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HIV-AIDS & Glutathione
Theodore Hersh, MD, MACG
Professor of Medicine, Emeritus, Emory University
The medical literature has shown that individuals who are HIV seropositive
and AIDS patients have low levels of glutathione compared with uninfected
controls. Yes, an HIV carrier and an AIDS patient can simply replete
their cells and body stores with glutathione and maintain their
antioxidant defense system to help prevent or delay the replication
of the virus and also to decrease the development of opportunistic
Glutathione is the body’s most important antioxidant and
detoxificant and is present in almost every cell and body fluid
as protectant. Glutathione, primarily made in the liver, is composed
of three amino acids, including cysteine which provides the active
sulphur group. Cysteine also functions as an antioxidant.
Scientists have abbreviated glutathione in its active antioxidant
role as “GSH”. In our era of expediency and borrowing
from dehydroepiandrosterone’s “DHEA” experience,
glutathione shall henceforth be known as “GSH”..
As an antioxidant, GSH provides the vital defensive functions of
neutralizing the injurious oxygen and other free radical species.
This condition called “oxidative stress” occurs when
the GSH defense mechanisms are decreased or impaired and when toxic
oxygen free radicals overwhelm and overcome the cells’ and
tissues’ antioxidant defenses. Oxidative stress, which causes
cell injury and cell death, commonly complicates infections, such
as HIV-AIDS, and inflammatory conditions. GSH has also been shown
to protect DNA from undergoing mutations, hence reducing the risks
of developing various types of cancers.GSH also protects the body
by preventing or decreasing the oxidation of blood lipids and thereby
reducing the risks of arteriosclerosis, including coronary heart
disease and strokes.
Particularly important to immunologic function is the observation
that CD-4 T lymphocytes may also be very low GSH content. A consequence
of low GSH accounts for the invasion and growth of opportunistic
micro-organism, a reason for frequent pulmonary and gastrointestinal
infections in patients with AIDS. Poor dietary intake, malnutrition,
and diarrhea with malabsorption further depress GSH content in cells
and also impair immunity.
HIV positive subjects and those with AIDS may also have low levels
of other vital antioxidants in the GSH cycle, namely vitamins A,
C and E, and of other important micro-nutrients such as selenium,
magnesium, zinc and copper. Selenium plays a crucial role as an
antioxidant, as an anticarcinogen and as a co-factor of the enzyme
GSH taken by mouth is then absorbed by the small intestine, where
it is locally protective and is then transported to the rest of
the body. GSH stores may also be increased by providing cysteine,
particularly as the N-acetyl-L-cysteine derivative. Giving GSH and
cysteine orally does replete and maintain tissue levels of GSH and
promotes the body’s antioxidant defense system.
It is important to supplement GSH to those that are HIV positive
or have AIDS. Investigators at Stanford University have linked low
levels of GSH as predictors of poor survival in HIV positive subjects.
In a double blind study, the researchers showed that by increasing
GSH levels in affected individuals, there was 70 percent three year
survival rate compared to a 25% survival rate for those patients
with low GSH levels. Moreover, the depressed immunologic function
of the CD-4 T-lymphocytes and their low GSH levels in HIV carriers
may accelerate the progression of the disease by allowing futher
replication of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. Likewise, low protective
antioxidant levels, including low GSH, facilitate opportunistic
infection in AIDS.<
Thus, an adjunct to management of HIV – seropositive suhjects
as well as an adjunct to therapy to those with AIDS is the oral
administration of GSH to replete and maintain the body’s main
antioxidant levels. But, GSH does not work alone! In the process
of neutralizing the toxic free radicals, GSH itself is oxidized.
The other antioxidants in the cell’s glutathione cycle need
to donate a hydrogen to reduce the oxidized form back to GSH. The
GSH cycle requires the other antioxidant partners, including Vitamins
C and E and selenium, to function effectively and continuously to
maintain cellular antioxidant defenses in combating toxic oxygen
and other free radicals.
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