Why do we age?
According to the free radical theory of ageing (FRTA), organisms age because cells accumulate free radical damage over time. This causes age-related conditions like heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, stroke and cancer.
So, if we can manage to slow down the activity of free radicals, can we limit “wear and tear” and live longer? Before we answer that question we need to find out what free radicals are and what they do to our bodies.
What are free radicals?
The scientific answer is that free radicals are atoms or molecules with an unpaired electron. This makes them unstable and causes them to look for an extra electron to become stable.
Most of the free radicals in our bodies are ROS (reactive oxygen species); they are formed as a by-product of cell metabolism and are part of the natural functioning of our bodies.
Read: The process of ageing
Excessive “robbing” of electrons can cause a chain reaction and accelerate ageing – and some of the biggest culprits are smoking, UV radiation, pollution, stress, a poor diet, toxins and a lack of exercise.
What’s the damage?
Free radicals are primarily a health risk because they can attack DNA, which may cause a number of diseases, normally regarded as age-related conditions.
They can also attack the lipids, collagen and elastin fibres in the skin which keep it firm – causing the wrinkles and thinning skin that make us look old.
The 'magic bullet'
Antioxidants are the “magic bullet” that will neutralise free radicals in your body. They do this by either providing the extra electron, or by breaking down the free radical molecule to make it harmless. "Antioxidants stop the chain reaction of free radical formation and benefit our health by boosting our immune system ," explains K. Sandeep Prabhu, Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University.
Neutralising free radicals is an ongoing process and antioxidants need to be replenished on a constant basis. The best way to ensure an optimal supply is a diet rich in antioxidants.
Read: Ten sources of antioxidants
According to Dr Prabhu, “antioxidants come in several forms, including the vitamins A, C, and E; plant-derived polyphenols, found in colourful fruits and vegetables; and also the element selenium, found in nuts and broccoli”. Other plant foods rich in antioxidants that we are familiar with are dark chocolate, pomegranates, blueberries and green tea.
Glutathione – the body's master antioxidant
But, there is even more good news. There is a master antioxidant, produced by our own bodies, called glutathione, which is composed of 3 amino acids: L-cysteine, L-glutamic acid and glycine.
According to a 2004 study, published in the Journal of Nutrition, "Glutathione deficiency contributes to oxidative stress, which plays a key role in ageing and the pathogenesis of many diseases."
As an antioxidant, glutathione is many times more powerful than vitamin C and has been described as the “fountain of youth”.
Glutathione has many functions in the body, but its antioxidant activities are directly involved in the neutralisation of free radicals, as well as maintaining the action of other antioxidants by restoring the electrons they used to neutralise free radicals.
In other words, glutathione doesn't only fight free radicals, it also recycles other antioxidants.
Read: All the powerful antioxidants
The bad news
In earlier times the amount of glutathione produced by our own bodies may have been sufficient to clear free radicals from our bodies, but the bad news is that in modern times our toxic load from things like pollution, poor diet, medication and stress has become too great for this to happen effectively.
How do we raise our glutathione levels?
Glutathione supplements are available, but are not properly absorbed by the body. External glutathione injections may initially be beneficial but may inhibit the body’s ability to produce its own glutathione.
The best way, therefore, to naturally increase your glutathione levels is to eat more foods that contain glutathione and its precursors.
So, the most obvious step is to make sure you ingest the building blocks of glutathione, i.e. the amino acids L-cysteine, L-glutamic acid and glycine. L-cysteine is the scarcest, so eating foods that are rich in cysteine (garlic, onions, raw eggs and fresh meat) is a good idea.
The following foods, spices and supplements may also help to increase glutathione in our bodies.
Foods and spices
- Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and cabbage
- Spices like turmeric, cinnamon and cardamom
- Undenatured whey proteins
- Vitamins C, E, B6, B12, B1, B2 and folic acid
- The minerals selenium, magnesium and zinc
- N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC)
- S-adenosyl-methionine (SAMe)
- Alpha lipoic acid
- Milk thistle
- Immunocal (natural product listed in the Physicians’ Desk Reference (PDR) and the Pharmacist’s Red Book)
Glutathione is also reported to be essential for a healthy immune system, so ensuring you have optimal levels should help you ward off seasonal cold and flu viruses. Additionally, one study in the European Journal of Clinical Investigation has reported that glutathione levels are low in HIV-positive people, which emphasises it's importance in the role of the immune system.
It's reputed to assist in the health profiles of those suffering from thyroid problems, various chronic inflammatory conditions, cancer, MS and Parkinson’s disease.
The Journal of Laboratory and Clinical Medicine also reported that in one study findings confirm that high blood total glutathione levels and excellent physical and mental health are characteristics of long-lived women. One report mentions that, on testing, the longest-living people in the world all had high glutathione levels.
Free radicals and chronic disease
Flavonoids - powerful antioxidants
Antioxidants no magic bullet
Image: Glutathione antioxidant from Shutterstock