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L-Glutathione, The Skin’s Key Antioxidant: A Synopsis

Source: Theodore Hersh, MD, MACG
Professor of Medicine, Emeritus, Emory University 

No Copyright Infringement Intended

To retaliate against invaders, countries set up armies and other defensive measures. To retaliate against toxic chemicals called free radicals, the body has a well-developed antioxidant system.


The prime antioxidant is L-glutathione, known as GSH by the scientific community and this summary will introduce you to this remarkable molecule.

What are free radicals? Free radicals are created during a cell’s normal metabolism, but countless more are produced from many other sources including inflammatory reactions and infectious conditions, environmental pollutants in the air we breathe, the tobacco we smoke and smoke inhaled from other smokers, as well as from chewing tobacco.


Free radicals are also created from exposure to ultraviolet sunlight, artificial radiation, and radio therapy. These free radicals alter DNA, causing mutations that lead to cancers. Free radicals may cause premature cell death and are contributors to premature aging and more than 50 diseases including cardiovascular disease, bronchitis and emphysema, cancer of the skin, mouth, throat, esophagus and lung, immune disorders, arthritis, neurological disorders, AIDS and Alzheimer’s disease, to name but a few.

What are antioxidants? Antioxidants scavenge and neutralize oxygen and other free radicals species to a less toxic or non-toxic compound. While the human body has built-in antixidant mechanisms to suppress uncontrolled free radicals, which may lead to cellular damage, these mechanisms may fail due to a combination of overwhelming production of free radicals or a depletion of critical compounds used by the body’s antioxidant defense mechanisms. An overabundance of free radicals in the body can lead to a condition known as “oxidative stress”, which causes cell death.

What is L-glutathione? L-glutathione (GSH), the body’s prime antioxidant is composed of three amino acids, glycine, cysteine and glutamine. Glutathione is synthesized mainy in the liver and can be transported from the blood to most of the body’s cells. Glutathione plays a critical role in the aging process and in preventing the damaging effects of ultraviolet radiation to the skin, a phenomenon known as photoaging. It helps the fight against wrinkles. The oxygen and other free radicals generated in the skin by the sun’s rays or by artificial lights as in tanning booths, also increase the skin’s damage and the risk of developing skin cancers, including malignant melanomas. GSH and its synergistic antioxidants in skin help protect against photoaging and lessen the occurrence of these malignancies. Sun protection with clothing, hats, sun glasses and sunscreens are paramount defenses. Cosmetics with antioxidants help restore the skin’s own defenses and combat free radicals generated by ultraviolet radiation.

GSH levels inside the cells must be maintained in order to have healthy cells and a strong defense system. Cells die without adequate levels of glutathione. However, to provide its beneficial effect, GSH must work synergistically with the other cellular and tissue antioxidants including selenium and vitamins C and E. Much of glutathione is supplied from the diet, either as intact GSH or its component amino acids, particularly cysteine, from fruits, vegetables, liver, meats, fowl and fish. GSH protects against inhaled or ingested environmental pollutants and chemicals both in the respiratory tract and in the small intestine. GSH helps protect our lungs and also helps regulate immunologic function in the white blood cells called lymphocytes. Low GSH levels in lymphocytes allow easier replication of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus and Hepatitis C Virus. Thus, the importance of maintaining GSH and its synergistic antioxidant partners.

Much is certain: GSH is the prime antioxidant in our body’s cells and fluids, and it works in concert with the other antioxidants to prevent or protect us from oxidative stress. GSH levels are decreased in the elderly, the sun lover, the tanning enthusiast, the smoker, the alcohol imbiber, the fatty foods glutton, among others. In this era of preventive medicine, L-glutathione plays a significant role in helping to maintain health and probably even youth!

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