We are exposed to many different man-made chemical compounds every day, with exposure to new toxicants being much higher than what our ancestors experienced. Your body has fascinating ways of breaking down and eliminating toxicants, medications, and even hormones made in the body.
Detoxification often is a two-phase process, with the first step (phase I) responsible for making the molecule more reactive, and ready to be bound to something (phase II conjugation) followed by elimination (urine, feces).
GSTs: phase II detoxification enzymes
The glutathione S-transferase genes code for enzymes involved in the removal of a variety of carcinogens and environmental toxins.[ref]
These phase II detoxification enzymes combine the metabolites from phase I with molecules that make them less toxic and more easily excreted.
There are eight different enzymes in the GST family of genes. They are identified by Greek letters: alpha, kappa, mu, omega, pi, sigma, theta, and zeta. As such, the classes are abbreviated with their first letter (i.e. GSTMA for alpha).
The GST enzymes are found in the liver, intestines, and several other tissues. They are responsible for detoxifying a large number of pesticides, herbicides, carcinogens, and chemotherapy drugs.
Glutathione, an endogenous antioxidant
The GST enzymes conjugate (bind) an antioxidant called glutathione to the substance that needs to be eliminated. Glutathione is considered the master antioxidant for the body.
Once a toxic substance has been conjugated with glutathione via the GST specific enzyme, it can be excreted from the body via bile or urine.
One very important role that the GST enzymes perform is to rid the body of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are found in cigarette smoke, diesel exhaust, and grilled meats. PAHs are known carcinogens.[ref]
Several fairly common genetic variants that can decrease the function of the GST enzymes, but with several different GST enzymes available, often the body has a backup route for getting rid of toxicants.
Importantly, environmental factors, such as exposure to toxicants (pollution, cigarette smoke) also play a large role here. It really is a matter of genetic susceptibility along with exposure to toxins and carcinogens.
Genetic variants in the GST genes:
Genetic variants greatly impact the way that your GST genes function, with common variants causing non-functioning genes.
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