, age more gracefully, perform better, lose weight, and prevent disease.
The Basics of Glutathione Production
Glutathione is made by the body from three key amino acids: cysteine, glutamine, and glycine. Cysteine is the most crucial of these three building blocks, and it is usually the rate-limiting step in the production of glutathione. It is a sulfur-containing amino acid that contributes the important “sulfhydryl group” to glutathione. This sulfur component is what scavenges destructive molecules and helps convert them to harmless compounds.
Methylation is important to production and recycling of glutathione. Methylation refers to an important biochemical process that adds a methyl group (a single carbon and three hydrogens) to other molecules. This occurs all over the body and is in involved in many critical functions. One of those critical functions is production of glutathione. Methylation pathways depend on a lot of things, but adequate levels of vitamins B6, B12, and folate are particularly important.
Our body’s ability to create and recycle glutathione also depends on the function of glutathione S‐transferase (GST) genes. This family of genes encodes critical processes for detoxification of pharmaceuticals, environmental pollutants, heavy metals, and many other toxins via glutathione. During times of oxidative stress and high toxic load, these genes are upregulated. However, we did not evolve to handle such stressors, and these genes don’t always work that well. Common genetic variations, called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), affect function for many people. SNPs of the glutathione S-transferase genes (like GSTT1, GSTM1, GSTP1) have been linked to increased risks for a multitude of environmental-related diseases—everything from asthma to cancer to infertility.
Here’s the problem: the demand for glutathione in our modern world often exceeds our ability to make it, and we end up depleted. Without enough glutathione, our body builds up too many reactive oxygen species and environmental toxins—the end result of which is DNA damage, oxidative stress, and chronic disease.
The Role of Glutathione in Oxidative Stress
Simply put, oxidative stress is like rust in our body formed by oxidation, and it accelerates aging and disease. While oxygen free radicals are normal components of cell metabolism, they can become a problem if they are produced in an uncontrolled fashion. Similarly, antioxidants can become a problem if there are not enough of them to quench free radicals. Too many reactive oxygen species or too few antioxidants create an imbalance that causes damage to DNA, proteins, and membrane lipids—called oxidative stress.
Glutathione helps to prevent oxidative stress by acting as a reducing agent, antioxidant, and free-radical scavenger. It is a cofactor for the enzyme glutathione peroxidase, which neutralizes reactive hydrogen peroxide species and turns them into water. The process by which glutathione neutralizes damage from oxidation is called reduction. It does this by donating an electron to a reactive oxygen species, thereby neutralizing a free radical (this is what defines an antioxidant). Glutathione is then recycled and restored, assuming it is not depleted. However, severe oxidative stress can deplete cellular glutathione.
Other antioxidants depend on glutathione for their proper function. This is what gave glutathione its well earned title as the master antioxidant. Importantly, it maintains antioxidants like alpha lipoic acid, vitamin C, and vitamin E in their active forms, and recycles them so they can be reused by the body. For example, vitamin C gives up an electron to neutralize a free radical. Glutathione then gives its electron to Vitamin C, returning it to work as an antioxidant. Thus glutathione lowers the required intake for vitamin C and helps our body to be more efficient. These other antioxidants work synergistically with glutathione, helping to prevent depletion of either.