With a nickname like “the master antioxidant,” glutathione may soon give OG antioxidants like vitamins C and E a run for their money. Glutathione—also called GSH—is hard at work in every cell of your body. Your body needs increasing levels of glutathione as you age, but your ability to produce the antioxidant diminishes over time. Supplements and injections can help you keep your levels high enough to reap all the glutathione benefits the powerhouse compound has to offer.
Research on glutathione is still in its infancy. Most of what we know about the compound comes from animal studies.
But a few clinical trials and human studies have been done or are in the works, and so far, the results are promising, says Vishwanath Venketaraman, Ph.D., a professor of microbiology and immunology at the Western University of Health Sciences who has been researching glutathione for more than 20 years.
Glutathione is already recommended for health conditions including Parkinson’s and heart disease, and experts are excited by its potential to extend lifespan, boost immunity, improve strength and physical performance, and reduce the risk for age-related diseases.
Here’s what you need to know about glutathione benefits and how to make sure you’re getting enough.
What is Glutathione?
To make glutathione, your body strings together three amino acids: glutamate, glycine, and cysteine (1). The bulk of your body’s GSH is produced by your liver.
Glutathione has a few big jobs in your body. The main one: to fight against free radicals, the unstable molecules that can damage your cells and cause oxidative stress.
Free radicals are found in the environment and are also generated by your body in the mitochondria when oxygen molecules are converted into energy, says Jack Jeng, M.D., Chief Medical Officer at Hone Health.
Free radicals are unstable because they are missing one or more of their electrons. To get back into balance, they steal electrons from other molecules in a process called oxidation. “When free radicals outpace antioxidants, the imbalance creates oxidative stress,” says Jeng.
Left unchecked, oxidative stress can contribute to a smorgasbord of health conditions and chronic diseases including diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, kidney disease, and more (2). “There’s a link between oxidative stress and just about every malady you can think of,” says Jeng.
- Glutathione is an antioxidant that may extend lifespan, boost immunity, improve strength and physical performance, and reduce the risk for age-related diseases.
- Glutathione’s primary role is to fight against free radicals, which cause oxidative stress.
- Oxidative stress can contribute to chronic diseases including diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, and kidney disease.
What Does Glutathione Do in the Body?
Glutathione is an antioxidant. And the main job of any antioxidant is to neutralize free radicals and stop them in their otherwise injurious tracks.
Antioxidants like glutathione attack free radicals in a few different ways, says Jeng. They prevent the formation of free radicals in the first place.
They also donate electrons to free radicals, so they don’t steal them from DNA or other cells. “All antioxidants are generous in this way, and glutathione is by far the most magnanimous,” says Jeng.
Aside from its antioxidant activity, one of GSH’s main jobs is to help detoxify the body.
Your body is continually confronted with harmful compounds, some that are natural by-products of things you might not think of as unsafe (e.g., medications) and some that are unnatural by-products of modern life (e.g., pollution), says Jeng. “When glutathione interacts with toxins, it binds them to make the toxins water-soluble so they can be eliminated from the body.”
Your immune system also relies on glutathione.
“Glutathione is pivotal in keeping the immune system strong,” says Venketaraman. Macrophages—white blood cells that kill foreign invaders, remove dead cells, and stimulate the action of other immune cells—need glutathione to function.
Glutathione in the Body
- Glutathione prevents the formation of free radicals. It also donates electrons to free radicals so they don’t steal them from other cells.
- GSH also helps detoxify the body and keeps your immune system strong.
Glutathione is the first line of defense against oxidative stress, processing toxins out of our body, neutralizing free radicals, increasing cellular function, and promoting cellular turnover. Now available through Hone.
What Happens if You Don’t Have Enough Glutathione?
As you age your body’s ability to produce glutathione decreases, leaving you more vulnerable to a variety of diseases and health issues (2, 3). Inflammation, alcohol consumption, genetics, and illness can also contribute to the depletion of glutathione.
Reduced glutathione levels have been linked to a range of conditions and issues, including:
- Autoimmune disorders (rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, psoriasis, contact dermatitis, Crohn’s disease)
- Cardiovascular diseases
- Chronic liver disease
- Cognitive impairment
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
- Cystic fibrosis
- High blood pressure
- Leaky gut syndrome
- Mental health disorders
- Multiple sclerosis
- Parkinson’s disease
- Thyroid disease
The Benefits of Glutathione
There’s still a lot that researchers don’t know about glutathione. But based on animal and human studies, here’s what they know so far—and how they suspect glutathione may boost your health.
1. Reduce oxidative stress
No big surprise here, given what we know about glutathione’s role in fighting free radicals. One 2019 study (4) found that in the lab, GSH has a positive effect on oxidative stress. A paper published the same year in the journal Nutrients (5) called glutathione an “exciting and promising” treatment to combat cell and tissue damage.
Other research suggests that supplementing with glutathione may boost this effect and even protect against age-related diseases linked to oxidative stress, like cancer and diabetes.
When healthy adults were given glyNAC, a supplement that increases glutathione levels, they had lower levels of oxidative stress and inflammation after 24 weeks of treatment (6).
2. Boost immunity
“Glutathione may keep your immune system strong so it can better fight off infection,” says Venketaraman, whose research has found that glutathione is toxic to tuberculosis bacteria.
“One way it does that is by supporting T cells and natural killer cells, white blood cell types that help phagocytic cells like macrophages to attack foreign invaders and protect you from infection.”
A Frontiers in Immunology study suggests that GSH “fine-tunes” your immune response (7) so that it can jump into action without going into overdrive.
And a small clinical trial found that people who took glutathione supplements had elevated levels of natural killer (NK) cells and lymphocytes, your body’s front-line infection fighters (8).
3. Improve brain health
Low levels of glutathione in the brain have been linked to neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease (9), according to a review in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences.
Another small study of patients with early, untreated Parkinson’s disease given high dose intravenous glutathione twice a day for 30 days showed symptom improvement that lasted for 2-4 months after treatment ended (10).
Brain tissue may be more at risk for oxidative stress, according to a 2017 study (11). It found that cells in the hippocampus (which is key to memory and learning) and amygdala (a hotbed of emotional regulation) may be most susceptible to oxidative stress.
Promising research suggests that even healthy brains could get a cognitive boost from supplementation that improves glutathione levels (6).
4. Improve insulin resistance
Higher levels of glutathione may lower your risk for diabetes.
Beyond the link to oxidative stress, higher GSH levels have been linked to improved insulin sensitivity—how sensitive your body is to the effects of insulin—which has been associated with a lower risk for diabetes (12).
People with type 2 diabetes have lower levels of glutathione, says Venketaraman. “In one study, when mice with type 2 diabetes took glutathione for three months, their levels of inflammation and free radicals went down, while levels of glutathione were increased.” (13)
Other research on aging mice (14) also found that eating foods that were high in cysteine and glycine (which, remember, are used to make glutathione) boosted their ability to burn fat and improved insulin resistance.
5. Better liver health
A lack of antioxidants, including glutathione, may lead to fatty liver disease. And GSH supplementation may improve liver function.
One study found that people with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease who took high doses of GSH intravenously for four months saw positive improvements in liver health (15).
6. Extend your life
Large-scale research published in 2009 (16) connected disturbances in glutathione homeostasis with everything from cancer to metabolic, immune, and inflammatory diseases. All of these conditions have been linked to oxidative stress, and if you can stave them off, you have a better chance of living longer, says Venketaraman.
More recent research from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston found that glutathione increases lifespan in mice by 24 percent (6).
Oxidative stress has been linked to age-related illnesses and conditions. Stop it in its track with glutathione.
7. Fight autoimmune disease
One study noted a strong link between oxidative stress and apoptosis—a normal process of programmed cell death—in patients living with lupus, an autoimmune disease where the immune system attacks healthy cells and tissues by mistake. Glutathione depletion was found to be “closely related” to the destruction of cells (17).
A 2009 study in the journal Autoimmunity Reviews suggested that altered glutathione concentrations may play an important role in many autoimmune conditions linked to oxidative stress reactions (18) and that “antioxidant supplementation may be beneficial in the treatment of autoimmune diseases.”
8. Help treat COVID
A recent study published in the journal Antioxidants (19) found that people who contracted the COVID-19 virus and were hospitalized had significantly increased levels of oxidative stress, and significantly lower levels of glutathione, when compared to blood samples from healthy adults of the same age.
The study authors suggest that giving glutathione precursors to people who test positive for COVID might help treat the disease, though they note that more research is needed.
Venketaraman notes that glutathione may also help people suffering from long Covid. “People with long Covid have glutathione deficiency, and supplementing with glutathione could bolster their immune system.”
9. Aid with inflammatory bowel disease
People with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) in particular may find glutathione helpful. People with IBD have decreased activity of the enzymes involved in glutathione synthesis, and lower levels of its main ingredient, cysteine (20).
IBD is also an autoimmune disease, Venketaraman points out. “In IBD you could have ongoing inflammation, and glutathione can help reduce that inflammation. It may also restore cytokine balance to diminish the extent of the disease.” Cytokines are small proteins that are crucial in controlling the growth and activity of other immune system cells.
10. Amp physical performance
If taken before a workout, glutathione may enhance your gains. In one small study, men who received glutathione before a workout performed better and felt less fatigued after their exercise session (21).
Another study in healthy older adults showed supplementing with glyNAC, which increases glutathione levels, led to improvements in strength, gait speed, and body composition (6).
11. Prevent obesity
Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of health conditions—including high blood pressure, elevated blood sugar, high cholesterol, high triglycerides, and a high waist circumference—which can raise the risk for diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
One study in the journal Experimental and Therapeutic Medicine (22) found that adults who were diagnosed with metabolic syndrome and who initially tested with higher glutathione levels lost more weight and showed greater reductions in body fat after following a healthy eating plan for six months.
12. Decrease heart disease
Glutathione appears to protect against heart disease—at least in animals. Scientists at the University of Michigan Health System put rats with high blood pressure on an antioxidant-rich diet of grapes. After 18 weeks, they found that rats were less likely to suffer from heart muscle enlargement (a sign of heart failure). The animals also had better blood pressure numbers.
Researchers hypothesize that the diet “turned on” antioxidant pathways that ultimately boosted glutathione production (23).
13. Boost fertility
In one study of eleven infertile men, glutathione had a significant positive effect on sperm motility after 2 months of treatment (24). “Glutathione may help with infertility through its role in reducing oxidative stress,” says Jeng.
14. Improve atherosclerosis
Atherosclerosis is a condition caused by a build-up of plaque in the arteries that can lead to heart disease and stroke. In one study, ten patients with atherosclerosis were administered glutathione. Researchers noted a significant increase in blood filtration, in addition to a significant decrease in blood thickness (25).
Glutathione’s main job: to fight against oxidating stress.
Sources of Glutathione
If you’re looking to boost glutathione, there are three main ways to do it: through diet, lifestyle changes, and supplements.
Good dietary sources of GSH include:
- Cruciferous vegetables like brussels sprouts, kale, cauliflower and broccoli. These vegetables contain sulforaphane, a compound that research shows can boost glutathione. (26)
- Citrus. Grapefruit, kiwis, and citrus fruits are rich sources of vitamin C. Research (27) suggests vitamin C plays an important role in glutathione oxidation.
- Whey Protein. One small study found that after completing an intense resistance training workout, young men who supplemented with whey protein saw significant increases in glutathione peroxidase in comparison to a placebo group (28).
Adopting healthy habits like getting enough sleep, exercising, and cutting back on alcohol use can keep glutathione levels healthy (29, 30, 31)
Glutathione can be taken orally but research is mixed on whether this is an effective way to boost your levels (32, 33) since glutathione is poorly absorbed during digestion.
A more effective route is glutathione injections. Injections bypass the gut and deliver glutathione directly into the bloodstream. The antioxidant is injected directly into the muscle (usually your glutes or upper arm) or subcutaneously.
You can ask your physician about glutathione injections. You can also work with Hone. Simply fill out an intake form about why you’re interested in glutathione injections and add basic health information. Then, a medical provider who is licensed in your state will review your request, and, if he or she thinks that you might benefit from glutathione injections, a prescription for the shots will be sent to the pharmacy.
Glutathione Side Effects and Risks
Glutathione injections have a few side effects, most of which are mild, and include:
- Loose stools
- Increased flatulence
In some cases, you could have itching, irritation, or redness at the injection site. You should seek medical attention if you develop swelling of the lips, throat or tongue, hives, difficulty breathing, fever, chills, or if lumps under the skin are raised, red, draining pus, warm to the touch, or severely painful.