What is glutathione?
Glutathione is an antioxidant that is made by the liver. It is best known for its ability to remove hormones, medications, and toxic chemicals from the body and deal with oxidative stress. It does this by taking substances that are fat-soluble and “stuck” in our tissues and making them water-soluble, which is much easier for the body to eliminate.
Glutathione also helps the body make important enzymes, hormones, new genetic material, and supplies a neurotransmitter called glutamate, which is important for mood, learning, and memory (Horowitz, 2017).
Why is glutathione helpful for people with Lyme disease?
As many Lyme patients know, after years of infection and inflammation, their detoxification pathways become over-taxed and clogged. The human body is constantly making, storing, and using glutathione, but with extended illness, our glutathione stores become depleted.
When the body does not have access to adequate amounts of glutathione, its ability to detoxify, produce important hormones, and complete important metabolic activities is greatly decreased. This is a major reason why many Lyme patients have such a hard time getting better. How do you fight off infection, much less handle the painful Jarisch-Herxheimer reactions so paramount to healing from Lyme, if your body doesn’t have the tools to properly detoxify?
How to use glutathione for healing from Lyme
Glutathione supplementation therapy has become a relatively mainstream option for helping Lyme patients find wellness. The most common ways to supplement are through oral (pill), sublingual (gel), liposomal, and intravenous routes (IV).
Research on the oral supplementation of glutathione is mixed; some studies show this form of glutathione has no effect on plasma levels of available glutathione (Minich and Brown, 2019), while other research has shown increased levels of glutathione and decreased markers for oxidative stress (Richie et al, 2015).
Sublingual glutathione is often in a gel-like form and taken under the tongue or between the gums and cheek. Research on glutathione taken sublingually is more conclusive than oral glutathione, showing that this form is more bioavailable and easier for the body to use (Minich and Brown, 2019). One small study of twelve healthy, middle-aged subjects given 500-1000mg of sublingual glutathione daily for four weeks resulted in increased blood plasma levels of glutathione, decreased biomarkers for oxidative stress, and an improvement in immune system activities, such as lymphocyte production and natural killer cell activity (Sinha et al, 2018).
But the most effective oral alternative is liposomal glutathione — a supplement that is covered with liposomes (fatty substances) to keep the supplement content from breaking down from stomach acids and gastric juices in the intestinal tract. At 2018 study shows that oral supplementation with liposomal glutathione elevates body stores of glutathione and markers of immune function (see study).
Intravenous glutathione supplementation is arguably the least convenient and most invasive method, but also most effective. To have an IV glutathione treatment, patients must usually leave their home, arrive at an infusion center or doctor’s office, have an IV placed (if they don’t already have a port or PICC line), and sit for 20-30 minutes while the solution infuses. Depending on the person and their degree of illness, these infusions can happen as often as a few times per week. Patients often feel the effects of IV glutathione while it is infusing, which contributes to its perceived effectiveness.
Is intravenous glutathione right for everyone?
For many Lyme patients, there is a strong sense of urgency to heal as quickly as possible. Many people suffer for years prior to a correct diagnosis, and then once effective treatment starts it can take any amount of time to get better. That is why IV glutathione is such a viable option.
According to research and anecdotal evidence from renowned Lyme specialist, Dr. Richard Horowitz, improvements from a single dose of IV glutathione are often seen immediately and can last anywhere from several hours to three days. According to Dr. Horowitz, approximately one third of patients have a mild-positive response, one third have a moderate-positive response, and one third have a significantly-positive response.
Those are some pretty good odds. But what about the rare few who have a negative experience with IV glutathione?
Occasionally, Dr. Horowitz has seen a very mild allergic reaction that results in wheezing, itching, rash that resolves within 30 minutes of incorporating Benadryl. This reaction is extremely rare, and is often seen in highly-allergic individuals with prior history of sulfa and/or environmental allergies.
Other patients have reported temporary nausea, fleeting pressure in the head, and occasional tingling in the extremities during infusion. It is unknown what exactly causes these symptoms, but it is speculated that these individuals who are sensitive to IV glutathione are often bogged down with clogged detoxification pathways and are experiencing the “healing crisis” that is so often seen in Lyme patients who are undergoing treatment.
Alternatives to glutathione supplementation
If glutathione supplementation isn’t tolerated well, there are also ways to encourage the body to make its own glutathione. This includes supplementation with N-Acetylcystein (NAC) and alpha-lipoic acid (Horowitz, 2017). Alpha-lipoic acid has the side-benefit of helping the body chelate heavy metals and other toxins, providing further antioxidant support and lowering inflammation. Alpha-lipoic acid is also effective in decreasing insulin resistance, lowering blood sugars, and improving symptoms of diabetic neuropathy.
You can also elevate your body’s own stores and production of glutathione naturally. Probably the least expensive but most labor-intensive is by doing a coffee enema. According to research done by the Gerson Institute, coffee enemas stimulate the body into generating glutathione and opening the liver’s bile ducts if a patient holds the coffee in the colon for 12-15 minutes. During this time, the body’s entire blood supply passes through the liver 4-5 times, carrying poisons picked up from the tissues. In this way, a coffee enema acts as a form of dialysis of the blood across the gut wall. So not only does the enema clear out toxic debris from the intestines, but it activates the liver for further detoxing and also acts as a blood cleanser.
Overall, glutathione supplementation has been scientifically shown to improve biomarkers and quality of life for those healing from Lyme disease. According to Dr. Horowitz, patients with treatment-resistant infection who have failed many rounds of antibiotic treatment benefit overwhelmingly from sublingual and/or IV glutathione.
Take it slow
As with many treatments in Lyme disease, less is often more, especially in the beginning of treatment. It is a counterintuitive concept, but it is not always best to hammer the body with treatments too aggressively. Killing off infective agents and detoxification are two very big jobs for an already-stressed-out body, so it is recommended you talk to your doctor about glutathione supplementation to weigh benefits and risks and see if it is right for you.
The good news is that overwhelmingly, glutathione has been shown to have positive effects for patients with Lyme disease, with the negative effects being mild and not life-threatening.
About the author: Kaleigh Ahern is a Registered Nurse in the state of New York with a past history in environmental research at Union College and a graduate degree from the NYS Department of Health Wadsworth Center. She is a Lyme survivor who has healed after more than ten years of illness. She feels Lyme disease has been her greatest teacher.
Horowitz, Richard. How Can I Get Better? An Action Plan for Treating Resistant Lyme & Chronic Disease. St. Martin’s Griffin, New York. 2017.
Minich, D. M., Brown, B. I. A review of dietary (phyto)nutrients for glutathione support. Nutrients. Sep 2019; 11(9): 2073. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6770193/
Richie, J. P. Jr., Nichenametla, S., Neidig, W., Calcagnotto, A., Haley, J. S., Schell, T. D., Muscat, J. E. Randomized controlled trial of oral glutathione supplementation on body stores of glutathione. Eur J. Nutr. 2015 Mar; 54(2): 251-263. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24791752/
Sinha, R., Sinha, I., Clacagnotto, A. Trushin, N., Haley, J. S., Schell, T. D., Richie, J. P. Jr. Oral supplementation with liposomal glutathione elevates body stores of glutathione and markers of immune function. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2018 Jan; 72(1): 105-111. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6389332/
Schmitt, B., Vicenzi, M., Garrel, C., Denis, F. Effects of N-acetylcysteine, oral glutathione (GHS) and a novel sublingual form of GHS on oxidative stress markers: A comparative crossover study. Redox Biol. 2015 Dec; 6: 198-205. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4536296/