Glutathione has been labelled as the mother of all antioxidants and the ultimate free radical quencher and detoxifier. We produce this molecule endogenously, primarily in the liver, using the precursor amino acids cysteine, glutamine and glycine, which come from the food that we eat. Research shows that as we increase in age our levels of glutathione gradually go down and deficiency of this antioxidant has been associated with Alzheimer’s and depression, as well as other chronic illnesses such as cancer.
Glutathione’s role in the body is multifactorial; it helps to regulate and regenerate immune cells, as well as playing a vital role in cellular respiration, detoxification and provides a defence against oxidative stress. It is a coenzyme that plays a role in various enzymatic reactions and is unique in that it contains sulfur chemical groups, which act like traps for harmful free radicals and toxins, essentially sticking to them and carrying them into bile and into the stool to be excreted from the body. When talking about glutathione in relation to the brain, it is important to address that the brain is especially sensitive to oxidative damage. One of the reasons for this is that it requires a large amount of oxygen to function normally, which as a consequence leads to a large production of free radicals, which is why our antioxidant status is vital in mental health and neurological conditions.
There are many factors that can contribute to a deficiency in glutathione, which diminishes our defences against toxins and oxidative stress. Research shows that poor diets that are high in refined sugars, processed foods, refined vegetable oils, low in antioxidants and essential nutrients, as well as other factors like exposure to pollutants, stress, frequent infections and a high intake of medications, can all negatively impact our glutathione levels. Glutathione is normally recycled and continuously reused in the body, however, when our toxic load becomes heavier than we can manage, this process can become depleted. Some medical professionals suggest that this may be because we have not evolved to function optimally yet in the environment most of us live in today. Our diets, which are unfortunately made up of nutrient-depleted foods, as well as exposure to high levels of pollution and other sources of environmental toxins, prevent the glutathione antioxidant system from working.
In light of the recently published research showing how 5 fruit and veg portions a day may actually not be enough to keep us healthy, it might be worth trying to follow the recommendations of 10-a-day. At Food for the Brain, we endorse a diet that is richer in vegetables over fruit, as well as a healthy intake of essential fatty acids, lean proteins and wholegrains. This is due to research showing how a diet that is low in glycaemic load can help stabilise blood sugar levels and therefore help optimise brain function. Whilst fruit is indeed healthy and offers a wide range of key micronutrients, due its high levels of natural sugars, it is important that this is balanced with other foods such as those from the food groups listed above.
So what can we do to help optimise our glutathione levels? Aside from eating a healthy diet, there is a family of vegetables that have been indicated to be particularly helpful in encouraging optimal levels of glutathione. This is the cruciferous group of vegetables, which contain high levels of sulforaphane, a phytochemical that encourages the production of glutathione. For example, in a study at John Hopkins University, forty boys and young men, ages 13 to 27, with moderate to severe autism, were treated for 18 weeks with a daily dose of either a placebo or sulforaphane, a plant chemical derived from broccoli sprouts. The study found that many of those taking sulforaphane substantially improved in several aspects of their behavior during treatment. Apart from broccoli, other cruciferous vegetables include cabbage, artichoke, kale, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, kohlrabi, pak choy, turnips, watercress and rocket.Other studies have shown how sulforaphane can have antidepressant effects due to its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective activity.
In addition, increasing your intake of the mineral selenium is also a key factor in improving glutathione status. It is a structural component of glutathione and a co-factor of the antioxidant enzyme glutathione peroxidase. This mineral is commonly low in the typical Western diet that is deficient in good quality organ meats, seafood and nuts such as Brazil nuts, which are the richest source of selenium. Selenium depletion in farmed soils where our vegetables are grown and animals pasture can also play a factor in this. Another simple and accessible way of increasing glutathione production is by having a good night’s sleep. Studies have shown how sleep deprivation can increase oxidative stress in the brain and deplete glutathione levels.
Taking these steps can help you optimise your brain function and optimal health. At Food for the Brain, we are committed to empowering people to take charge of their own mental health through positive dietary and lifestyle recommendations. Increasing research is showing just how important it is to consider nutrition as a key player in our mental wellbeing, which is why our message is so important. Help us continue our work, check out our fundraising challenge below.