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Glutathione

Health Benefits, Uses, Side Effects & More

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Updated August 02, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Glutathione (also known as GSH) is a substance found naturally in your body. Also available in certain foods (including fruits, vegetables, and meats), glutathione is sold in dietary supplement form as well. Proponents claim that glutathione supplements can help treat and prevent a number of health conditions.

Produced by the liver, glutathione is made up of three amino acids: cysteine, glycine, and glutamate. Glutathione is thought to offer antioxidant effects, as well as stimulate the immune system.

Health Benefits of Glutathione

Maintaining optimal levels of glutathione is essential to your health, according to a 2004 report published in the Journal of Nutrition. The report's authors note that glutathione plays a key role in antioxidant defense, breakdown of nutrients, and regulation of many biological processes (including immune response). The authors also point out that glutathione deficiency contributes to oxidative stress, which in turn influences the development of many diseases (including Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, liver disease, cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, cancer, heart attack, stroke and diabetes).

While research on the use of glutathione supplements is fairly limited, there's some evidence that glutathione may offer certain benefits when taken in supplement form. Here's a look at several key findings from the available studies:

1) Autism

Glutathione shows promise in the treatment of autism spectrum disorders, suggests a small study published in Medical Science Monitor in 2011. For the study, 26 children (ages three to 13) with an autism spectrum disorder were assigned to eight weeks of treatment with either glutathione supplements or transdermal glutathione (a type of treatment that involves delivering active ingredients through the skin). Results showed that glutathione supplements helped increase participants' glutathione levels to some degree. The study's authors call for further research on the use of glutathione supplements and its potential to improve symptoms of autism spectrum disorders.

2) Colitis

Animal-based research indicates that glutathione supplementation may aid in the treatment of colitis. In a 2003 study published in Digestive and Liver Disease, for instance, scientists discovered that glutathione supplementation significantly improved damage to the colon in rats with colitis.

3) Cardiovascular Health

In tests on rats, the authors of a 2001 study from the American Journal of Physiology found that a combination of glutathione supplementation and exercise training may help boost antioxidant capacity and protect against the oxidative damage and decrease in heart function caused by ischemia reperfusion (the restoration of blood flow to an area that had previously experienced deficient blood flow).

Uses for Glutathione

Glutathione is said to protect against a wide range of health problems, including:

In addition, glutathione is purported to reverse the aging process, prevent cancer, and preserve memory.

Side Effects

Due to a lack of research, little is known about the side effects of using glutathione supplements. However, there's some concern that use of glutathione supplements may cause cramping and bloating. In addition, some people may experience allergic reactions to glutathione supplements (such as a rash).

Glutathione and Skin-Whitening

Although glutathione is often touted as a natural solution for whitening of the skin, there is no scientific support for this claim.

A number of personal-care products containing glutathione are marketed for their supposed skin-whitening effects. These products include soaps and creams. However, some people take glutathione supplements for skin-whitening.

Intravenous Use

In some cases, healthcare professionals administer glutathione through use of an IV. When given intravenously, glutathione is typically used to treat conditions like Parkinson's disease, atherosclerosis, and diabetes. In addition, administering glutathione through an IV is sometimes used to treat the side effects of chemotherapy, hemodialysis treatment, and bypass surgery.

Injections

Healthcare professionals sometimes inject glutathione to protect against chemotherapy side effects or to treat infertility.

Where to Find Glutathione

Widely available for purchase online, glutathione supplements and glutathione-containing personal-care products are sold in many natural-foods stores, drugstores, and stores specializing in dietary supplements.

Sources

Kern JK, Geier DA, Adams JB, Garver CR, Audhya T, Geier MR. "A clinical trial of glutathione supplementation in autism spectrum disorders." Med Sci Monit. 2011 Dec;17(12):CR677-82.

Loguercio C, D'Argenio G, Delle Cave M, Cosenza V, Della Valle N, Mazzacca G, Del Vecchio Blanco C. "Glutathione supplementation improves oxidative damage in experimental colitis." Dig Liver Dis. 2003 Sep;35(9):635-41.

Ramires PR, Ji LL. "Glutathione supplementation and training increases myocardial resistance to ischemia-reperfusion in vivo." Am J Physiol Heart Circ Physiol. 2001 Aug;281(2):H679-88.

Wu G, Fang YZ, Yang S, Lupton JR, Turner ND. "Glutathione metabolism and its implications for health." J Nutr. 2004 Mar;134(3):489-92.

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