Found within every cell in the body, glutathione is the body’s master antioxidant and major defense system against free radicals. As a tripeptide composed of the amino acid building blocks cysteine, glutamic acid, and glycine, glutathione is required for optimal detoxification processes by the body. As a detoxifier, it helps eliminate harmful toxins and supports optimal liver health. It’s essential for cellular health and integrity and supports our body’s ability to fight oxidative stress.
Studies show that glutathione is depleted with age, so as we get older, our body’s need for glutathione increases. In addition, our health status is directly related to our glutathione supply since many chronic health conditions are associated with low glutathione levels. Since it is present in every cell, glutathione benefits the health of all organs in the body. In particular, it is vital for lung health as well as for boosting immune function.
Glutathione and Lung Function
On a daily basis, our lungs are bombarded with harmful pollutants, immune challenges, allergens and other environmental irritants. These insults can do extreme damage to lung tissue, causing inflammation and oxidative stress. The presence of high levels of glutathione in lung tissue confers protection against these challengers. It protects cells from environmental exposures, neutralizes free radicals in lung tissue, and facilitates the removal of toxins.
Studies support the fact that adequate glutathione levels from very early developmental stages are required for normal lung growth and development. Deficiencies in glutathione from early developmental stages may even be predictive for the development of future lung health issues. Conditions such as COPD and asthma have been associated with depleted levels of glutathione. Allergens, irritants, and immune challengers that negatively impact lung function also deplete glutathione, increasing the body’s need for it.
The key roles of the glutathione system in lung tissue include maintaining lung epithelial tissue health – that is, the health of the tissue lining the lungs – and protecting it from free radical damage. In the process, glutathione keeps inflammation in check, facilitating healthy lung function. A key feature of the lung conditions mentioned above is uncontrolled inflammation, so glutathione is a key protective factor for lung health.
Glutathione- an Immune System Booster
Going far beyond its function as a major antioxidant, research has revealed that glutathione has a direct benefit on immune function. Studies have looked at glutathione status in those infected with various viruses and have found that low glutathione status was associated with the worst outcomes. Even more significant is the key finding that those most susceptible to poor recovery from immune challenges are individuals that have preexisting chronic health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, lung conditions, obesity, and those who are chronic smokers. Inevitably, these individuals have low baseline levels of glutathione, putting them at higher risk for immune dysfunction.
Specific to the lungs, viral infections causing the most damage are those that create an imbalance in inflammatory cytokine production – often termed the “cytokine storm”. In this condition, inflammatory cytokines are highly elevated, leading to excess inflammation and lung tissue damage. This inflammation leads to excessive free radical production. As glutathione is the key antioxidant in the lungs responsible for quenching free radicals, starting out with low baseline levels increases the likelihood of this phenomenon and corresponds to increased lung damage.
The function of immune cells also is reliant on having adequate glutathione supplies. Studies have found that depleting glutathione from immune system cells including neutrophils, lymphocytes, and macrophages leads to impaired functionality, increasing the likelihood of compromised immune defenses. Furthermore, supplementing glutathione led to improvements in the function and proliferation of immune cells in healthy adults, supporting the benefits of having adequate supplies of this key antioxidant.
Glutathione also possesses direct antiviral effects, proving its usefulness in such situations. It enhances the ability of macrophages, which are key immune cells involved in the response to viral infections. Glutathione has also been found to be directly antiviral against several other viruses, decreasing their ability to infect cells and tissues, as well as decreasing overall viral replication. Participating as a key player in these immune processes makes glutathione an indispensable compound that is an immune system booster.
The Connection Between NAC and Glutathione
When people consider the differences between glutathione and an NAC supplement, they are often confused between the two. The natural question is which nutrient to supplement with for the best immune protection. The answer is both have their key advantages and either way you are likely to boost immune health. NAC is short for N-acetyl cysteine, a bioavailable source of the amino acid cysteine. Recall above that we mentioned glutathione is a tripeptide composed of three amino acids, one of which is cysteine. Therefore, the function of NAC is to provide the body with a source of cysteine. Studies show that supplementing with NAC benefits the body’s stores of glutathione, which is the active antioxidant in the body.
Supplementing with glutathione is also an effective strategy. This has been found to increase the body’s stores of glutathione as well and research indicates that glutathione that is supplemented orally is bioavailable and reaches the blood stream. When supplementing with glutathione, you are also providing the body with the preformed compound that it needs to fight against free radicals. When you supplement with NAC, the body is required to perform a conversion step to form glutathione. Either way, the end result is that you increase glutathione levels, so both are beneficial immune and lung health supplements.
Glutathione is the body’s master antioxidant. Many chronic health conditions as well as the normal aging process depletes this key nutrient, making us susceptible to immune challenges and poor lung health. Ensuring adequate glutathione levels through supplementing with this critical compound supports the immune system and improves the function of lung tissue, facilitating healthy breathing and protecting against environmental challenges.
- Khanfar A, Al Qaroot B. 2020. European Review for Medical and Pharmacological Sciences
- Van de Wetering C et al. 2021. Redox Biology
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