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Glutathione: New Supplement on the Block

Cure-All or Snake Oil?
By
WebMD Feature

July 30, 2001 -- Who wouldn't like to get their hands on a naturally occurring substance that acts as an antioxidant, an immune system booster, and a detoxifier? Something that can help your body repair damage caused by stress, pollution, radiation, infection, drugs, poor diet, aging, injury, trauma, and burns?

 

A handful of researchers are saying the antioxidant glutathione can do all that and maybe more. But can you believe such sweeping claims? What's the evidence to back them up? Here are what three experts have to say:

What Is Glutathione?

"Glutathione is a very interesting, very small molecule that's [produced by the body and] found in every cell," says Gustavo Bounous, MD, director of research and development at Immunotec and a retired professor of surgery at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. "It's the [body's] most important antioxidant because it's within the cell."

 

Antioxidants -- the most well known of which are vitamins C and E -- are important for good health because they neutralize free radicals, which can build up in cells and cause damage. Because glutathione exists within the cells, it is in a prime position to neutralize free radicals. It also has potentially widespread health benefits because it can be found in all types of cells, including the cells of the immune system, whose job is to fight disease.

 

Glutathione occurs naturally in many foods, and people who eat well probably have enough in their diets, says Dean Jones, PhD, professor of biochemistry and director of nutritional health sciences at Emory University in Atlanta. Those with diets high in fresh fruits and vegetables and freshly prepared meats are most likely just fine. On the other hand, those with poor diets may get too little.

What Does Glutathione Do?

The strong antioxidant effect of glutathione helps keep cells running smoothly. Bounous and another glutathione expert, Jeremy Appleton, ND, say it also helps the liver remove chemicals that are foreign to the body, such as drugs and pollutants.

 

Appleton is chairman of the department of nutrition at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Ore., and senior science editor for Healthnotes, a database on complementary and alternative medicine available at newspaper stands and health food stores.

 

Evidence for the important role that glutathione plays in health comes from studies in people who are severely ill.

 

"If you look in a hospital situation at people who have cancer, AIDS, or other very serious disease, almost invariably they are depleted in glutathione," says Appleton. "The reasons for this are not completely understood, but we do know that glutathione is extremely important for maintaining intracellular health."

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