Stewart Lonky, M.D.
Have you ever heard of glutathione? If not, I’d suggest you educate yourself on this important antioxidant. This natural antioxidant is protective from damage and regulates many important functions, including cell proliferation. It is, in fact, our cells’ most abundant antioxidant. Glutathione also assists in the synthesis of genetic material and proteins and activates gene expression.
While glutathione is obviously needed for many vital life functions, there are few ways to accurately measure intra-cellular glutathione levels. Baylor University College of Medicine researchers recently developed a fluorescent probe—called the RealThiol—that measures real-time changes in glutathione concentration in living cells, giving scientists another window to investigate the antioxidant’s role in aging and health.
But can we do anything in the interim while we wait for this new technology to become widely available? How can we maintain healthy levels of this critical antioxidant, the principal compound for detoxifying environmental stresses, air pollutants, heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, and many other toxic insults, but which also declines with age, setting the stage for any number of age-related health problems?
Supporting Glutathione Production
N-acetyl cysteine has dozens of medical applications. It’s currently used in cases of emergency medical detoxification such as the ingestion of toxic levels of heavy metals. The researchers found that at much lower levels, NAC might help maintain glutathione levels, preventing any number of age-associated metabolic declines.
NAC, the researchers said, can boost glutathione’s metabolic function and increase its rate of synthesis. NAC is considered safe, even at extremely high levels, explaining why a low dose might be helpful for maintaining glutathione levels and improving health.
Food Sources of Cysteine
The next obvious question, of course, is how can we safely add NAC to our daily regimen? Though NAC is not found naturally in food sources, cysteine, along with the other ten essential amino acids, is present in most high protein foods. However, it requires the essential amino acid methionine to facilitate the conversion to NAC, explaining why cysteine is considered an essential amino acid as well. Pork, chicken, sausage, turkey, duck, fish, ricotta cheese, cottage cheese, yogurt, and eggs all contain cysteine. Granola, oat flakes, broccoli, red pepper, and onion are significant, meatless cysteine sources, along with garlic, soy beans, linseed, and wheat germ.
If you don’t feel you’re getting enough dietary cysteine, NAC is available in supplement form. There is also some data showing that mixtures of various herbs, such as Ashwagandha, Bucopa, milk thistle, green tea, and curcumin can “induce” glutathione production. Remember, it’s always a good idea to first consult with a qualified healthcare professional.
The Bottom Line
Overall, taking glutathione or its precursors like NAC in reasonable amounts appears to be quite safe. I’m optimistic there could be a major role for NAC in preventive medicine as well, where it’s used as a prophylactic instead of an intervention to increase glutathione levels and prevent the increased toxicity we all face with aging.
About: Stewart Lonky, M.D., is a physician, toxicologist, and biomedical engineer. He is board certified in internal medicine, pulmonology and critical care medicine, and a recognized expert in the related fields of preventive medicine and environmental toxicology and its associated diseases. Dr. Lonky is known for his cutting edge research into the causes, treatment, and prevention of toxic chemical exposures and heralded for his in-depth knowledge of obesity’s biological, environmental, and social influences, which is the subject of his forthcoming book. Dr. Lonky resides and practices in Los Angeles, California. www.stewartlonky.com