Glutathione update


By Philip S. Chua, MD, FACS, FPCS

The glutathione craze seems to have spread to various countries, including the Philippines, inspired mostly by women’s desire for a fairer complexion and people’s quest for the fountain of health and youth.

Knowing that any substance or drug we use, including “simple” aspirin, is associated with possible adverse side-effects, the concern about the safety of long term use of glutathione comes into question.

What is glutathione?
Popularly known as GSH and nicknamed Glute, this substance is a protein (a tripeptide) made up of three amino acids: cysteine, glutamic acid and glycine. It is normally produced by our body and found inside every cell in our body, including the cells of the immune system. GSH is a detoxifying agent, an essential scavenger and neutralizer of the bad free oxygen radicals and peroxides that destroy cells. Our body glutathione is really a potent (“Master”) antioxidant that enables the cells to maintain intracellular health and also helps repair damaged DNA.

Which foods contain glutathione?
This substance is found in fresh fruits, vegetables, walnuts, fish, and freshly prepared meats. Dr. Dean Jones, PhD, professor of biochemistry and director of nutritional health sciences at Emory University stated that people who eat well probably have enough glutathione from their diet. Under normal situation and in general, there is really no need for any glutathione or any other food supplement.

What conditions can lower GSH?
Low levels or deficiency in glutathione have been seen in people with diabetes, high blood pressure, HIV/AIDS, low sperm count, cataract, among smokers, and those with cancer. However, most of these individuals, except those who are unable to eat properly and are emaciated because of their illness, will still not have glutathione deficiency.

Who, then, should take glutathione?
Scientifically speaking, only those with proven glutathione deficiency by blood test should receive glutathione supplement. Oral glutathione pills are destroyed by gastric juices in the stomach, and are not absorbed. Hence, the pill form of glutathione is useless. However, there is some evidence in newer studies that seems to suggest otherwise. This substance can also be given by intravenous injection. It also comes in aerosol nasal spray, but its effectiveness and the practicality of its application in adequately boosting the blood level of glutathione for those with deficiency is still uncertain. Liposomal Encapsulation Technology (LET) allows encapsulated medication to slip through the stomach and into the small intestine for effective absorption but it is an expensive option.

What happens if GSH is used by healthy persons?
Healthy people, with no evidence of deficiency of glutathione, as we intimated earlier, do not need glutathione supplement. The glutathione derived from food will, as a rule, be enough for them to maintain healthy cells, unless they abuse themselves by smoking, excessive alcohol intake, using illegal drugs, etc. When healthy individuals use glutathione anyway, intravenously or by nasal aerosol, their body will not have any added protection or benefit. They will just be wasting money and subjecting themselves to yet undefined potential health risks associated with long-term use of the exogenous (laboratory-produced) glutathione.

Are GSH whitening skin cream safe?
In the market today, there are dozens of bleaching or whitening products for the skin. One of them is glutathione facial cream/lotion, and the others are facial soaps with glutathione as bleaching/whitening agent. While anything substance applied to the skin is absorbed by the body into the blood stream (like dermal medication patches), we have not found any information on the adverse side-effects of GSH in these cosmetics for the skin. People allergic to milk protein and organ transplant patients are advised against using any form of glutathione.

How does GSH whiten the skin?
One side effect of topically (locally) applied glutathione as a cosmetic slows down the production of melanin (a protein manufactured by melanocytes in our skin that gives the skin the brown color), and as a result, there will be less melanin pigment and the skin becomes whiter. While this particular side effect of topical glutathione on the complexion is good, factual information is not available on the safety of chronic use of glutathione, even as a skin bleaching agent.

Does GSH cure autism, Parkinson, or cancer?
Commercial ads claim glutathione is effective in the treatment and cure of autism, Alzheimer’s, male infertility, Parkinson, and even cancer. Unfortunately, there is no scientific evidence to support these claims. Some people consider GSH and the other cure-all “food supplements” as scams and the snake oils of the present.

Does GSH have any role in cancer therapy?
There is no scientific evidence that glutathione prevents, cures, or aggravates any form of cancer. In one study it was observed that women with ovarian cancer who were undergoing chemotherapy, “those given the glutathione (intravenously) not only had fewer side effects from the chemotherapy but also had better overall survival rates.”

Are drug makers liable for bad effects of their products?
Unless it can be proven that the drug manufacturer had lied to, or hid vital safety information from the US Food and Drug Administration when it applied for the drug approval and patent, or neglected to appropriately apprise the US-FDA of any life- or health-threatening complications caused by the drug after its wide circulation and clinical use, the manufacturer, in general, cannot be held legally liable for the side-effects of its product. As long as the company acted in earnest, in good faith, and had complied with all the rules, regulations, and stringent criteria of the US-FDA, it is may not be held liable. This is especially true when the manufacturer voluntarily withdraws the drug from the market upon discovery of the danger. In reality, though, more often than not, the issue becomes convoluted and much more complex, as greedy ambulance chasers come to the picture. This is especially common in large cities in the United States, where lawyers advertise on giant billboards and on TV commercials egging people on to sue healthcare providers for drug or surgical complications, “totally free legal service if you lose.”

A time-honored sage advice perhaps older than civilization itself: Caveat emptor! Let the buyer beware!

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