Glutathione is a peptide of three amino acids: cysteine, glutamate, and glycine. It is arguably the most powerful antioxidant in the body; it’s also required for one of the liver’s six main pathways of Phase 2 Detoxification, and it offers immune support and cytokine balancing in chronic illness.

Recently it has also received a lot of attention as a treatment for autism. Here’s why.

Glutathione and Detoxification

The prevailing general mechanism for autism involves toxic exposure—be they heavy metals, pesticides or solvents—combined with poor tolerance and detoxification mechanisms, and genetic susceptibility.

Several genes are responsible for glutathione production, including CBS (Cystathione betasynthase) and GSTM (glutathione transferase). Indirectly, the MTHFR gene can also contribute to glutathione production by supplying its building blocks (cysteine)—and methylation is itself one of the six main pathways of phase 2 liver detoxification as well. Therefore, defects in any one of these genes (or all of the above) can set one up for accumulation of toxins as well as oxidative stress. Perhaps this is why, in this study, kids given methylcobalamin (activated B12) and activated folate to feed the methylation pathway experienced not only improved methylation status, but also improved glutathione status as well.

Glutathione Lowers Inflammatory Cytokines

This article shows that when a pregnant mom gets a bacterial or viral illness, the subsequent activation of the inflammatory cytokine interleukin-6 (IL-6) can impact the baby’s neurodevelopment. The following two papers also link the inflammatory IL-6 specifically with autistic behavior in mice and monkeys.

This study suggests a possible mechanism by which this might occur, showing that IL-6 elevation changes the formation of the synapses (connections in the brain) and also alters neural signal transmission.

In general, as this article implies, oxidative stress connected with low glutathione status in the brain may lead to an elevated inflammatory response in the brain and functional compromise. But this study shows that glutathione decreases numerous inflammatory cytokines, including IL-6, IL-8, and TNF.

The Upshot

In this meta-analysis of 39 studies, glutathione is consistently found to be clinically useful in cases of autism.

But while liposomal glutathione can be pricey, even its precursor, cysteine (in the form of NAC, or N-Acetyl Cysteine) was shown to improve symptoms and reduce irritability scores as much as 80%.