The Role of Essential Amino Acid Lysine in Health and Disease

Lysine is an essential amino acid, meaning that it must be consumed by dietary means and cannot be manufactured within the body. It occurs in protein-containing foods, such as eggs, meat, and dairy products, and is abundant in beans and legumes. While most people in developed nations consume an adequate amount of lysine, some may be deficient depending on their diet, among other factors.

Lysine can exist in a “D or L” form (which refers to the chirality of the molecule). However, the L form of lysine is the essential component of the diet and is the form available in dietary supplements.

Lysine for Protection Against Glycation

While lysine’s most important role is in protein synthesis, a critical action for the amino acid is in the prevention of glycation: the nonenzymatic bonding of a sugar molecule to a protein or fat that results in the formation of advanced glycation end products (AGEs) which damage tissues, including the lining of the arteries. A similar phenomenon, known as glycosylation, refers to enzymatic bonding of carbohydrates to proteins or fats. Diabetics, who have elevated blood glucose levels, experience an increase in glycation-related damage.

Glucose in the body bonds to proteins that contain lysine. According to the authors of a study that found an 86% reduction in the glycation of collagen in the kidneys of rats that received L-lysine prior to the induction of elevated blood glucose, “The rationale is that the administered lysine would combine with the circulating glucose and make it unavailable to react with epsilon-amino groups of lysine of various proteins in these diabetic rats.”1

Lysine and Cataracts

In cataract formation, which involves glycation of the crystalline lens, a drug that contains L-lysine inhibited the early stages of protein glycation and the formation of advanced glycation end products.2 L-lysine has also been demonstrated to inhibit the glycation of fibrinogen (involved in blood clotting) in the plasma of type 2 diabetics.3

Lysine and Diabetics

In patients being treated for type 2 diabetes, 3 grams of L-lysine per day reduced advanced glycation end products in serum and reversed lysozyme glycation, thereby increasing its activity.4 (Lysozyme is an antimicrobial enzyme that forms a part of the innate immune system.) “Structure and function of glycated lysozyme are significantly improved by L-lysine; therefore it can be considered an effective therapeutic supplementation in type 2 diabetes mellitus, decreasing the risk of infection in these patients,” authors H. Mirmiranpour and colleagues conclude.

Interestingly, lysine ingested with glucose resulted in a 44% decrease in the 2.5-hour serum glucose response without a change in insulin response in comparison with the serum response to glucose alone in a study that involved healthy participants.5

Lysine and Herpes Simplex Virus

One of lysine’s best-known uses is as an aid to suppress herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV1) or HSV2. The virus is the cause of “cold sores” or “fever blisters” that appear on the lips, mouth, or genitals. While there are several prescription drugs that can treat HSV, L-lysine is used by some individuals to help maintain results during periods in which drugs are not being used to treat active lesions.

The rationale for using L-lysine against HSV is based on the fact that L-lysine has a competitive relationship with another amino acid, L-arginine, which is needed for HSV to replicate. In research conducted in tissue cultures, lysine antagonized the ability of L-arginine to promote viral growth, thereby suppressing HSV replication.6

Although plenty of anecdotal evidence exists in favor of the use of L-lysine against herpes, clinical data is limited. An early double-blind multicenter trial in which men and women with recurrent herpes simplex infection received 1 gram L-lysine from L-lysine monohydrochloride or a placebo three times daily for six months resulted in an average of 2.4 fewer HSV infections, decreased severity of symptoms and reduced healing time among those who received the amino acid.7 In a double-blind crossover study involving subjects with frequently recurring herpetic lesions, one gram L-lysine daily was associated with fewer lesions in comparison with the control group.8 Researchers D. J. Thein and W. C. Hurt found that when serum lysine levels exceeded 165 nanomoles per milliliter, herpes lesion recurrence decreased significantly. “These results suggest that prophylactic lysine may be useful in managing selected cases of recurrent herpes simplex labialis if serum lysine levels can be maintained at adequate concentrations,” they conclude.

Another, crossover study, found positive effects for 1,248 milligrams (mg) L-lysine monohydrochloride daily in the prevention of HSV lesions, but no benefit for 624 mg per day in comparison with a placebo.9 In a survey of 1,543 subjects with HSV, 84% reported that supplementation with L-lysine prevented recurrence or decreased the frequency of lesions, while decreasing symptom severity and healing time. Eighty-eight percent considered supplemental L-lysine effective.10

Cold sores, while generally considered an annoyance, could have more serious implications. Herpes simplex type 1 has been found in the cerebrums of the majority of older adults, in many areas affected by Alzheimer’s disease. Herpes encephalitis, a condition in which HSV causes severe brain infection, has been known to result in memory loss. It has been hypothesized that L-lysine supplementation could help protect against the development of Alzheimer’s.11

Lysine and Heart Disease

Another use for lysine is in the prevention of atherosclerosis. According to Nobel Prize-winning scientist Linus Pauling, "Knowing that lysyl residues are what causes lipoprotein(a) to stick to the wall of the artery and form atherosclerotic plaques, any physical chemist would say at once that to prevent that put the amino acid lysine in the blood to a greater extent than it is normally. You need lysine, it is essential, you have to get about one gram a day to keep protein in balance, but we can take lysine, pure lysine, a perfectly nontoxic substance as supplements, which puts extra lysine molecules in the blood. They enter into competition with the lysyl residues on the wall of arteries and accordingly count to prevent lipoprotein(a) from being deposited, or even will work to pull it loose and destroy atherosclerotic plaques."12

The Impact of Lysine

Due to its presence in protein sources, it’s no surprise that a high lysine diet also benefits muscle. A study in young men who consumed 80 mg lysine per kilogram body weight resulted in improved muscle strength after eight weeks.13 The finding is of relevance to the residents of developing countries whose populations are at risk of lysine deficiency. In Ghana, a randomized trial of L-lysine supplementation that included men, women, and children resulted in decreased diarrheal episodes and number of days ill among the children and fewer colds and number of days ill among the men.14 The authors note that lysine impacts diarrhea as well as anxiety by its effects on serotonin receptors, intestinal repair, and opioid peptide transport.

“Lysine could be viewed as the ‘forgotten’ amino acid in human nutrition,” writes D. H. Baker in the Journal of Nutrition.15 “This amino acid is rich in the food supply of developed countries. However, in poor countries where cereals dominate the food supply, lysine is the most limiting amino acid in the food supply.”

“Lysine has probably been studied more in animal nutrition than any other amino acid, but it has not received the same degree of emphasis in human nutrition. This is perhaps because few pharmacologic uses for lysine in the clinical setting have been advanced.” It is to be hoped that this “forgotten” amino acid will be remembered in future research and that additional uses in human health are uncovered.


  1. Jyothirmayi GN. Nephron. 2001 Feb;87(2):148-54.
  2. Marques C et al. Doc Ophthalmol. 1995;90(4):395-404.
  3. Mirmiranpour H et al. Thromb Res. 2012 Sep;130(3):e13-9.
  4. Mirmiranpour H et al. Acta Med Iran. 2016 Jan;54(1):24-31.
  5. Kalogeropoulou D et al. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 Aug;90(2):314-20.
  6. Griffith RS et al. Chemotherapy. 1981;27(3):209-13.
  7. Griffith RS et al. Dermatologica. 1987;175(4):183-90.
  8. Thein DJ et al. Oral Surg Oral Med Oral Pathol. 1984 Dec;58(6):659-66.
  9. McCune MA et al. Cutis. 1984 Oct;34(4):366-73.
  10. Walsh DE et al. J Antimicrob Chemother. 1983 Nov;12(5):489-96.
  11. Rubey RN. Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat. 2010 Oct 27;6:707-10.
  12. Fonorow O. “No Prescription Required.” Linus Pauling’s Therapy® 1996. Accessed 2017 July 19.
  13. Unni US et al. Clin Nutr. 2012 Dec;31(6):903-10.
  14. Ghosh S et al. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010 Oct;92(4):928-39.
  15. Baker DH. J Nutr. 2007 Jun;137(6 Suppl 2):1599S-1601S.

The Health Benefits of Chondroitin Sulfate Supplements - Life Extension Blog

The benefits of chondroitin sulfate and glucosamine in osteoarthritis have been described as life-changing by millions of arthritis sufferers over the past several decades. Both are components of cartilage, the tissue that connects our bones.

Chondroitin sulfate is a sulfated glycosaminoglycan that is a component of a cartilage molecule known as aggrecan.1 Four fractions have been identified: chondroitin-4-sulfate, chondroitin-6-sulfate, chondroitin-2,6-sulfate, and chondroitin-4,6-sulfate. While it has been suggested that glucosamine, the smaller molecule, is better absorbed than the larger chondroitin sulfate, both compounds have been effective in studies of arthritis patients.

Do Chondroitin Sulfate Supplements Get Absorbed?

A question has been raised concerning whether orally administered chondroitin sulfate results in the molecule being directly incorporated into cartilage. It has been suggested that chondroitin sulfate’s metabolic byproducts could be responsible for the benefits documented in clinical and experimental research. It is, however, notable that a study in which chondroitin sulfate was orally administered to 20 human subjects detected a more than 200% increase in plasma chondroitin sulfate levels, with the peak concentration reached after 2 hours.2 “This research extends previous results obtained by other researchers in man and experimental animals, both with chondroitin sulfate and other polysaccharides, confirming that molecules possessing high molecular mass and charge density can be absorbed orally,” author N. Volpi, of the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia concluded.

Relief from Osteoarthritis Pain and Inflammation

In a three-month randomized trial published in 1992 that included patients with osteoarthritis of the knees and hips, chondroitin sulfate decreased pain and the need for NSAIDs.3 This effect was carried over into a two-month, treatment-free phase following the initial treatment period. Another trial, involving patients with knee, hip and/or finger joint arthritis, resulted in a significant reduction in severe pain reflected in a 72% decrease in the need for NSAIDs during a three-month course of chondroitin sulfate therapy.4 The authors remarked that the reduction of pain to a level that could not have been achieved by NSAID therapy alone was of special interest.

Another randomized, double-blind trial compared the anti-inflammatory effects of chondroitin sulfate and the NSAID diclofenac sodium in 146 knee osteoarthritis patients.5 While participants who received NSAID therapy had more rapid relief of their symptoms (which reappeared at the end of treatment), those who received chondroitin sulfate experienced a later response which lasted for up to three months after the end of treatment.

In yet another randomized comparison trial, osteoarthritis patients treated with anti-inflammatory drugs who also received chondroitin sulfate and ibuprofen daily for six months had less pain and need for anti-inflammatories than those who received ibuprofen alone.6 This response also persisted for three months after the conclusion of the treatment phase.

A comparison of chondroitin sulfate plus naproxen to naproxen alone resulted in reduced progression of joint erosion among patients with osteoarthritis of the hands after two years of treatment.7 The number of finger joints with erosions detected by x-rays at two years was lower among those who received chondroitin sulfate compared to those who received naproxen alone.

In the recent ChONdroitin versus CElecoxib versus Placebo Trial(CONCEPT) trial, which compared the effects of chondroitin sulfate, the NSAID drug celecoxib, and a placebo among patients with osteoarthritis of the knee, pain reduction and improvement in function in association with chondroitin sulfate was similar to that of the NSAID and significantly greater than the placebo after 182 days of daily treatment.8 The authors recommend that chondroitin sulfate be considered a first-line treatment in the management of knee osteoarthritis.

Chondroitin sulfate is frequently combined with glucosamine to treat osteoarthritis symptoms. A randomized, double-blind, crossover trial of chondroitin sulfate, glucosamine hydrochloride (HCl) and manganese ascorbate conducted among U.S. Navy personnel with degenerative joint disease resulted in knee symptom relief.9 In another trial, the combination helped lower an index of severity of osteoarthritis of the knee at 4 and 6 months of treatment in patients with mild to moderate disease.10 Fifty-two percent of those who received chondroitin sulfate, glucosamine HCl and manganese ascorbate twice per day experienced a response to the treatment in comparison with 28% who received a placebo.

Chondroitin sulfate is not a pain blocker, but helps relieve pain by supporting the structure of the joint.11 In a pilot trial of 69 knee osteoarthritis patients, chondroitin sulfate consumed daily was associated with less cartilage volume loss at six months and 12 months as assessed by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).12 “These findings suggest a joint structure protective effect of chondroitin sulfate and provide new in vivo information on its mode of action in knee osteoarthritis,” L. M. Wildi and colleagues conclude.

In a trial that included 300 participants with osteoarthritis of the knee, treatment with chondroitin sulfates was associated with the maintenance of cartilage at two years as revealed by x-ray evaluation of the knee joint.13 Those who received a placebo worsened over time. The author of the report concluded that chondroitin sulfates are “superior to the placebo with regard to the stabilization of minimum joint space width of the internal femorotibial articular space, the mean thickness and the surface.”

How Long Does Chondroitin Sulfate Take to Work?

Arthritis doesn’t develop overnight. Neither can chondroitin sulfate be expected to work immediately. It typically takes weeks for the effects of chondroitin sulfate and/or glucosamine to be noticed, but benefits can be long lasting. Even when used intermittently for just three months twice yearly during a two-year period, chondroitin sulfate helped maintain joint space width in patients with knee osteoarthritis.14

A randomized trial that compared the effects of a once-daily chondroitin sulfate oral gel, three times daily chondroitin sulfate capsules, and a placebo in 127 patients resulted in both groups who received chondroitin experiencing a significant reduction in clinical symptoms.15 The authors note that the effects of a single daily dose did not differ from those of thrice daily administration for all parameters evaluated.

Additional Help

Other supplements, such as fish oil, Korean angelica and Boswellia serrata canbe added to one’s arthritis regimen if fast relief is needed.


  1. Felson DT et al. Ann Intern Med. 2007 Apr 17;146(8):611-2.
  2. Volpi N. Osteoarthritis Cartilage. 2002 Oct;10(10):768-77.
  3. Mazières B et al. Rev Rhum Mal Osteoartic. 1992 Jul-Sep;59(7-8):466-72.
  4. Leeb BF et al. Wien Med Wochenschr. 1996;146(24):609-14.
  5. Morreale P et al. J Rheumatol. 1996 Aug;23(8):1385-91.
  6. Alekseeva LI et al. Ter Arkh. 1999;71(5):51-3.
  7. Rovetta G et al. Int J Tissue React. 2002;24(1):29-32.
  8. Reginster JY et al. Ann Rheum Dis. 2017 Sep;76(9):1537-1543.
  9. Leffler CT et al. Mil Med. 1999 Feb;164(2):85-91.
  10. Das A et al. Osteoarthritis Cartilage. 2000 Sep;8(5):343-50.
  11. Conrozier T. Presse Med. 1998 Nov 21;27(36):1862-5.
  12. Wildi LM et al. Ann Rheum Dis. 2011 Jun;70(6):982-9.
  13. Mathieu P. Presse Med. 2002 Sep 14;31(29):1386-90.
  14. Uebelhart D et al. Osteoarthritis Cartilage. 2004 Apr;12(4):269-76.
  15. Bourgeois P et al. Osteoarthritis Cartilage. 1998 May;6 Suppl A:25-30.

Does Happiness Lead to Longer Life? - Life Extension Blog

Most of us grew up with the belief that anything that was good for us had to be unpleasant. A boring diet containing plenty of unseasoned raw vegetables and grueling exercise routines. It almost seems as if long suffering can grant us long life.

What is happiness? Other than the absence of unhappiness, how does one define it? Peace,
enjoyment, fulfillment, health, pleasure, meeting and overcoming challenges: all of these and more are associated with the definition of happiness.

If You Are Happier, Will You Live Longer? 

A study assessed 9,365 men and women in 2002, 2004 and 2006 for subjective well-being, including enjoyment of life.1 A high level of enjoyment was reported by 20%, 22% and 34% in one, two and three respective assessments. Twenty-four percent of the subjects reported no enjoyment on any assessment. Over follow-up, 1,310 deaths occurred.

After adjusting for health, depressive symptoms, and other factors upon enrollment, those who reported high enjoyment of life at two assessments had a 17% lower risk of mortality compared to the group with no enjoyment. Among those who reported enjoyment at all three assessments, the risk was 24% lower. “The results add a new dimension to understanding the significance of subjective well-being for health outcomes by documenting the importance of sustained well-being over time,” authors P. Zaninotto and colleagues conclude.

Genetics and Environment 

A study involving 3,966 twins aged 70 years and older found that positive affect (experience of pleasurable emotions) and life satisfaction predicted lower mortality during a median follow-up period of nine years.2 Within-pair analyses of 400 nonidentical and 274 identical pairs of twins also uncovered a relationship between lower mortality and increased wellbeing, indicating that the association is independent of genes and shared environment.

Happiness Around The World

In a U.S. study that analyzed data from the General Social Survey-National Death Index for 31,481 men and women, those who rated themselves as “pretty happy” had a 6% higher adjusted risk of mortality over follow-up than those who were “very happy”.3 Subjects who were unhappy had a 14% higher risk. “Happy people live longer,” Elizabeth M. Lawrence and colleagues write. “Future research should seek to distinguish when and how happiness improves health and longevity.”

In Finland, a study of 22,461 adults found a linear increase in mortality over follow-up in association with dissatisfaction with life.4 Men who were categorized as dissatisfied had a 49% higher risk of mortality from any cause over the adjusted follow-up period.

In Thailand, a study of 60,569 adults followed for four years found that those who were happy little or none of the time were more than two and a half times as likely to die compared to those who were happy all the time.5 “Our study provides empirical evidence that the epidemiological effect of happiness is not confined to affluent Western countries, but it also increases the probability of staying alive in a middle-income Asian country,” the authors conclude.

In Japan, a study involving 88,175 men and women found that men who reported a low level of life enjoyment had a 75% higher risk of death from stroke, a 91% higher risk of dying from coronary heart disease and a 61% greater risk of total cardiovascular disease mortality over a median follow-up of 12 years in comparison with those with high enjoyment of life.6 Another Japanese study, involving 1,034 men and 1,413 women, found an association between subjective wellbeing and lower all-cause mortality in both men and women over a 7-year follow-up period.7

A Happy, Healthy Heart = Longer Life

A study that examined the effects of happiness among 862 men and 877 women found a 22% lower adjusted risk of coronary heart disease during 10 years of follow-up in association with positive affect.8 “Positive affect is defined as the experience of pleasurable emotions such as joy, happiness, excitement, enthusiasm, and contentment,” authors Karina W. Davidson and colleagues write. “Various mechanisms may explain the potential cardiovascular benefits of higher levels of positive affect. For example, positive affect, but not negative affect, has been shown to predict enhanced parasympathetic modulation of heart rate. Positive affect is associated with healthier blood pressure and cortisol levels in these same subjects.”

Mental Heath and Well-being

Some research suggests that regardless of one’s current financial status and age, happiness can still be a significant predictor of longevity. A study involving 400 low income, elderly residents of Connecticut found that happiness was significantly associated with a reduced risk of mortality over the course of a two-year follow-up, primarily among those who were not in good health.9

For those worried about growing older, a study involving 184 adults whose emotional states were reported five times daily for one week, repeated five and ten years later, found that overall emotional wellbeing and emotional stability improved over the years.10 After controlling for age, sex and ethnicity, subjects who experienced more positive than negative emotions were more likely to have survived over a 13-year period. “Evidence is growing that experiencing positive emotions may not only improve quality of life, it may add years to life,” L. L. Carstensen and colleagues conclude.

This information is not intended to minimize the importance of healthy habits and self-discipline in longevity. A sound diet, including the correction of nutritional deficiencies, regular physical activity, stimulation to the brain, and other factors are all of vital importance to one’s wellbeing. Happiness may be an important factor in living longer, but it’s not the only one.

“No matter what part of the world we come from, we are all basically the same human beings,” the Dalai Lama observed in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “We all seek happiness and try to avoid suffering.”

Could it be that simple happiness is worth as much in years gained as 100 crunches followed by a cold shower and a kale smoothie? We still suggest following a prevention protocol.

But, it may be worthwhile to take the advice of Joseph Campbell: “Follow your bliss.”


  1. Zaninotto P et al. BMJ. 2016 Dec 13;355:i6267.
  2. Sadler ME et al. Twin Res Hum Genet. 2011 Jun;14(3):249-56.
  3. Lawrence EM et al. Soc Sci Med. 2015 Nov;145:115-9.
  4. Koivumaa-Honkanen H et al. Am J Epidemiol. 2000 Nov 15;152(10):983-91.
  5. Yiengprugsawan V et al. Biopsychosoc Med. 2014 Aug 7;8:18.
  6. Shira K et al. Circulation. 2009 Sep 15;120(11):956-63.
  7. Iwasa H et al. Nihon Ronen Igakkai Zasshi. 2005 Nov;42(6):677-83.
  8. Davidson KW et al. Eur Heart J. 2010 May;31(9):1065-70.
  9. Zuckerman DM et al. Am J Epidemiol. 1984 Mar;119(3):410-23.
  10. Carstensen LL et al. Psychol Aging. 2011 Mar;26(1):21-33.

Skin Nutrition: 6 Skin Care Ingredients from Food and Vitamins - Life Extension Blog

Holli Lapes, RD, LD/N

Nature has provided us with everything we need to nourish our body, and scientists discover which nutrients are best for specific purposes.

We’ve done our research to find out exactly which nutrients have been researched and shown to work for common skin health concerns.

The good news is, there are ingredients found in skin care products that address exactly those concerns, and we’ve outlined them here for you. Common health goals for skin include skin hydration, suppleness, smoothness, even tone, and healthy cells.

Here are six ingredients that you will find in topical skin care products that are derived from food and vitamins and how they work.

#1 Oryza Rice Bran Ceramides

Ceramides are the major lipid constituents that provide the “barrier” property of the epidermis (the outer layer of cells on our skin). When ceramides from rice bran are applied topically, they form a barrier that helps the skin retain hydration! Nature is seriously amazing. Need additional support? Consider wheat-derived ceramide oils in a convenient oral supplement, which is designed to support dermal elasticity, proper hydration, and lasting comfort. P.S., you may see ceramides referred to as “phytoceramides”. The prefix “Phyto-“ just means that it is derived from a plant (such as rice or wheat).

#2 Beta-Glucan

You may have seen those videos on how to make your own face mask with oatmeal, right? Well the science behind the use of oats on the skin tells us that it is because of nutrients found in oats called beta-glucans. Beta-glucan is a soluble fiber found commonly in the bran of cereal grains, the cell wall of baker’s yeast, oats and mushrooms. When applied topically, beta-glucans have been shown to lock in skin moisture. They stimulate fibroblasts (connective tissue cells) to produce procollagen and collagen by aiding in the release of certain transcription factors such as nuclear factor-1 (NF-1).

#3 Vitamin C

Most people commonly associate vitamin C with citrus and immune health. When applied topically, vitamin C has been shown to support skin hydration, smoothness, tone, and collagen production.

#4 Vitamin E

If you have ever gotten more than your recommended daily 15-30 minutes of sun exposure, chances are that your skin cells experienced some damage. This is where vitamin E comes in handy! When applied topically, vitamin E has been shown to support a healthy cellular response to ultraviolet rays and safeguard from oxidation.

#5 Raspberry Extract

Raspberries talk to our genes? Who knew! Well, scientists know. Raspberry extract has been shown to support genes responsible for skin hydration such as hyaluronic acid synthase and aquaporin 3. Speaking of hyaluronic acid, this ingredient is another rock star to include in your skin care regimen.

#6 Green Tea

Green tea does wonders for brain health (and much more) internally, and it can do stellar work for our bodies when used topically. Green tea helps to maintain collagen levels and supports healthy skin immune function.

So, there you have it. You can eat your health foods and put them on your skin, too! What are some of your favorite natural skin care remedies? Leave us a comment and let us know.



Glutathione: How to Boost Your Levels of this Critical Antioxidant - Life Extension Blog

Stewart Lonky, M.D.

Have you ever heard of glutathione? If not, I’d suggest you educate yourself on this important antioxidant. This natural antioxidant is protective from damage and regulates many important functions, including cell proliferation and apoptosis (death). It is, in fact, our cells’ most abundant antioxidant. Glutathione also assists in the synthesis of genetic material and proteins and activates gene expression.

While glutathione is obviously needed for many vital life functions, there are few ways to accurately measure intra-cellular glutathione levels. Baylor University College of Medicine researchers recently developed a fluorescent probe—called the RealThiolthat measures real-time changes in glutathione concentration in living cells, giving scientists another window to investigate the antioxidant’s role in aging, health and diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, among others.

But can we do anything in the interim while we wait for this new technology to become widely available? How can we maintain healthy levels of this critical antioxidant, the principal compound for detoxifying environmental stresses, air pollutants, heavy metals, pharmaceuticals and many other toxic insults, but which also declines with age, setting the stage for any number of age-related health problems?

Supporting Glutathione Production

Turns out a new study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Redox Biology, may yield some answers. It seems a compound called N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC)—an altered form of the amino acid cysteine used in supplements—can help increase glutathione levels. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins and our bodies convert NAC to cysteine, and then to glutathione.

N-acetyl cysteine has dozens of medical applications. It’s used, among other things, to counteract acetaminophen (Tylenol) and CO2 poisoning, to treat chest pain and bile duct blockage in infants, and as therapy for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and Alzheimer’s disease. It’s currently used in cases of emergency medical detoxification such as the ingestion of toxic levels of heavy metals. The researchers found that at much lower levels, NAC might help maintain glutathione levels, preventing any number of age-associated metabolic declines. The study findings shed some insights into why animal health declines with age, but specifically points to a compound—NAC—that might help prevent some of the toxic processes involved.

It’s the decline of these detoxification pathways that might trigger cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer, among many others. The study helped highlight how cells from younger animals are far more resistant to stress than those from older animals. In young animal cells, stress doesn't cause such a quick glutathione loss. Older animal cells subjected to stress, on the other hand, quickly lost glutathione and died twice as fast. Turns out that pre-treatment with NAC increased glutathione levels in the older cells, largely offsetting stress’ effects.

In this study, scientists tried to identify the resistance the young cells’ toxin resistance, compared to those of older cells. Under stress, the younger cells lost significantly less of their glutathione than did older cells, never dropping to below 35 percent of their initial level, whereas in older cells, glutathione levels plummeted to 10 percent of their original level.

NAC, the researchers said, can boost glutathione’s metabolic function and increase its rate of synthesis. NAC is considered safe, even at extremely high levels, explaining why a low dose might be helpful for maintaining glutathione levels and improving health.

Food Sources of Cysteine

The next obvious question, of course, is how can we safely add NAC to our daily regimen? Though NAC is not found naturally in food sources, cysteine, along with the other ten essential amino acids, is present in most high protein foods. However, it requires the essential amino acid methionine to facilitate the conversion to NAC, explaining why cysteine is considered an essential amino acid as well. Pork, chicken, sausage, turkey, duck, fish, ricotta cheese, cottage cheese, yogurt and eggs all contain cysteine. Granola, oat flakes, broccoli, red pepper and onion are significant, meatless cysteine sources, along with garlic, soy beans, linseed and wheat germ.

If you don’t feel you’re getting enough dietary cysteine, NAC is available in supplement form. There is also some data showing that mixtures of various herbs, such as Ashwagandha, Bucopa, milk thistle, green tea, and curcumin can "induce” glutathione production. Remember, it’s always a good idea to first consult with a qualified healthcare professional! Anything powerful enough to heal is also powerful enough to harm. Too much cysteine and methionine can cause health problems. A 2009 Temple University study found an association between methionine levels and Alzheimer’s disease in animal models. NAC may also raise another amino acid associated with heart disease.

The Bottom Line

The study findings are a welcome development. Overall, taking glutathione or its precursors like NAC in reasonable amounts appears to be quite safe. I’m optimistic there could be a major role for NAC in preventive medicine as well, where it’s used as a prophylactic instead of an intervention to increase glutathione levels and prevent the increased toxicity we all face with aging.

About: Stewart Lonky, M.D., is a physician, toxicologist, and biomedical engineer. He is board certified in internal medicine, pulmonology and critical care medicine, and a recognized expert in the related fields of preventive medicine and environmental toxicology and its associated diseases. Dr. Lonky is known for his cutting edge research into the causes, treatment and prevention of toxic chemical exposures and heralded for his in-depth knowledge of obesity's biological, environmental, and social influences, which is the subject of his forthcoming book. Dr. Lonky resides and practices in Los Angeles, California.

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