Ramp up your natural antioxidant power

Get to know glutathione: one of the most important components of the cell’s antioxidant defense system.

We normally think of antioxidants as things from what we eat, whether in the form of colorful fruits and vegetables or supplements. It’s easy to forget that our cells make their own powerful antioxidants too. There are several types of internally produced antioxidant chemicals and enzymes, but the most critical of them is glutathione, sometimes called “the mother of all antioxidants.”

Glutathione is a three-amino-acid chain made up of glutamic acid, cysteine and glycine. This simple molecule is able to neutralize free radicals both through direct scavenging and by being a cofactor for several antioxidant enzymes. It can also regenerate other key antioxidants including vitamins C and E. In addition, glutathione is involved in the detoxification of chemicals and drugs in the liver and the transport of mercury out of cells and the brain. Importantly, glutathione helps maintain the function of cells’ powerhouses known as mitochondria. Without glutathione, cells would quickly become too damaged to function, and the body would fail.

If our cells can make more glutathione as needed, why are oxidative stress and related degenerative conditions still such common health issues? It’s because many lifestyle and environmental factors can rapidly consume glutathione and even disrupt its activity or metabolism, leading to reduced levels of active glutathione and the accumulation of tissue damage. Such factors include excessive acetaminophen use, smoking, alcohol consumption, and exposure to heavy metals, pollutants and certain food additives. Chronic stress, infection and overtraining can also increase the oxidative burden on the body. It doesn’t help that glutathione production decreases with age.

Like most other antioxidants, glutathione has many food sources, including avocado, asparagus and spinach as well as raw eggs and milk. However, glutathione is easily broken down by cooking and digestion, and the little that enters the blood circulation cannot be taken up by most cells. Therefore, a more effective way to boost glutathione levels is to stimulate the body to make more of its own glutathione. You can do so naturally by incorporating some of the following in your diet:

  • Sulfur-rich foods: The sulfur-containing amino acid cysteine tends to be the limiting building block for making glutathione. Cysteine and glutathione levels can be enhanced by consuming more sulfur-containing foods, including meat, fish, and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, Brussel sprouts and kale.
  • Whey protein: This milk protein is a good source of the amino acid cysteine. Whey protein supplementation has been found to increase the levels of glutathione in studies.
  • Vitamins and other nutrients: Antioxidant vitamins C and E, as well as alpha lipoic acid, can help recycle glutathione, regenerating its active form. The B vitamins, selenium and magnesium are also involved in glutathione production and activity.
  • Herbal boosters: Milk thistle and turmeric both have known antioxidant and cell-protective properties. The herbs’ respective active components, silymarin and curcumin, have been shown to increase glutathione levels.

For antioxidant protection, don’t stop at resveratrol or beta-carotene. Be sure to strengthen your glutathione defense too.

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