Health Benefits, Risks, and Food Sources

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Here’s a glance at the positive health effects that research links with glutathione. Thankfully, many of the studies have been performed in humans, offering a more accurate picture of how glutathione can benefit health. Nonetheless, the studies typically include small sample sizes (between 8 and 171 subjects), which makes it challenging to draw any concrete conclusions about the health effects of glutathione. So, while the findings are promising, more research in larger populations is warranted.

May Help Guard Against Chronic Diseases

According to a previous editorial, glutathione has been explored in the treatment of several diseases, including:

  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Emphysema
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease
  • Peripheral obstructive arterial disease

The reason glutathione may be helpful stems from its antioxidant properties, which have the potential to fend off chronic disease and other health issues that come with age.

Oxidative stress, which happens when the balance of free radicals and antioxidants skews in favor of free radicals, can result in cell damage, according to the National Cancer Institute. Past research suggests this process is linked to cancer, autoimmune disorders, cataracts, rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases, and accelerated aging itself.

The presence of glutathione helps guard against oxidative stress, and depletion of the amino acid compound is also associated with those disorders, per the previous editorial. Research into the benefits of glutathione supplementation often looks at whether replenishing it in the body will help relieve oxidative stress, and therefore improve health and guard against the effects of aging.

For instance, glutathione levels are depleted in people with Parkinson’s disease, a neurodegenerative disorder that affects movement. That knowledge has spurred research into whether supplements can help with symptoms of the illness, such as one small, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. During the three-month trial, people with Parkinson’s disease were given intranasal glutathione three times daily and saw their symptoms improve, but those improvements were no greater than those observed in the placebo group.

May Support Healthy Liver Function

As mentioned, glutathione is also a detoxifier. “It is responsible for binding to and conjugating a lot of toxins in our liver,” says Danielle Citrolo, PharmD, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs at Kyowa Hakko USA, which sells an oral glutathione supplement under the brand name Setria.

Earlier research suggests conjugation is a process in the liver in which enzymes such as glutathione help make foreign substances, such as drugs, more soluble and easily excreted by the kidneys. Dr. Citrolo cites the conjugation of Tylenol (acetaminophen), which the FDA warns can cause liver damage in high doses, as an example of glutathione protective benefits.

Miller says many of her clients who take glutathione supplements do it believing it can counteract the effects of taking Tylenol or drinking alcohol. Glutathione also indeed plays a role in metabolizing alcohol. When ethanol (alcohol) is processed in the body, a carcinogenic byproduct, acetaldehyde, forms. Glutathione contains the amino acid L-cysteine, which breaks down acetaldehyde into water and carbon dioxide, which are then eliminated in urine. “When we drink excessively, our glutathione levels are lowered,” says Citrolo. A preliminary pilot study suggests oral glutathione supplements led to improvements in people with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease after four months of treatment, but more high-quality studies are needed.

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