Nowadays, the vital role of antioxidants in our health and well-being is well-established.
Among the numerous antioxidants, glutathione is thought to have such powerful beneficial effects that it is able even to stop the process of developing heart disease, neurological degeneration, cancer and many other serious health conditions.
What is Glutathione?
Glutathione is a very potent detoxifying substance that enhances the function of the immune system and is a vital component for the maintenance of our body’s health, as it contributes to the removal of heavy metals, free radicals and other toxins from the body.
It is a tripeptide antioxidant that is not an essential nutrient.
That means that it is synthesized in our body by the amino acids L-cysteine, L-glutamic acid and glycine.
Sulfhydryl cysteine functions as a proton donor, promoting the biological activity of glutathione.
Cysteine restricts the synthesis of glutathione in our body, as this amino acid typically cannot be easily found in food.
In addition, if released as a free amino acid, cysteine is toxic for our body and is metabolized in the digestive tract and the blood plasma.
Benefits of Glutathione
Glutathione offers a wide spectrum of health benefits, including:
1. Protection from Oxidative Damage
Low levels of glutathione are associated with oxidative damage, which, in turn, results in various serious health conditions, such as atherosclerosis, neurodegenerative diseases, or cancer.
Therefore, it is essential to maintain normal glutathione levels, as it has a prophylactic effect against oxidative stress.
2. Inflammation Control
According to several studies, glutathione plays a key role in the modulation of inflammation by regulating the immune response of the body.
3. Prevention from Age-related Health Issues
The researchers found that the increased cysteine intake, even through diet, promotes the production of glutathione, which leads, in turn, to reduced risk of age-related health problems, since it preserves the health of musculoskeletal and vascular systems, as well as brain function.
4. Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s Disease Management
It is proven that oxidative damage and low levels of glutathione contribute to the development of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.
5. Prevention and Management of Infections
According to a recent review, glutathione has significant both protective and therapeutic effects against infections, as it has the ability to regulate the immune system.
It is also suggested that glutathione supplementation may help to prevent certain infections, like HIV and tuberculosis, especially in people that are more susceptible to such diseases.
6. Prevention and Management of Autism
Research has shown that glutathione deficiency is associated with a higher risk of autism, as the regulation of the antioxidant is affected in this neurodevelopmental disorder.
However, maintaining the normal levels of glutathione helps to prevent or even reverse abnormalities that are related to autism.
7. Anti-aging Effect
Glutathione has various beneficial effects on skin properties and is an effective anti-aging agent, at least in middle-aged women, by preventing lines and wrinkles and improving skin elasticity.
8. Protection from Cardiovascular Diseases
Studies show that the deficit of glutathione affects the function of the heart and may cause abnormalities to the structure of the cardiovascular system.
It is also evident that an increase in the glutathione levels minimizes the risk of heart attack and other cardiovascular diseases, since it acts against oxidative damage.
Approved Uses of Glutathione Injections
To date, the intravenous administration of glutathione has been approved by various official drug regulatory authorities for only certain health conditions.
However, in the U.S.A. injectable glutathione has not gained an approval for any use.
In fact, the FDA has prohibited the selling and use of glutathione injections and has warned patients that their use may lead to fatal side effects.
In an advisory published in the FDA’s Consumer Health Information, it is recommended people to receive glutathione through the approved oral supplementations, instead.
On the other hand, the Central Drugs Standard Control Organization (CDSCO) in India approved the use of glutathione injections in the following conditions, related to liver disorders:
- Alcoholic fatty liver
- Alcoholic liver fibrosis
- Alcoholic liver cirrhosis, and
- Alcoholic hepatitis
In addition, the Food and Drug Administration of Philippines has approved its administration as an adjunct treatment to decrease neurotoxicity caused by cisplatin chemotherapy, as, at the same time, its administration does not reduce the therapeutic effect of the chemotherapeutic drugs.
Unapproved Uses of Glutathione Injections
Healthcare professionals administer glutathione as a shot, usually into the muscle, for treating male infertility.
In intravenous administration, healthcare providers aim to prevent anemia in patients with kidney disease who undergo hemodialysis treatment, or to prevent kidney disorders after heart bypass surgery.
Moreover, glutathione injections are used for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, while it is believed to improve the blood flow and to decrease clotting in people with atherosclerosis.
Finally, there are a lot of physicians who use them as a complementary or alternative treatment to diabetes, whereas, recently, there is a fab to administer such injections for skin whitening.
Injections VS Oral Glutathione: Which is Absorbed Better?
The studies on humans conducted until 2013 have found that over-the-counter glutathione capsules and tablets have an insignificant effect on increasing the levels of the antioxidant in the human blood.
The only trials that are in favor of oral administration as a means of raising glutathione levels in healthy individuals have been performed by Richie et al. and Park et al. Yet, we should stress that both studies have been funded by a specific company which also provided them with the glutathione supplementation which both used in their trials.
Therefore, as there is not valid evidence that proves the sufficient bioavailability of oral glutathione, the clinical efficacy of supplementation in humans remains a controversial issue.
Thus, because of the low bioavailability of oral administration, glutathione injections, either intravenous or intramuscular, have become popular, as they are considered to raise or to maintain the concentration of glutathione in the desired therapeutic levels.
The recommended dose of glutathione injections is typically 600–1200 mg and they should be administered once to twice per week. However, the number of treatments is not determined.
It is true that, through injections, the bioavailability of glutathione is expected to reach 100%, a much higher proportion compared to that obtained by oral use. Still, though, there are no large, multicenter trials to prove this hypothesis.
It is also expected that, although glutathione injections provide a much higher therapeutic dose that boosts the effectiveness, it raises safety concerns, as it is possible to lead to overdose toxicity.
Side Effects of Glutathione Injections: Is it Safe?
As glutathione is a natural component of the body, oral supplements are relatively safe and may cause similar side effects to high-dose vitamin supplementation.
The adverse events of the injections, on the other hand, seem to be caused because of the abrupt load of the blood flow with huge amounts of glutathione.
Still, although the use of glutathione injections is possibly safe, the evidence so far is insufficient.
Yet, the Philippines, one of the biggest consumers of glutathione, has described the possible complications of intravenous administration.
The Food and Drug Administration of Philippines has published a public warning about the risks which the off-label use of these injections may involve.
Moreover, the FDA of both the U.S.A. and the Philippines have alerted patients to the adverse reactions from the use of glutathione injections for skin whitening.
The side effects include:
- Skin eruptions varying from mild rashes to even fatal conditions, like toxic epidermal necrolysis
- Thyroid dysfunction
- Kidney dysfunction, possibly because of the high levels of glutathione in the blood flow, that may lead even to renal failure
- Severe abdominal pain
- Improper or unsafe injection practices, such as use of unsterile needles or incorrect technique by untrained staff, may transmit disease, cause infection, and result in serious injury
However, the advocates of glutathione injectables claim that these side effects are often caused by other additives in the formula and, thus, the risk is almost eliminated if the glutathione used is pure.
Yet, high-quality, pure glutathione injections are typically extremely expensive. That is why it should be a red flag if some practitioners or institutes offer affordable treatments, as these cheaper injections could be counterfeit, with a high risk of life-threatening complications.
In the absence of adequate data, many healthcare professionals avoid the off-label use of such injections until further research proves that the benefits outweigh the risks.
Due to the ever-increasing popularity of glutathione injections all over the world, the media and health authorities of many countries have promoted information campaigns about their potential adverse events, although this treatment is not officially banned.
In general, you should be very careful about any formulations sold online with dubious claims about their safety and efficacy.
And it goes without saying that you should always consult with your healthcare professional before using any new medication released that have not obtained the official approval.
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Dr. Βakirtzi Katerina is a medical doctor (MD) and a graduate of the Medical School of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, where she earned a MSc in Methodology of Medical Research. Dr. Bakirtzi is currently a Resident of Dermatology at Thessaloniki’s Hospital of Skin and Venereal Diseases.