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dnaMD- How Well Can You Detox?

Updated: Aug 9, 2021

Everyone knows the human body is mostly made up of water. But did you know the second most abundant molecule in the human body is a little protein called glutathione?

Glutathione is present in every cell in the body. But liver cells have a 10 times higher concentration of the molecule. This is because glutathione plays a vital role in the detoxification process. And the effectiveness of this protein heavily relies on unique variations within your genes.

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But first, what is the detoxification process?

Detoxification is a natural process inherent to the human body. Over time, our bodies accumulate toxins mainly from our environment and food sources. And as we accumulate more toxins, we become less effective at detoxification.

Efficient detoxification depends on a series of seamless reactions that bind toxins to shuttle molecules and “escorts” them out through a series of doors. Dysfunction of the three-phase detoxification system is the most common and insidious root cause of toxic accumulation in the body. True health requires that all phases function in balance, or the whole system cannot work properly. With an increase in our daily exposure to toxins, it is imperative that our detox pathways are working at 100%.

In the most simplified description, in the detoxification process, a toxin goes through several biotransformations in order to be removed from the body.

  • Phase 1 is activation. Phase 1 takes fat-soluble toxins and makes them water-soluble. This actually makes the toxin more reactive within the cell and must immediately be picked up by a Phase II molecule.

  • Phase II is conjugation. Phase 2 consists mainly of conjugation reactions that link biomolecules such as glutathione, glucuronic acid, and sulfation to the toxin for removal.

  • Phase III is transportation. Toxins leave the body mainly from the GI tract and kidneys but also from the skin with sweating. With GI excretion, the toxin travels from the cell into the blood, from the blood into the liver, from the liver into the bile, and then into the intestines. With Kidney excretion. Toxins travel from the blood into the proximal tubules and into the urine.

As mentioned above, glutathione plays a pivotal role in phase II of the detoxification process.

Glutathione 101:

Glutathione is one of the most important molecules for human health. It is both the “mother” of all antioxidants and the “master” of the body’s detoxification system. The protein is made up of three amino acids- glycine, cysteine, and glutamate.

As an antioxidant, glutathione provides protection against oxidative stress. By definition, an antioxidant is anything that neutralizes oxidants or free radicals. Antioxidants do this by donating an electron and stabilizing the free radical. This will also lower the cell’s oxidative status. The amino acids that create glutathione have the perfect structure to very easily accept and give away electrons.

Without the presence of glutathione in the detoxification process, toxins like excess hormones, chemicals, environmental pollutants, heavy metals, and pharmaceuticals would have no way of leaving our bodies. A backup of such major toxins in the body can lead to liver damage and other illness and disease. This is why the depletion of glutathione in the human body is also linked to cancer, cardiovascular disease, and neurodegeneration. In the detoxification process, glutathione serves two main roles:

  • It binds to toxins and alerts the body that they are hazardous. In binding to toxins, glutathione will neutralize the positive charge and prevent toxins from attaching to important cellular components.

  • Next, glutathione transforms the hazardous toxins into a form that can be expelled or further metabolized. Specifically, glutathione converts the toxins into a water-soluble molecule that the body can easily expel.

Unfortunately, as we age, the body’s supply of glutathione will wane. And the use of substances like alcohol, drugs, and other compounds can further decrease your body's levels of glutathione.

How is glutathione made?

One of the coolest things about glutathione is that our main source of the molecule is what we produce within our bodies. This is because, as a protein, glutathione is very hard to absorb efficiently from the foods you eat. The digestive system will break glutathione into its amino acid-base, where it cannot be used as an antioxidant or detoxification aid.

The production of glutathione is triggered in two ways:

  • The presence of the amino acid cysteine- Research has demonstrated that an increase in cysteine levels will cause glutathione levels to increase.

  • Toxins are sensed by glutathione-creating genes- There are several genes involved in the glutathione constructing process. When certain cellular receptors sense toxins, they will “flip the switch” for these genes and cause glutathione production to begin. This is the main trigger for the production of glutathione in the body.

The genes behind glutathione:

There are several different categories of genes responsible for glutathione: creation, recycling, and functioning processes. Unfortunately, there are certain genetic variations within genes that will decrease the body’s ability to create glutathione and thus cripple the function of glutathione as an antioxidant and detoxifier.

  • Glutathione Conjugation (GST) Genes → These genes assist in phase II of the detoxification process. Specifically, these enzymes are involved in attaching toxins, carcinogens, and drugs to glutathione. People with variations within these genes can have as low as 1/7th of the detoxification ability of someone without such variations. Variations in these genes can also cause DNA damage and have been linked to diseases and cancers. The supplement Avmacol has been shown to increase GST activity and reduce toxin exposure.

  • Glutathione Antioxidant (GPX) Genes → These are the main genes involved in the antioxidant pathways of glutathione. GPX genes aid glutathione in its ability to neutralize hydrogen peroxide. Hydrogen peroxide is a free radical that is naturally made from normal biochemical processes such as in the production of ATP. And GPX is one of the most important enzymes that transforms this free radical into water and oxygen. Variations of these genes can hinder the antioxidant properties of glutathione and result in oxidative stress. Adding selenium to your diet or drinking hydrogen water can assist in boosting the antioxidant ability of glutathione.

  • Recycling Glutathione (GSR) Genes → These genes code for enzymes that further assist in cellular antioxidant defense and help to recycle glutathione into an active bioavailable form. Variants of this gene will have reduced amounts of glutathione available to work as an antioxidant. Being able to easily recycle glutathione is the body's preferred way of increasing glutathione levels. If there are genetic variations affecting the recycling of glutathione, the body will then need to produce glutathione from the three amino acids. This requires more ATP energy and can be a problem if you also genetic variations affecting absorption or production of these amino acids.

  • Glutathione Production Genes → These genes are responsible for sparking the production of glutathione. As described above, when functioning properly, these genes are triggered by toxins to begin the creation of glutathione from three amino acids. Variants of these genes will cause a decrease in the ability to produce glutathione. This can be especially impactful if there are variations in the ability to recycle glutathione.

Increasing your supply of glutathione:

As stated above, glutathione is not easily obtained through diet. However, there are some foods that increase the activity of the enzyme that helps glutathione in the detoxification process. These foods are typically high in sulfur- including garlic, onions, broccoli, kale, cabbage, and collards. Moreover, broccoli sprouts have been found to be exceptionally capable in increasing glutathione enzyme activity.

There are also several supplements that have proven to assist in boosting glutathione production:

  • N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC) - This nutrient contains cysteine, which is one of the key building blocks of glutathione. Taking NAC has been demonstrated to boost glutathione production and reserves in the body. NAC is so effective in boosting glutathione production (and thus boosting the detoxification process) that it is used in emergency rooms for medical detoxification emergencies. Several animal studies have also demonstrated that taking NAC helps to offset the cell death of “aged” cells.

  • Alpha Lipoic Acid- This antioxidant is able to assist in the recycling process of glutathione. Alpha-lipoic acid regenerates “used”, oxidized glutathione back into its usable form. It also provides a further source of cysteine and increasing cysteine uptake into cells.

  • Folate, B6, and B12- The active forms of these vitamins are vital in the synthesizing of glutathione. Folate helps in directing cysteine to glutathione production and away from other purposes.

  • Other nutrients that assist in promoting healthy glutathione levels include:

    • Magnesium

    • Selenium

    • Vitamin C

Glutathione is one of the forgotten heroes of the human body. While rarely mentioned, it is vital in obtaining optimal health. Knowing if you have a genetic variant that could hinder glutathione processes is essential for your long-term health.

To learn more about supplements to boost glutathione production or to inquire about genetic testing, click here to contact us!

The Johnson Center for Health services patients in-person in our Blacksburg and Virginia Beach / Norfolk locations. We also offer telemedicine for residents of Virginia and North Carolina!


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