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Glutathione and brain healthIn our ongoing series on brain health, particularly as it relates to Lyme Brain, I am posting today an excerpt from my upcoming book called Lyme Brain, on the link between glutathione and brain health.

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a huge fan of glutathione. Among its many other benefits, I have seen it help with Lyme Brain in so many of my patients.

Two of glutathione’s primary roles are to act as an antioxidant and neuroprotector, and to facilitate detoxification. Thirdly, and less well known, is glutathione’s ability to support neurotransmitter levels and, hence, mood. Glutathione is one of the most important substances I know of to keep the brain healthy and functioning well.

Glutathione is one of the brain’s most significant protectors, functioning as its master antioxidant. While the brain only accounts for 2% of body weight, it consumes 20% of the body’s oxygen. Therefore, the brain produces a high proportion of reactive oxygen species. Glutathione is one of the key defenses to counter these reactive oxygen species, which can otherwise be quite damaging because they produce oxidative stress and neuronal cell damage.

Low glutathione has been associated with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. Amyloid-B peptide is one of the substances that have been implicated in plaque accumulation in Alzheimer’s disease, resulting in neurological degeneration. Glutathione has been shown to prevent the death of brain cells induced by amyloid plaques. Research also shows that in Alzheimer’s patients, high homocysteine levels correlate with low cognitive performance and low glutathione levels.

In addition to being the key antioxidant for the brain, glutathione plays a significant role in detoxification by combining with toxic elements and allowing their excretion from the body. Deficiencies in glutathione impair our ability to detoxify harmful substances. Conversely, the toxic substances themselves can deplete glutathione, so it’s a double-edged sword.
There are many toxic insults to the brain—e.g., toxic metals, mycotoxins and pesticides—and all can, and do, deplete glutathione. Poor diet, stress, trauma, chronic infections, aging, medications and radiation can further deplete glutathione. And yet, glutathione is key to detoxing these toxic agents and countering these biological stressors.

There are also genetic factors that can lead to the reduced production of glutathione. This is certainly one of the reasons why some people have such a high toxic load and an impaired ability to clear them from the body. This “glutathione crisis” occurs in many chronic illnesses and is seen extensively in Lyme patients.

I do have some people who do not tolerate glutathione well. Those with extreme sulfur sensitivity may not do well with it, as it is a sulfur-based compound. Certain methylation defects will also make one less tolerant of glutathione, but in my clinical experience, this is the minority. Most people need glutathione, and even if they have a detoxification response in the early phases of treatment with it (thus requiring low starting doses and a gradual build up), they ultimately benefit from it. Many patients have told me that their cognitive function has improved immediately upon starting glutathione. I know for myself, if I have a long day with patients or a period of writing where I need to focus, I’ll take a shot of glutathione first!

The third and less well-recognized benefit of glutathione is in balancing brain chemistry. In fact, studies have shown significant improvements in social behavior in cases of depression and bipolar disorder with supplementation of N-acetyl cysteine (NAC), a precursor to glutathione.

It is thought that glutathione makes receptors in the brain more sensitive to dopamine and serotonin, two crucial neurotransmitters for healthy brain function. Further, antidepressants have been found to deplete glutathione, again setting up yet another double-edged sword: the medications taken to help depression may worsen one of the contributing factors to the depression itself.

You can see now the importance of healthy glutathione levels. In our population of Lyme patients, with their high levels of inflammation in the brain often coupled with infection in the brain and a myriad of other exogenous toxins, there are frequently depleted glutathione levels. And yet, these are exactly the circumstances that create a high requirement for glutathione.

One of the issues in boosting glutathione is how to effectively supplement it. Many oral supplements of glutathione are not effective, as they break down in the digestive tract and cannot be well absorbed and utilized by the body. Liposomal glutathione is an exception to this and the form that I use extensively. The way that liposomal glutathione is created allows it to be absorbed across the mucous membranes of the digestive tract without being “digested” and broken down in the gut. Intravenous glutathione is also a great form, but for many people can be harder to access.

Some people prefer to supplement with the precursors to glutathione, most notably N-acetyl cysteine (NAC). I still prefer the liposomal glutathione directly, as I have found NAC to promote Candida issues in some patients. Curcumin can also boost glutathione levels, adding to its lengthy list of benefits; however, I do not rely on it alone to support glutathione. Undenatured whey protein is another way to boost intracellular glutathione. I’m not a big fan of dairy, so although a pure whey protein doesn’t contain casein, which is the more problematic component of dairy, and might have certain benefits, I still advise against its use in many of my patients. Liposomal glutathione is my first choice because it is so effective.

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