What is Glutathione?

Karyn Maier
Karyn Maier

Glutathione is a substance naturally produced by the human body through the synthesis of certain amino acids in the liver. It's also used by virtually every cell of the body to neutralize toxins. Since glutathione is composed of three amino acids, namely gamma-glutamic acid, cysteine, and glycine, it is classified as a tripeptide. However, unlike some other tripeptides, it possesses a unique peptide linking structure within the cysteine and glutamate chain. The thiol group in the former allows the molecule to provide what is known as a reducing equivalent, which means the ability to donate one electron to other molecules rendered unstable and highly reactive due to a lack of balanced electron pairs. For this reason, this form is called reduced glutathione (GHS).

Glutathione is a natural substance produced in the human body that helps promote a healthy immune system.
Glutathione is a natural substance produced in the human body that helps promote a healthy immune system.

The majority of this substance found in the cells and tissue of the body is in the GHS state. However, as electron donation continues, GHS molecules also become unstable due to unpaired electrons and eventually bind to a fellow molecule to create an oxidized form, or glutathione disulfide (GSSG). Of total glutathione concentration in the body, only 10% resides as GSSG.

Glutathione is produced in the liver.
Glutathione is produced in the liver.

The primary function of glutathione is to provide antioxidant activity by regulating the reduction of cysteine thiol side chains as they adhere to proteins. This action helps to deter oxidative stress and cellular damage from free radicals. In fact, this substance is essential to protect the eyes, skin, kidneys, liver and many other organs from toxic byproducts produced by the body through normal metabolism. In the liver, it aids in the detoxification and removal of harmful toxins, including those generated through environmental pollution, and the consumption of alcohol and drugs.

Intestinal cramping is a potential side effect of glutathione supplementation.
Intestinal cramping is a potential side effect of glutathione supplementation.

Glutathione also plays an important role in promoting a healthy immune system. For instance, it inhibits inflammatory mediators, such as leukotrienes, which are involved in a variety of inflammatory disorders ranging from allergies to arthritis. Since research has shown a link between decreased glutathione availability and age-related diseases, experimental therapy is underway to help treat many age-related conditions, such as cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. There is also evidence to suggest that people afflicted with an autoimmune disorder, such as AIDS, may be deficient in this substance and may benefit from supplementation.

While several studies have demonstrated the beneficial properties of glutathione, evidence that oral supplementation has any therapeutic value is less promising. For one thing, it is not well absorbed in supplement form. For another, studies have shown that a supplemental dose does not necessarily increase levels circulating in the body, even if taken intravenously. However, increasing intake of cysteine, a precursor to glutathione, may increase available levels in cells. Studies have shown that S-Adenosylmethionine (SAM-e), N-acetylcysteine (NAC), and supplements made from unadulterated whey protein, raise cysteine levels.

While glutathione supplementation is generally considered safe, there are certain risks and side effects to consider. Individuals with an allergy to milk protein (casein), for instance, should not take it. In addition, patients undergoing immune suppressive therapy should not take glutathione, including individuals that have received an organ transplant. There have also been reports of intestinal cramping and bloating, particularly if water intake is not increased.

Glutathione aids in the removal of harmful toxins in the liver, including those generated through the consumption of alcohol.
Glutathione aids in the removal of harmful toxins in the liver, including those generated through the consumption of alcohol.
Karyn Maier
Karyn Maier

Contributing articles to wiseGEEK is just one of Karyn’s many professional endeavors. She is also a magazine writer and columnist, mainly for health-related publications, as well as the author of four books. Karyn lives in New York’s Catskill Mountain region and specializes in topics about green living and botanical medicine.

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Discussion Comments


You did a great article on L-glutamine and talked about the fact that some people with Celiac or a gluten intolerance have reacted to L-glutamine due to the glucose coming from a gluten source. Have you heard that about Glutathione or know what Glutathione is derived from? It has the word glut in it too, so just makes me wonder.


Great information! I've recently started taking a product to help raise my glutathione levels. It's

called Vitality Whey. As the article above says, whey can help boost your glutathione levels. Vitality Whey is an undenatured whey protein as recommended above, and it also has no emulsifiers or anything artificial in it whatsoever. Being a health nut, I knew I had to try it. I'm about a month in now and I can really start to feel the difference. Good luck! Kelly


My mother has been diagnosed with white matter brain disease. Would gluthathione help with brain function?


Measuring GSH and GSSG (the oxidized form of glutathione) is an indicator of immune dysfunction. There is now a very accurate test that measures total GSH and GSH-GSSG levels in blood and urine from a US company in the US called AIT. --Health Nut


Great information. I am a glutathione educator, and would like to add a few clarifications to the above information. Glutathione is admittedly a tricky subject. Allow me to explain. Glutathione is also referred to as GSH, for glutathione sulfhydryl, not GHS. In the last section when discussing supplementation, the side effects discussed specifically refer to a glutathione enhancer named Immunocal. The information is taken from the Physician's Desk Reference listing for Immunocal. However, Immunocal and glutathione are not words that can be used interchangeably. Taking glutathione will not raise your glutathione, but taking Immunocal will raise your glutathione. It contains bonded cysteine or cystine for intracellular glutathione production. It's the same substance that is in mother's breast milk. Inidividuals with an allergy to milk protein should not take Immunocal. The proteins in Immunocal are lactoferrin, albumin, and lactalbumin. If you were able to breastfeed as a child, you can take Immunocal. Immunocal is casein free. It is also lactose and fat free. Patients undergoing immunosuppressive therapy should not take Immunocal. This is because clinical studies have shown that Immunocal raises and sustains glutathione, which increases the function of your immune system. If you are on this type of therapy, you do not want your immune function strengthened, so this is a necessary precaution. The reports of intestinal cramping or bloating if not properly rehydrated are also referring specifically to Immunocal, not glutathione. It does not refer to increased water intake, but refers to rehydration of the powder that is known as Immunocal. Of course, it is always good to drink plenty of water, but this is unrelated to the statement about side effects. Good health to you! Cheers, Laura


I've had good results with my asthma and bronchiectisis since 2003 since raising my glutathione levels. It really has made a difference in my health and my life.


Great, well written and informative article on glutathione and whey.

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