Not your normal antioxidants: Glutathione and Sulfur

Not your normal antioxidants: Glutathione and Sulfur

Written by: Detrick Snyder

One is an antioxidant and the other a mineral, but you won’t find either on a nutritional label. Why are these two so important? How do you eat to increase your levels and your oxidant-fighting capacity? Well let’s talk about it next!

First, antioxidants. A trending term for vital vitamins that come from the healthy, nutrient dense foods you eat. Many antioxidants that come from foods are critical for health - for example, the aronia berry extract in Resync Recovery is the best source of anthocyanin antioxidants ever discovered - but your body's front line defense from oxidation doesn't directly come from food, but instead from your body itself.

When your body is in a state of oxidative stress - whether the positive short-term form like exercise, or the chronic oxidative stress of aging (especially after 40) - reactive chemicals called “free radicals” are formed faster than your body can get rid of them. These fast-moving chemicals burn through your body wreaking havoc. Low levels are critical for keeping your body responsive and healthy, and when they get out of hand your body has antioxidant systems centered on glutathione that neutralize, process, and get rid of those free radicals.

Your ability to resist oxidative damage starts with the protein “glutathione”, one of the most powerful antioxidants in your body.

Where can I get more glutathione? Is it as easy as taking a supplement?

Not exactly! Since glutathione is a protein, your body digests it like it does the protein in beans or meat.  Using glutathione supplements doesn’t really raise your glutathione levels much, if at all. 250mg or more per day for a month might raise your glutathione levels like it did in a Penn State study, but another study from Bastyr shows that it might not.

Our body’s detoxification systems are so individual that your best bet for keeping on top of oxidation is with what you eat. Master your diet to clamp down free radicals. Let’s look at how your body creates glutathione, and then we can see how we eat to help those antioxidants get recycled or eliminated effectively.

What’s the most important building block for glutathione?

It’s the common tie between cooked cabbage, hot springs, and well water. Sulfur” might conjure a peculiar smell, but in fact it is a vital mineral to support your antioxidant system. You can absorb sulfur and other important minerals through your skin, which makes the case for a weekend of self-care at a sulfur springs spa, but you can also eat your way to antioxidative health. Sulfur usually comes in two forms, alone in its elemental form and wrapped up in the amino acids cysteine or methionine. Cysteine and methionine are “ready out of the box” to be incorporated into molecules that sense and deal with stress, but elemental sulfur has some assembly required before it can become glutathione.

Cysteine (Sulfur) + Glycine + Glutamate => Glutathione

If glutathione is made up of all these amino acids, what makes cysteine important? It’s a matter of availability. Cysteine is in high demand, your body can make some - but not enough - from methionine so you have to get plenty from what you eat. Glycine is also important - especially in extreme physical states - so we’ll dive into that in another article. Whether you’re an athlete, you have dietary restrictions, or you’re older, you might have higher demands for sulfur. Are you getting enough?  

How do I get more sulfur?

Animal products are the best sources of sulfur, followed by veggies in the onion family (garlic, onion, leek, shallot, and chives) and dark green veggies like kale, chard, broccoli, cabbage, asparagus, brussels sprouts, and others. Make sure that the way you get your sulfur doesn’t add oxidative damage though!  If you’re a carnivore, go for meat in the rare to medium range instead of charred and overdone meat, and go for pastured beef or pork whenever possible. Try eating fatty fish like salmon, tuna, or sardines multiple times a week.  If you’re primarily plant-based, vegan, or vegetarian, seeds and legumes are good sources beyond your greens and onions. Sulfur-rich veggies have the added benefit of their phytonutrient content - an important key to antioxidant defenses; more on that later. Cysteine levels are at their lowest in the morning, so breakfast with eggs, spinach, and garlic for an antioxidative start to your day!

What to know about Sulfur

How important is it?

Sulfur is important for cells to sense oxidation and inflammation, it may be an antioxidant itself, and it’s a critical nutrient for glutathione. Low levels may play a role in aging, as well as other chronic diseases associated with high oxidative stress.

Where can I get it?

Foods: Meat, fish, dairy, eggs, allium family (onion, garlic, leek, shallot, chives), cruciferous family (kale, chard, broccoli, cabbage, asparagus, brussels sprouts), peas, peanuts, sesame seeds, and spices

Supplements: Protein powders, methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), bone broth

How much do I need?

The FAO/WHO recommends the average person gets about 1.1 grams (13mg/kg) of sulfur-containing protein (methionine or cysteine) per day. The average person gets 4.3 grams of sulfur-containing methionine and cysteine per day.

Can I get too much?

Unlikely.  Some people think that eating sulfur-rich foods can lead to bad-smelling gas. Limit this side-effect by noticing what causes you to pass gas in the first place (limiting sugar, overcooked meat or carbonated beverages, for example) and eat your veggies regularly and in moderation. Too much sulfur may raise homocysteine levels, which is linked to heart disease risk in some people, but weighing the costs and the benefits is a complex task which we’ll be covering in another post.


Sources of sulfur in the diet: meat, dairy, eggs, and cruciferous veggies

* Met = Methionine, Cys = Cysteine, g = gram, mg = milligram

Source

Met + Cys (g/100g)

Met + Cys / serving

Vegan

Vege- tarian

Paleo

Low- carb

Heart- healthy

Vegetable sources

Variable levels of sulfur, about 17% of your typical sulfur intake

Sesame seeds

2.7

0.27 g / Tbsp

Safflower seed

1.3

0.13 g / Tbsp

Milk

1.2-1.3

3 g / 8oz Cup

Meat

1.0-1.3

1.3g / 4oz serving

Fish, shellfish

1.0-1.2

1.3g / 4oz serving

cheese

1.0

0.5 g / 1.5oz serving

Soy protein

0.7

0.3 g / scoop

Sunflower seeds

0.7-0.8

0.2 g / oz

peanuts

0.6-0.7

0.3 g / 1.5 oz serving

spices

0.6-0.7

negligible

Mustard seed

.48

negligible

eggs

0.6

0.3 g / serving


Takeaways

  • Sulfur-containing amino acids are critical for your body to detect and get rid of oxidation, inflammation, and stress.
  • The sulfur-containing amino acids, cysteine and methionine, are necessary for making and maintaining glutathione, your master antioxidant.
  • Bouts of extreme exercise, natural aging, and diseases like cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and autoimmune and others are tied to increased oxidative stress and lower glutathione levels.
  • Control unhealthy inflammation and oxidation by getting enough sulfur in your diet.
  • Get your sulfur from properly-prepared meat, dairy, eggs, onions, or from a high quality protein powder. Sulfur from green veggies is especially beneficial.
  • To maximize your benefits, get your sulfur in a well-balanced, whole foods diet.

Next up: Enhance your glutathione and decrease your oxidative stress.

References

Allen, Jason, and Ryan D. Bradley. “Effects of Oral Glutathione Supplementation on Systemic Oxidative Stress Biomarkers in Human Volunteers.” The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, vol. 17, no. 9, 2011, pp. 827–833., doi:10.1089/acm.2010.0716.

Blanco, Roberto A. et al, “Diurnal variation in glutathione and cysteine redox states in human plasma” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol 86, Iss 4, 2007, Pages 1016–1023, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/86.4.1016

Doleman, Joanne F et al. “The contribution of alliaceous and cruciferous vegetables to dietary sulphur intake.” Food chemistry vol. 234 (2017): 38-45. doi:10.1016/j.foodchem.2017.04.098

Erden-Inal, Mine, et al. “Age-Related Changes in the Glutathione Redox System.” Cell Biochemistry and Function, vol. 20, no. 1, 2002, pp. 61–66., doi:10.1002/cbf.937.

Marcel C. G. Van De Poll, et al. “Adequate Range for Sulfur-Containing Amino Acids and Biomarkers for Their Excess: Lessons from Enteral and Parenteral Nutrition.” The Journal of Nutrition, vol. 136, no. 6, 2006, doi:10.1093/jn/136.6.1694s.

Masella, Roberta. Mazza, Giuseppe. Glutathione and Sulfur Amino Acids in Human Health and Disease. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2009.

McCarty, Mark F, and James J DiNicolantonio. “An increased need for dietary cysteine in support of glutathione synthesis may underlie the increased risk for mortality associated with low protein intake in the elderly.” Age (Dordrecht, Netherlands) vol. 37,5 (2015): 96. doi:10.1007/s11357-015-9823-8

McCarty, Mark F et al. “Dietary Glycine Is Rate-Limiting for Glutathione Synthesis and May Have Broad Potential for Health Protection.” The Ochsner journal vol. 18,1 (2018): 81-87. PMC5855430.

Mitchell, Stephen C., and Rosemary H. Waring. “Sulphate Absorption across Biological Membranes.” Xenobiotica, vol. 46, no. 2, 2015, pp. 184–191., doi:10.3109/00498254.2015.1054921.

Moran, Louise K. John M C. Gutteridge and Gregory J. Quinlan, “Thiols in Cellular Redox Signalling and Control”, Current Medicinal Chemistry (2001) 8: 763. https://doi.org/10.2174/0929867013372904

Nimni, Marcel E et al. “Are we getting enough sulfur in our diet?” Nutrition & metabolism vol. 4 24. 6 Nov. 2007, doi:10.1186/1743-7075-4-24

Richie, John P., et al. “Randomized Controlled Trial of Oral Glutathione Supplementation on Body Stores of Glutathione.” European Journal of Nutrition, vol. 54, no. 2, 2014, pp. 251–263., doi:10.1007/s00394-014-0706-z.

Ross, A. Catharine. Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease. Wolters Kluwer/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2014.

Tesseraud, Sophie, et al. “Role of Sulfur Amino Acids in Controlling Nutrient Metabolism and Cell Functions: Implications for Nutrition.” British Journal of Nutrition, vol. 101, no. 8, 2008, pp. 1132–1139., doi:10.1017/s0007114508159025.

 

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