COVID-19 deals a heavy blow to your ‘master antioxidant’

There’s no question that COVID-19 is a dangerous illness. Even people who have had a mild infection can experience debilitating “long haul” effects such as fatigue, muscle weakness, sleep problems, anxiety or depression, impaired lung function, reduced kidney function and lingering joint pain.

And it turns out that’s not all you have to worry about with COVID-19 infection. Researchers recently identified another worrying after-effect that could spell trouble for the long-term health of COVID-19 patients…

COVID-19 depletes glutathione in the body

A study at the Baylor College of Medicine found that compared to healthy age-matched individuals, COVID-19 patients have increased oxidative stress, oxidant damage and substantially reduced levels of glutathione, one of the body’s most abundant antioxidants.

Often called “the master antioxidant,” glutathione is found in high concentrations in most cells. It helps defend them against free radical damage and oxidative buildup which is toxic to cells and can harm many physiological processes. Glutathione also has a vital role in detoxifying outside contaminants such as chemicals, pollutants and drugs.

“Increased oxidative stress and reduced glutathione levels are associated with a number of conditions including aging, diabetes, HIV infection, neurodegenerative disorders, cardiovascular disorders, neurometabolic diseases, obesity and others,” says corresponding author Dr. Rajagopal Sekhar, associate professor of medicine at Baylor.

From their previous research, Sekhar and his colleagues suspected COVID-19 could be affecting oxidative stress and glutathione. And their study confirmed that premise in adults hospitalized with COVID-19.

“We found that these defects occur in all adult age groups, including young people, and worsen with increasing age,” he says.

The study samples were organized in three groups: ages 21 to 40, 41 to 60 and 61 and older. Earlier research has shown that in healthy adults, oxidative stress and damage levels begin to increase and glutathione levels start to decline.

However, this pattern changed with COVID-19 infection. 

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“We were surprised to see that the COVID-19 patients in the 21 to 40 and the 41 to 60 groups had much less glutathione and more oxidative stress than the corresponding age groups without COVID-19,” Sekhar says. He says this finding is surprising, given that they normally don’t see these deficits in younger age groups.

“These defects appear to get progressively worse with increasing age, and the oldest patients with COVID-19 had higher level of defects in these outcomes,” he adds. “We propose that these changes might be involved in the disease.”

Previously, the research team found increased oxidative stress levels and reduced glutathione in people with HIV and those with diabetes, and that supplementing with GlyNAC, a combination of glutathione precursors, improved those deficits.

Other studies found giving GlyNAC to older people and HIV patients reversed conditions like inflammation, insulin resistance and endothelial dysfunction, a type of non-obstructive coronary artery disease. GlyNAC also improved muscle strength, cognitive decline, exercise capacity and body composition.

Because these are all defects that have been reported in patients with COVID-19, Sekhar says the researchers considered whether GlyNAC supplementation could potentially be of value in with COVID-19 and its long-term symptoms.

“The effects of GlyNAC supplementation in patients with COVID-19 remain to be investigated in future research studies,” Sekhar said.

At the core of GlyNAC is n-acetylcysteine, also known as NAC. NAC is a powerful antioxidant that helps replenish glutathione.

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Boosting glutathione in the body

There are many ways to help bolster your body’s production of glutathione. As with most things health-related, it all starts with eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep and keeping your stress levels down. It also helps to limit your alcohol consumption and avoid taking certain prescription and over-the-counter drugs like Tylenol.

Foods that help increase glutathione production include turmeric, raw dairy, eggs, grass-fed meat, whey protein and sulfur-rich vegetables like broccoli, kale, cauliflower, cabbage, spinach asparagus, collards and watercress. Grapes and avocados also have natural chemicals that boost glutathione.

Supplementing with certain nutrients can also help encourage your body to produce more glutathione. These include vitamin B12, vitamin B6, folate, selenium, n-acetylcysteine, milk thistle, vitamin C and vitamin E and the herb known as schisandra.

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COVID-19 patients have increased oxidative stress, oxidant damage, and glutathione deficiency — Baylor College of Medicine

Severe Glutathione Deficiency, Oxidative Stress and Oxidant Damage in Adults Hospitalized with COVID-19: Implications for GlyNAC (Glycine and N-Acetylcysteine) Supplementation — Antioxidants

Glutathione — WebMD

Endothelial Dysfunction — Stanford Health Care

Carolyn Gretton

By Carolyn Gretton

Carolyn Gretton is a freelance writer based in New Haven, CT who specializes in all aspects of health and wellness and is passionate about discovering the latest health breakthroughs and sharing them with others. She has worked with a wide range of companies in the alternative health space and has written for online and print publications like Dow Jones Newswires and the Philadelphia Inquirer.