Mitochondria and Glutathione – Behind the Scenes of Aging and Disease

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For optimal energy and focus our bodies require an abundance of mitochondria and a wealth of glutathione (Gloot-a-THI-own) to preserve them. Most people are born with an abundance of both, but levels diminish as we age. In addition to the natural aging process, stress, disease and chemical toxins also use up glutathione reserves. Therefore, the onus is on the individual to minimize depletion while supporting production. Doing so is well worth the effort, considering the alternative. When mitochondria are damaged, or reduced in number, the effects of aging and disease are evidenced as fatigue, pain, neurological disorders, poor immune response, and reduced mental clarity. You may already be familiar with the terms, free radicals, oxidative stress, and inflammation. Free radicals necessitate the anti-oxidative effects of glutathione to prevent mitochondrial damage and mutations to its DNA. Yes, mitochondria have their own DNA.

Unfortunately, glutathione can’t always keep up with the demand, which leads to a surplus of free radicals and the damaging consequences mentioned above. How this occurs in an individual is influenced by genetics and influential health practices.

Mitochondria, Glutathione and Disease

While the number of mitochondria in the body is estimated in the quadrillions, there will always be a percentage that are damaged. Typically damage goes unnoticed until a threshold is reached and symptoms appear. Glutathione’s role is to prevent damage or cell death from happening. The importance of glutathione’s function is illustrated in the fact that every organ system in the body has diseases associated with reduced levels. When levels are low, mitochondria function is impaired; conversely, impaired mitochondria compromise glutathione. The bi-lateral nature of the relationship has been suggested as a cause for progressive decline in mitochondrial disorders.

Though best known for making energy, mitochondria also have other important functions, including cell signaling and DNA replication. It is clear impaired mitochondrial DNA and cell signaling play a role in neurological and muscular disorders, as well as tumor growth and disease. Scientists are still investigating the complexities and the effects of dysfunction; including why some individuals experience mitochondrial syndromes and others do not.

A Closer Look at Mitochondria

Mitochondria are tiny organelles within a cell whose primary job is to produce energy in the form of ATP. Often called “the powerhouse” of the cell, the multi-step process operates much like a factory. Free radicals are the byproducts (“pollutants”) that are generated. Though not all bad, an excess leads to oxidative stress and inflammation, which are the foundation for aging and disease.

There are a LOT of mitochondria in the body varying in number according to the cell type. The brain, heart, skeletal muscle cells and liver have the greatest density, as they require the most energy. An excellent example of the consequences of impaired mitochondria is found by looking at the effects of aging and brain related diseases. The brain has a high energy demand using approximately 20% of the body’s energy while constituting only 2% of the body’s weight. The neurological activity of the brain requires a lot of energy, so if you aren’t thinking clearly, supporting mitochondria may be a good place to start.

Glutathione: How it Works

You may be wondering why you are just hearing about glutathione now. Though discovered in the late 1800’s, only in the past thirty years was the extent of its functions explored. In terms of research, this is all quite recent, as it takes years before findings reach the clinical setting.

Produced primarily in the liver, glutathione kills free radicals, boosts immunity and is the body’s chief detoxifying agent. If the liver isn’t functioning well, glutathione production suffers and toxins build up. The body produces glutathione from three amino acids (cysteine, glutamine and glycine). A vital structural feature is that it’s sulfur-based, meaning it’s a sticky smelly molecule, which acts like flypaper to toxins and carries them out of the body. Although it is the most abundant antioxidant, antioxidants we eat are important too. For instance, vitamins C and E help recycle glutathione. Research shows people with higher vitamin C levels also have higher glutathione levels. Most adults would benefit from an increase and based on the following list it’s easy to see why. Causes of reduced glutathione include,

  • Chronic illness
  • Environmental toxins
  • Genetics
  • Medications
  • Aging
  • Stress
  • Alcohol
  • Smoking
  • Poor diet
  • Nutrient deficiencies

How Do I Increase Glutathione Levels?

Most experts agree intake of nutrients supporting glutathione production is the way to go. Typically, Americans eat only a small fraction of the glutathione-producing constituents the body needs. In order to circumvent digestive interferences, glutathione is available intravenously, as well as in liposomal formulations. Below are boosters for glutathione (which are better known as ways to support liver detoxification).

  • Eat sulfur and antioxidant rich foods: asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, spinach, garlic, onions, avocado, squash, melons, and peaches
  • Exercise, but don’t over train
  • Yoga
  • Reduce stress
  • Get sufficient sleep
  • Supplements: magnesium, milk thistle, curcumin, alpha-lipoic acid, folate, B6, B12, vitamin C, selenium, whey, and NAC (N-acetyl cysteine)*
    *NAC is a precursor for glutathione. An excellent illustration of its powerful effect is the fact that Tylenol toxicity is treated with an IV of NAC in order to accelerate detoxification.

Although glutathione is generally safe and beneficial there are some situations where it has an adverse effect. To ensure optimal health benefits it is always recommended to work directly with a qualified professional.


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4. Lord R. and Bralley, J. L. Laboratory Evaluations For Integrative and Functional Medicine. Duluth, Ga: Metametrix Institute; 2008.

5. Montecinos V. Guzman, P. et. al. Vitamin C Is an Essential Antioxidant That Enhances Survival of Oxidatively Stressed Human Vascular Endothelial Cells in the Presence of a Vast Molar Excess of Glutathione. J of Bio Chem. May 2007;282:15506-15515.

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About Holtorf Medical Group

The Holtorf Medical Group specializes in optimizing quality of life and being medical detectives to uncover the underlying cause of symptoms, rather than just prescribing medications to cover-up the symptoms. We are experts in natural, prescription bioidentical hormone replacement and optimization, complex endocrine dysfunction, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome and Lyme disease.

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