Coming up on this episode of The Doctor’s Farmacy.
Dr. Mark Hyman:
If you learn about glutathione and you learn how to upregulate your body’s own glutathione and avoid toxins, it’s going to be a huge contributor to your overall health.
Welcome to The Doctor’s Farmacy. I’m Dr. Mark Hyman, and this is a place for conversations that matter. I’m bringing you a new feature on The Doctor’s Farmacy called Health Bites, yummy Health Bites, little nuggets of information that’ll help you live better, live longer, and feel better, which is what it’s all about.
I’m excited about this part, because it’s where I get to talk about all the things I really love and excited about and the kind of nerdy, geeky stuff that I have been studying for years and I’ve been using in my medical practice for decades and that it’s helped so many of my patients. I want you to have that information.
Today, we’re talking about something you may or may not have heard about. It’s kind of a goofy medical word. It’s glutathione. Say that three times fast. Glutathione. Okay?
Glutathione is probably the most important molecule in your body and I’m going to tell you why, so stay tuned. It is so important because it helps address everything from heart disease to cancer, to diabetes, to kidney disease, to Alzheimer’s, to autism, you name it. I’m going to explain why glutathione’s important, what it is, and special tips to help you boost your own glutathione levels and boost your detox system and help protect yourself from chronic illness.
The first thing I want to tell you is what the heck is glutathione? Glutathione is an amazing molecule. I’m just going to give you a little biochemistry first. It’s a little tripeptide. It’s made up of three amino acids: glycine, glutamine, and cysteine.
Cysteine is an amino acid that has sulfur in it. If you ever crushed garlic and it’s sticky, that’s the sulfur. Garlic is one of the most powerful detoxifying compounds too, because it has this sulfur compound.
Why is this sticky sulfur-thing so important? Well, think of it like flypaper that all the toxins stick to in your body.
We unfortunately have been exposed to so many toxins that we need to have a lot of detox capacity. There’s 80,000 new chemicals on the market since the turn of the last century. 1% has been tested for safety. Heavy metals, pesticides, plastics, all kinds of stuff. Flame retardants. I mean the average newborn baby has 287 known toxins in their umbilical cord blood. That means even before they took their first breath, they’re already pretoxified, I don’t know what the word is, but they’re already poisoned before they come out of the womb because of the level of toxins in our environment.
What glutathione does is it basically sticks to all these toxins with the sulfur sticky molecule. That’s really important. It’s like flypaper. It has a lot of other functions, too. We’re going to give them in a minute. It’s recycled in the body, but sometimes, when we’re overloaded with toxins, our body can’t keep up. We just overload our body’s capacity for detoxification.
I also do a lot of diagnostic testing around glutathione. We can tell if your body’s making enough glutathione, we can tell if your body is overloaded with toxins. And I use various kinds of tests like organic acids and glutathione tests. And we can look at reduced and oxidized glutathiones, all this fancy stuff you don’t have to worry about.
The point is that a lot of us don’t really have a good ability to detoxify with glutathione. Why is that? Well, think about it. 500 years ago, 10,000 years ago, all the toxins were kind of underground, right?
Heavy metals come from coal, which we’ve dug up and we created energy from it and it’s created the industrial revolution, but it’s poisoned us. All that stuff goes in the atmosphere and we get heavy metal rain. We have all these toxins that we have to deal with, and we genetically, a lot of us, don’t have a good array of these detox genes. They’re called various kinds of glutathione-producing genes. There’s enzymes in your body that turn one chemical to another and they make the glutathione… They recycle it. Like glutathione M1 transferase, glutathione S-transferase, P1 transferase, all these different genes for glutathione… Glutathione peroxidase. They’re basically coding for enzymes to make more glutathione. But you didn’t need a lot of glutathione 500 years ago, so some of us don’t have that. About half of us don’t have the right genes.
In fact, I read one study years ago where half the people who are in most hospitals have this problem. It’s a big contributor to chronic illness in a lot of ways, and we don’t have really good genes to help us do this, most of us, I certainly don’t. In fact, I know this very well personally, I mean, honestly I learn most of the stuff I learn on myself because I don’t know why, God gave this a gift to me of getting sick and then having to figure it out, but that’s what He’s done or She’s done, whoever’s done it. Essentially, I got mercury poisoning from living in China. I had a lot of tuna fish sandwiches growing up. I had a lot of dental fillings and my body just couldn’t handle it. I ended up learning I had impaired glutathione genes, which makes it hard for me to produce glutathione.
I’m always eating all the things and I’ll tell you what those are coming up, so don’t go away. All the things that helped me boost my own glutathione. I got chronic fatigue syndrome. It was really, really bad, And my body broke down. I got super ill because I couldn’t get rid of all the heavy metals and toxins. That’s why glutathione is such an important molecule and why you should pay attention to all the things I’m going to say about how to boost your glutathione.
The question is: how does glutathione protect against illness? It does so in three main ways. One is your body’s main detoxifier, your body’s main antioxidant, and your body’s key regulator of immune function. Let’s just talk about each one of those.
The first is the detoxifier and we talked about that, how it’s like flypaper and it’s sticky and it gets rid of things.
The second one is it’s an antioxidant. How does that work? Well, most antioxidants in your body work by donating one of their electrons to some damaged molecule. We call those free radicals. This is oxidative stress, free radicals, you might have heard these terms, antioxidants. Basically what it means is that your car rusts, your apple turns brown, fat in a nut goes rancid, your skin wrinkles from the sun damage and ultraviolet radiation… This is all free radical damage. Your body has its own system of antioxidants. You don’t have to always get them from food, but you have a system. And you need to get them from food like vitamin C and vitamin E and so forth.
Glutathione is basically the last stop on this hot potato chain. What happens is let’s say the vitamin C finds a free radical and gives one it’s electrons. Then the vitamin C is damaged and the vitamin E has to come on and protect that. Then it goes down this kind of hot potato, handing off these hot potato free radicals until it gets to glutathione and that’s the final stop. Then your body gets rid of it. The problem, if you’re depleting glutathione, you’re going to have trouble with your antioxidant system and your detox system.
It’s also really important in immune function. A lot of our immune system is regulated through glutathione and its effect on many, many different functions in our body. It also helps with muscle function and it helps reach peak mental physical function. We know, for example, that glutathione levels, if they’re high, actually lower muscle damage, reduce recovery time, increased strength and endurance and make you shift from fat production to muscle development, which is all good.
I’m very interested in that as I age. In fact, one of the most important strategies for healthy aging is using this antioxidant system of glutathione and boosting it with something I’m going to tell you about soon, which is a certain kind of whey protein. I’m going to talk about that in a minute.
These are really important to think about. How do we upregulate and increase our glutathione levels? What actually supports glutathione production? Well, it’s first, food. Eat a lot of foods that contain sulfur molecules. And there’s basically, I would say three main categories of food, the allium family, allium means onions, garlic, leeks, that kind of stuff. Those are full of sulfur molecules. You want include a lot of that in your diet. And garlic is a powerful booster of detoxification as well as antimicrobial and has many, many other benefits. So, make sure you eat plenty of sulfur-containing garlic, onions, and leek.
Second is the broccoli family. This is called the cruciferous vegetables or the brassicas. Broccoli, collards, kale, cabbage, brussels sprouts. There’s a few other superheroes like arugula, watercress, cilantro. These are all very good detoxifying molecules and they help to boost glutathione in the body and they have sulforaphane and glucosinolates and all these phytochemicals that upregulate glutathione, which is super important.
In fact, some of them are really great against cancer. There was one study I saw from Chinese years ago where they looked at the urine in a bazillion Chinese people. Well, not quite a bazillion, but you know what I mean. They often had high levels of broccoli compounds in the urine of some people and those people did not get cancer, whereas the people who didn’t have high levels got cancer. It’s played such a role in all these things. It’s really important to eat also those vegetables.
The next one, and this is one I’ve started to use more and I’m not a huge fan of dairy, but whey protein is pretty unique. My preference is pasture-raised, grass-fed goat whey. It doesn’t taste weird or anything, it’s just whey protein. It’s way better tolerated than regular grass-fed or even regular cow whey, although grass-fed cow can be fine for some people.
Whey protein helps you to boost glutathione significantly, because it has a lot of these sulfur-containing amino acids, like cysteine. It should be made from bioactive, non-denatured proteins, which some of the highly processed ones aren’t, but I love grass-fed goat whey. I use that on a regular basis and I’ve noticed my body change. I’ve noticed my energy increase. I’ve noticed my muscle mass increase. I think that’s a really great way, especially as you age, because it gives you so many benefits. One, it helps with glutathione, which is important in the aging process, and two, it really helps build muscle, which is important.
Okay. What else boosts glutathione? Well, exercise also is effective in boosting glutathione and it helps to boost your immune system, it helps boost detoxification, your antioxidant system, all that stuff. Exercise boosts all of those things. That’s why exercise is so critical. I just wrote my book on longevity, and in the book I talk about the power of exercise to work on almost every single one of the longevity pathways, and glutathione levels is one of the key pathways. Glutathione is so important. I encourage you to do something. If you’re doing nothing, doing something has a huge benefit. From doing nothing, to doing something that you get a huge benefit, even if just walking 20 minutes a day. Then you can keep increasing benefit by longer periods of exercise, by interval training, by strength training, it’s fun. I like to ride my bike, I like to pay tennis, I like to swim. Strength training is super important also for muscle building and with the goat whey, you’ll get a double whammy of boosting glutathione and building muscle.
What else can you do to boost glutathione? I have to do this every day, because I have those crappy genes and I don’t want to get full of toxins so I reduce my toxic exposures. I used the Environmental Working Group, EWG’s website to reduce my toxins in skincare, household products, and food, and sunblock, all that stuff. You want to reduce your exposures, but there’s a lot of things you can do to boost your glutathione levels.
The first is a really important product, which I honestly thought was a drug because in medical school and residency, and when I was an ER doctor, I learned about it and I used it all the time. It’s called N-acetylcysteine. We called it Mucomyst and we would use it for inhalation, for example, with asthma. But we’d also use it if we had Tylenol overdose.
Why Tylenol damages your liver and why if you take Tylenol, it’s a big cause of liver damage for many people, is because it depletes glutathione. When you deplete glutathione, your liver can’t do its job and it gets overloaded with toxins and that causes your liver to fail. What do we do to save the liver? If someone comes in, let’s say does an overdose of Tylenol, what do we do? We give them N-acetylcysteine.
This is actually a supplement you can buy in the health food store. It’s really cheap. It’s something I take every single day, because it’s the building block of glutathione. N-acetylcysteine, that cysteine molecule with the sulfur we talked about, super important. It also has been shown in peer-reviewed journals like JAMA that if you give it before, for example, injection with dye, which we use for different kinds of x-ray procedures, that it will protect the kidneys from damage. A lot of dye can cause kidney damage, but it’ll actually protect the kidneys from kidney failure, which is kind of cool.
The next thing that I use is called alpha-lipoic acid, another really important thing that your body makes to some degree you get from some food, but it’s really important. Alpha-lipoic acid, also boosts glutathione, energy production, helps in blood sugar control, helps your brain function better, and it’s really awesome. I take that every day as well.
Then the next is, there’s this important cycle in your body called methylation. I’ve written a lot of articles about it. We’ll talk about it on the Health Bite soon, but it’s a chemical process that’s at the center of your biology, and if it’s not working so many things go wrong. Heart disease, cancer, diabetes, dementia, autism, I mean you name it, it’s a problem. It’s run by these vitamins, B6, B12 and folate, and a lot of us have genetic variations that are problematic. You want the right forms of these nutrients. Methylation and sulfation are like two cogwheels that go together. Sulfur, the glutathione production, the methylation, all of it’s one system, and it’s the center hub of your biochemistry. I always make sure I take N-acetylcysteine, lipoic acid. I take the right B vitamins.
Selenium is another important one. Selenium is a co-factor for an enzyme called glutathione peroxidase. That enzyme, again one of your main antioxidant systems, because you have antioxidants from food, but you also have your own antioxidant systems, which are way more powerful. Taking the selenium helps boost that.
Then there’s also obviously various other antioxidants that you can use to support it like C and E, but milk thistle all is another herb. Milk thistle is an incredible herb that also helps with liver disease and boosting glutathione.
That’s really what you can do. N-acetylcysteine, lipoic acid, the B vitamins: B6, B12, folate, selenium, and milk thistle. Those are really my go-tos for boosting glutathione.
I hope this was helpful because if you learn about glutathione and you learn how to upregulate your body’s own glutathione and avoid toxins, it’s going to be a huge contributor to your overall health.
I hope you like this Health Bite. That’s it for today. If you enjoy this episode, be sure to share with your friends and family on social media, they probably need to boost their glutathione too. And leave a comment, maybe what have you done with boosting your own glutathione and detoxifying. We’d love to hear from you. And we’ll see you next week on The Doctor’s Farmacy.
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