Glutathione is the front line in our body’s defense system. Inactivity, insomnia, pollution, and even healthy aging are just a few pieces of normal life that can increase damaging oxidation and inflammation. In our last post, we covered the lifestyle decisions that can enhance our glutathione. Exercise, good sleep, and getting rid of stressful triggers with yoga or meditation are some of the most powerful ways to decrease oxidative stress.
But what if we don’t have the time to exercise or sleep enough every day? When you’re being pulled from all sides, sometimes it feels impossible to take a moment for yourself, let alone an extra hour for a yoga session!
The good news is: you can keep up a healthy antioxidant system with what you eat too! Eating lots of colorful plants, healthy fats, and cutting out processed foods and sugar are the sure-fire ways to up your antioxidant power.
When all else fails, natural supplements can raise glutathione as well. More is not always better when it comes to antioxidant supplements. In fact, taking high dose vitamin C and E supplements can prevent some of the positive adaptations to endurance training. Yikes! You don’t want your anti-inflammatory supplements to work so well that they block healthy, adaptive inflammation too!
Instead of focusing on antioxidants themselves, we’ll be looking at the supplements that can raise your whole antioxidant system. Plus, we’ll look into the research behind some bunk claims from less trustworthy sources on the internet. Even though we’re taking a look at the research to empower you to make your best decisions, it is still important to discuss any new supplements with your healthcare provider.
How to keep glutathione up with the right foods
- Eat the rainbow. A colorful whole foods diet will help on every level. First, plants are rich in antioxidants. Second, many plants have glutathione or proteins to make more glutathione. And lastly, the natural chemicals in plants can tell your body to make more glutathione by itself. Remember that glutathione is very sensitive to processing (like canning, freezing, and high-heat cooking), so eat these foods fresh to maximize their benefits! To get the most glutathione out of what you eat, try these foods first:
- For plants, fruit is generally higher than vegetables. Apples, pears, bananas, oranges, tomatoes, and watermelon (if you eat enough of it!) have the highest levels.
- For proteins walnuts and almonds are the nut of choice, and most unprocessed meats are good sources.
- Eat your Greens! Whether you want to eat 15 brussels sprouts, or about a tablespoon of broccoli sprouts, green veggies (plus cauliflower and red cabbage) are a great way to increase glutathione levels. Later on we’ll dive into why these superfoods work the way they do, but just know that they are linked to lower risk for osteoporosis, heart disease, liver disease, inflammatory conditions, and cancer.
- Garlic and onions. Eat those intense white veggies too! About a clove of garlic per day can boost your antioxidant system you if you’re in your golden years, and even less - 400mg in tablet form - can increase glutathione levels during pregnancy. It appears that if you have an advanced condition, you’ll need more than just garlic to offset increased oxidation levels. Two shots - 3.35 fluid ounces - of onion juice on the other hand, may even help prevent age-related bone disorders thanks to its effect on antioxidant capacity!
Besides your greens and pungent veggies, other sulfur-rich foods help keep glutathione levels up. For a list of other foods high in sulfur, see our post “Not your normal antioxidants: glutathione and sulfur”.
- Try out plant-based. Research shows that vegetarian diets may have higher glutathione levels than vegans or omnivores. This might be because omnivores eat fewer of the veggies that tell the body to make more glutathione. On the other hand, vegan diets provide less of protein building blocks needed to make glutathione. Eating a variety of plants and protein sources goes a long way to keeping your antioxidant status healthy!
- Go Mediterranean. Thanks to the nitrate-rich vegetables, lack of processed foods, and ample extra virgin olive oil, the Mediterranean diet can lower oxidation compared to a typical diet. It takes just 3.5 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil to raise glutathione activity. Check out this nonprofit dedicated to traditional diets for great resources and recipes to hop on the best trend since whole-wheat sliced bread.
- Drink good coffee, but not too much! A single study showed that 5 cups of coffee a day for a week can increase glutathione levels by 16%. Another showed that 3 to 4 cups per day for a month also improved antioxidant status. We don’t recommend drinking more than that long-term, but it’s nice to know that a little pick-me-up in the morning might have more benefits than we thought. Who’s going to disagree with that?
- If you like alcohol, drink an amount that doesn’t make you feel worse off the next day. Even if you’re healthy in every other way, drinking on a daily basis can make lung glutathione levels plummet by 90% or more! If you want to enjoy your drink and get some of the antioxidant benefits, choose unfiltered craft beers and red wine full of polyphenols over distilled hard alcohol. Funny enough, take the alcohol out of beer and it can raise glutathione levels by 29%!
How to Supplement to Raise Glutathione levels
- Glutathione. Using a glutathione supplement 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 University shows that it might not. Support your body’s ability to heal itself by reaching for some of those juicy fruits and lean meats we talked about earlier.
- Vitamin C and other classic antioxidants. On the surface, it might make sense that eating more antioxidants gives our body a step up in the battle against oxidation and inflammation. In fact, making sure you have enough vitamin C is absolutely essential to building strong muscle, cartilage, and collagen. That’s not the case in every situation though.
Generally speaking, if you have a condition that depletes antioxidants or lowers muscle strength like natural aging, supplementation might be helpful to get your levels back to a healthy baseline. But if you are already pretty healthy, antioxidant supplements might be doing more harm - especially if you’re trying to maximize your workout!
Take for example, a study done with Taekwondo competitors. Yes, short-term supplementing with 2000 mg of vitamin C and 1400 IUs of vitamin E (those are some high doses!) lowers muscle damage and inflammatory responses. But it’s been shown over and over that whether you’re training for strength or for endurance, as much as those antioxidants might lower the pain, they can also lower the gains (check out this study, this one, this detailed review on antioxidants in resistance training and this great review of antioxidants in endurance training). If you want to prevent massive damage to your muscles after a workout, go for it, but don’t go crying when long-term use leads to weaker, slower muscles!
- N-acetyl-cysteine (aka. NAC, the non-toxic cysteine). N-acetyl-cysteine is the glutathione booster that medical professionals reach for in treating those with very low cysteine and glutathione levels. It’s positive effect on glutathione might even help in managing psychiatric and neurological conditions like ADHD, autism, addiction, and Alzheimer’s. But just like other antioxidant supplements, NAC will only help you if your glutathione levels are already low, so don’t bother supplementing without first focusing in on what you eat to get to a healthy baseline.
- Glycine. As impactful as cysteine may be, the amino acid glycine might be more important for some. It’s a major component in glutathione, may lower blood pressure, can likely lower risk of heart attacks, and it’s a crucial building block for tendons and bones. Like cysteine, even though your body can make some glycine, it might not be enough, especially if you’re older or more active and have a higher need for glycine. If you’re in your older years, an extra source of glycine might be just what you need to bump your glutathione levels!
Find glycine in animal products like meat, low-temperature treated whey protein, bone broth, or at lower levels in veggie proteins like nuts and beans. It’s especially high in our versatile and delicious collagen blend!
Think that going carnivore might pass as a good way to get your glycine? Think again! If you’re eating a lot of meat and not enough collagen you might be putting yourself at a disadvantage. Because of the way one of the proteins which is high in meat (methionine) interacts with glycine (which is high in collagen and organ meats and higher in plant-based diets), you should get 1 gram of collagen for every 10 grams of animal meat. This translates to grabbing one serving of collagen for every half pound steak you throw on the grill! It may be hard to get enough glycine to support your best joint, bone, mental, and anti-oxidative health in your food alone, so think about varying up your routine a bit with supplemental sources of glycine.
- Niacin or Nicotinamide riboside (what NAD+ is made of). It may be trendy to inject NAD+ to try to live longer, but even though there’s not much research on humans for that, there is some evidence that taking nicotinamide riboside - a type of niacin - may help raise glutathione if your levels are low due to age. It’s hard to make sense of which NAD supplement will be best for you, so your best bet might be to get adequate niacin in your diet. Some foods like refined grains, refined fats, processed foods and sugar might deplete your niacin status, so balance those out with the foods highest in niacin: liver, fish, poultry, other meat, and peanut butter.
- CoQ10 (aka. ubiquinol). Coenzyme Q10 supplementation has been shown to raise antioxidant activity in people with heart disease, may have an added benefit on top of a mediteranean diet, and it fortunately doesn’t appear to consistently affect physical performance for better or for worse. CoQ10 is usually used for other reasons related to heart disease, so consider it’s glutathione boosting properties just an added perk!
- Selenium. Don’t believe everything you read on the internet! Although some sources like Healthline say selenium might raise glutathione levels, studies in healthy individuals and in people with inflammation show that it does not. Instead, it acts as a stress sensor and can tell your body to raise it’s the total antioxidant capacity. For example, keeping your selenium levels within a tight range is associated with lower risk of heart disease because you’re body is better able to handle and process stress.
Keeping a good level of selenium might be harder than it looks. Levels in food can be low or high depending on where you live, and might be changing with global climate changes, so it’s hard to say if you’re getting enough even with a healthy diet. Get it in a handful of Brazil nuts, most seafood, and organ meats. Wondering if you’re getting too much? Stay tuned for our next post on antioxidant recycling, but we’ll give you a hint now: watch out for a fruity breath!
- Phase II inducers. This may get a little technical, but we’ll keep it brief. For the same reason that exercise can create oxidative damage and then compensate to make you stronger, plant chemicals can have a similar response. Silymarin in milk thistle and curcumin in turmeric may have a similar positive effect on glutathione levels, but studies in humans haven’t been done. Since there are so much better ways to increase glutathione, we don’t recommend these as front-line approaches.
Work hard, rest hard, and eat a varied, generally good diet that includes a lot of vegetables, high quality organ meats, and the occasional supplement if you need it to maximize your glutathione. The most impactful recommendations are:
✅ Eat the rainbow, including greens and pungent white veggies like garlic and onion.
✅ Try out a Mediterannean diet with lots of plants, some seafood and meats, and enough olive oil to bathe in. (Just kidding, but studies use 1 liter (about 1 quart) a week as a healthy amount.)
✅ Alcohol saps your antioxidants, so drink an amount that lets you feel great the next day and consider wine or non-alcoholic beer.
✅ Get glutathione from food in juicy fruits and veggies, walnuts, almonds, and lean meats.
✅ Get glycine from food in collagen, like our delicious collagen recovery blend.
✅ Get other nutrients to support your antioxidant system in liver and organ meats, poultry, lean meats, seafood
✅ If lifestyle and diet aren’t going to work for you, some supplements you could consider include glutathione, N-acetyl-cysteine, glycine, and selenium-rich foods.
Whether you’re a young athlete pushing yourself to your limit, or your youth has been ousted by wisdom, start with your lifestyle, then focus in on what you eat, and finally supplement if you’re worried about low glutathione status to keep your defenses up!
Your glutathione levels might be up, but is the whole system working in top shape? Learn more about enhancing your whole-body system to defend against inflammation and oxidation in our next post on the micronutrients that support your whole antioxidant system.
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Written by registered dietitian, Detrick Snyder, MPH, RDN. Updated 09/22/2020