The Treatment of Pulmonary Diseases and Respiratory-Related Conditions With Inhaled (Nebulized or Aerosolized) Glutathione

Jonathan Prousky


Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2008;5(1):27-35. 

In This Article


Based exclusively on the published evidence included in this review, inhaled GSH is potentially indicated for the following clinical conditions: cystic fibrosis (CF), chronic otitis media with effusion (OME), HIV seropositive individuals, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) and chronic rhinitis. These conditions were chosen since the published studies were of good quality, received A and B evidence grades, and their respective results demonstrated benefits from the use of GSH inhalation.

Inhaled GSH cannot be recommended as a potential treatment for emphysema since the quality of evidence is lacking at the present time. The emphysema case report had notable limitations since serial spirometry was not documented, and the placebo effect could not be ruled-out.[22] However, this does not necessarily indicate that GSH inhalation would be of no benefit for emphysema patients. There is experimental and human data demonstrating a link between GSH, oxidant-derived damage and possible protection against the development of emphysema. An in vitro study demonstrated that GSH could retard the oxidant-mediated down-regulation of α-1-proteinase inhibitor activity in smokers' emphysema.[28] This finding is important since one of the principal pathophysiological mechanisms of emphysema is the down-regulation of this enzyme by means of oxidative damage.[29] Moreover, in a recent review of lung GSH and cigarette smoke-induced airway disease, increased GSH in the ELF of chronic smokers was presumed to be a protective adaptive mechanism against the development of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).[30] Considering that not all chronic smokers go on to develop COPD, the authors in that review pointed out that genetic variations in the molecular mechanisms that regulate GSH metabolism might explain why some individuals are better protected against the development of COPD. It thus appears that emphysema patients are subjected to progressive tissue damage due, in part, to the consequences of GSH deficiency and/or genetic variations in GSH metabolism. Since GSH inhalation would presumably offer both antioxidant protection and GSH replenishment, this method of treatment would potentially benefit emphysema patients.

Asthma is another condition where inhaled GSH cannot be recommended since this treatment caused notable side effects (e.g. breathlessness, bronchoconstriction and cough) in the cited study.[21] These side effects were linked primarily to the production of sulfites that occurred when GSH was in solution. GSH inhalation should continue to be explored as a potential treatment for asthma. None of the asthma patients in the study had their urine tested for sulfites. A positive test for sulfites would have eliminated these patients from entering the study. Accordingly, the results might have been much more favorable if patients without sulfite sensitivities were included.

This issue of asthma and sulfite sensitivities is an important one for clinicians to be mindful of. Sulfites are found in beer, wine, restaurant salad bars, seafood, potatoes, processed foods and many pharmaceuticals.[31] Many asthma patients report being sensitive to sulfites. In an Australian study, ∼30% of asthmatic patients reported being sensitive to sulfites in wine.[32] A more recent and rigorous scientific study, however, demonstrated that asthma patients can tolerate varying amounts of sulfites in wines ranging from 20, 75 or 150 parts per million (ppm).[33] Only a small minority of patients in this study (4 of 24 self-reported wine-sensitive asthmatics) exhibited reactions when challenged with 300 ppm of sulfites. One report indicated that 4-8% of asthmatics are sensitive to sulfites.[34] Other reports have estimated the incidence of sulfite sensitivity to be around 5-11%.[35,36] Even though the exact percentage of sulfite-sensitive asthmatics is difficult to ascertain, sulfite sensitivity is an important factor to assess when using or evaluating research done on inhaled GSH.

There are additional clinical conditions that might benefit from this type of treatment, but further studies are necessary. One such condition is Farmer's lung (FL), which is a hypersensitivity pneumonitis caused by the inhalation of thermophilic actinomycetes and spores of Aspergillus specie.[11] A study was undertaken to investigate the effect of pulmonary GSH levels after hay exposure in patients with FL and in asymptomatic farmers (AF).[11] Fifteen symptomatic patients with FL [mean age, 42 ± 1 (SD) year] were compared with 10 AF [mean age, 43 ± 1 (SD) year] serving as the control group. All patients had baseline lung function testing and testing at various time intervals following hay exposures. The authors of this study concluded that FL and AF patients have characteristically different intrapulmonary levels of GSH, and that the pathogenesis of FL is likely related to GSH regulatory mechanisms. They also speculated that AF patients have a better ability to upregulate their pulmonary GSH levels, which would protect them against active disease. Clinical testing of inhaled GSH in patients with FL is warranted.

The administration of GSH inhalation before and/or immediately following exercise is another potential application of this novel treatment. Exercise is a known inducer of oxidative stress leading to free radical production, which can encourage lipid peroxidation and tissue damage among individuals with deficient and/or impaired antioxidant systems. As stated in the beginning of this report, selenium is a cofactor in the GPX enzyme that protects cells from hydrogen peroxides and lipid hydroperoxides. When under situations of oxidative stress, the GPX enzyme will markedly increase in the lungs as an antioxidant adaptive response.[37] By supplying more GSH to the lung tissues, more of this enzyme might be available to help reduce the production of free radicals associated with exercise. Although these assumptions are very speculative, it does seem possible and even logical that GSH inhalation would benefit those who regularly exercise by increasing exercise tolerance, and by maintaining and/or replenishing the antioxidant systems within the lungs.

Multiple chemical sensitivity disorder (MCSD) is another condition that might be clinically responsive to this treatment. Patients with this disorder are known to have bronchial hyperreactivity and even exhibit asthma-like symptoms.[38] Unlike asthma, MCSD is not associated with atopy and immunoglobulin E (IgE)-mediated allergic mechanisms.[39] The prevailing theory explaining the cause of MCSD is a fusion between two separate theories—the neural sensitization and nitric oxide/peroxynitrite theories.[40] This fusion theory, proposed by Pall, links long term potentiation of N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors at the synapses of nerve cells by glutamate and aspartate to an increased production of nitric oxide and its oxidant product, peroxynitrite.[40,41] Treatment with antioxidants may improve symptoms of MCSD by reducing the peroxynitrite elevations and other biochemical dysfunctions that are associated with such elevations.[40,41] Glutathione inhalation may be ideal since the primary route by which patients with MCSD get triggered is through smelling and breathing. Sulfite sensitivity would have to be considered since inhaled GSH could provoke adverse events. This treatment might be capable of providing antioxidant protection to both the upper and lower respiratory airways, which would theoretically help to reduce the symptoms of MCSD and the production of peroxynitrite. More research studies are necessary.

Two final conditions, cigarette smoking and lung cancer, are worth mentioning since they are intimately related to each other and are affected by GSH and its related enzymes. These conditions are influenced by the glutathione S-transferase (GST) group of enzymes that are found in significant quantities in the bronchioles and alveoli of the lungs,[42] and in very high concentrations in the bronchial epithelium.[43] Among smokers, a lack of the GST mu enzyme was thought to be associated with a greater risk of lung cancer, especially if there was a cancer and/or lung cancer history among the relatives of the patients in this study.[44] Since the GST mu enzyme detoxify carcinogens in tobacco, any deficiency of this enzyme was presumed to be associated with an increased risk of lung cancer. However, a more recent study pertaining to the GST group of enzymes found no such association.[45] In this meta-analysis, polymorphisms in the GST genes had no associations or weakly positive associations with risk factors for lung cancer. Despite the need for more research, GSH inhalation might be beneficial for smokers to augment their GST enzymes, which would help facilitate the detoxification of carcinogens. Even though the best intervention for these patients would be smoking cessation, many patients lack the necessary willpower to quit. For these patients, regular GSH inhalation might reduce oxidants generated from cigarette smoke (∼1014 free radicals/puff),[46] and the epithelial lung injury associated with smoking.[47]

For lung cancer patients, the use of GSH inhalation is not recommended. Cancer cells use multiple mechanisms (e.g. altered transport of a drug, inhibition of drug-induced apoptosis and elevation of cellular GSH) to circumvent the cytotoxic effects of chemotherapeutic agents.[48] Early research studies showed that GSH was able to reduce cytotoxicity to chemotherapeutic compounds by boosting the metabolism of drugs to less active compounds, or by the detoxification of free radicals.[49,50] More recently, research has revealed that the levels of a specific GST enzyme increases among cancer cells with higher differentiation grades, and that these drug-resistant gene products are found in lung carcinomas at the time of surgical resection.[51] There is also speculation that GSH might be capable of repairing drug-induced injury at the DNA level.[48] A recent review article has described the involvement of glutathione in the detoxification or inactivation of platinum drugs—the most commonly employed drugs for the treatment of advanced stage lung cancer patients.[52] Based on this information, it would be unwise and illogical to use GSH inhalation while lung cancer patients are undergoing active chemotherapy treatment.

Inhalation of GSH results in a mechanism of action confined to the upper airways and lungs (Figure 1), and will not influence plasma levels to a significant degree. In the studies that measured both lung and plasma levels of GSH, the plasma levels remained essentially unchanged following GSH inhalation. Seven of the studies included in this review demonstrated that GSH inhalation exerts its effects upon the lower respiratory tract,[9,10,19,24,25,26,27] The upper respiratory tract also appears to benefit from GSH augmentation. Two studies involving patients with upper respiratory tract diseases showed clinical benefits from GSH inhalation treatment.[20,23] The predominant mechanism responsible for GSH's therapeutic effects are probably related to its antioxidant properties that offer protection against oxidative injury, and/or assist with the normalization of the oxidant-antioxidant balance within the upper and lower respiratory tract. Even though the majority of these studies suggested that antioxidant protection was the principal reason for the favorable treatment responses, some of the studies were unable to demonstrate a change in markers of oxidation from this treatment. More data is necessary to confirm the precise nature of GSH's antioxidant properties within the upper and lower respiratory tract. Additional explanations for GSH's therapeutic effects might include an improvement in host defenses (e.g. increased cytotoxic lymphocytes), and better oxygenation (e.g. an increase in oxygen saturation). GSH inhalation produced clinically meaningful results in the majority of diseases that were studied. Specifically, GSH inhalation was shown to improve clinical markers of respiratory function that inevitably impact upon quality of life and disease progression. These improvements were the most important outcomes and features of this novel treatment.

Inhaled GSH's mechanism of action. GSH, reduced glutathione; FEV1, forced expiratory volume in 1 s; FVC, forced vital capacity.

The urine should be tested for sulfite sensitivity. A special test strip can be dipped in the urine, and is known as the 'EM-Quant 10013 Sulfite Test.' It can be easily located through any search engine on the Internet.[53] Even though instructions for sulfite testing have been published elsewhere,[54] a brief description of the procedure is outlined below:

A random (fresh) urine sample is suitable, but a first morning void may be preferable due to its higher concentration. Once the test strip is dipped in the urine (for 1 s), the reaction zone changes color to indicate the concentration of sulfites present. After 30 s, the color on the test strip is compared to a color scale on the bottle indicating the concentrations of sulfites in the urine (can detect 10, 40, 80, 180 and 400 ppm of sulfites). The resultant concentration should be multiplied by a factor of 1.5 to provide the amount of free sulfites in mg/l (ppm). The strip will not detect below 10 ppm. The urine samples should be preservative free, and the urinary pH should also be tested with pH paper. If the urine pH is below 6, then the amount of sulfites might be underestimated by the test. In such cases, consider adding sodium acetate or sodium hydroxide to raise the pH to at least 7-10 (should not exceed a pH of 12), and then repeat with a new test strip.

If the urine test were positive for sulfites (normally they are absent), the use of inhaled GSH would be strictly contraindicated.

With a nebulizer, a solution of GSH is made into an aerosol and is delivered to the upper respiratory tract and the lungs through a mask that covers the nose and mouth, or is delivered directly into the lungs via a mouthpiece. Any compounding pharmacist would be able to prepare the solution of GSH at the desired concentrations. The typical dosages used in the studies cited in Table 3 were 600 mg once daily, 600 mg twice daily, 900 mg daily, 1350 mg daily or a daily dose of 66 mg/kg of body weight. Better results are more likely to be achieved with doses of at least 600 mg or more each day. One of the studies used much larger doses (66 mg/kg of body weight) since the authors speculated that these would be necessary to replace half of the amount of GSH that is produced each day (e.g. a 150 lb male synthesizes 10 g daily and would need 5 g as a replacement dose).[27] When patients are unresponsive to doses in the range of 600-1350 mg per day, it might be suitable to try doses that would replace half the estimated amount of GSH that is synthesized each day. These gram doses might yield better clinical results.

In terms of side effects, GSH inhalation is very safe. Minor side effects such as mild coughing and an unpleasant odor were reported in some of the studies included in this review. These minor side effects, better described as mild nuisance problems, were not severe enough to cause any of the study participants to discontinue treatment with inhaled GSH. The only worrisome or potentially life-threatening side effect to note is bronchoconstriction, which would be more likely to occur among sulfite-sensitive asthma and MCSD patients. However, if proper precautions such as sulfite testing are done prior to treatment, this serious side effect should be avoidable.

For pulmonary diseases or respiratory-related conditions, baseline pulmonary function testing with a spirometer or a simple peak flow meter is recommended prior to the first treatment. After a prescribed period of treatment time, pulmonary function tests should be repeated. This will help to establish if there are any clinical improvements from regular GSH inhalation.


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