Glutathione exists in reduced (GSH) and oxidized (GSSG) states. In the reduced state, the thiol group of cysteine is able to donate a reducing equivalent (H++ e-) to other unstable molecules, such as reactive oxygen species. In donating an electron, glutathione itself becomes reactive, but readily reacts with another reactive glutathione to form glutathione disulfide (GSSG). Such a reaction is possible due to the relatively high concentration of glutathione in cells (up to 5 mM in the liver). GSH can be regenerated from GSSG by the enzyme glutathione reductase.
In healthy cells and tissue, more than 90% of the total glutathione pool is in the reduced form (GSH) and less than 10% exists in the disulfide form (GSSG). An increased GSSG-to-GSH ratio is considered indicative of oxidative stress.
GSH is known as a substrate in both conjugation reactions and reduction reactions, catalyzed by glutathione S-transferase enzymes in cytosol, microsomes, and mitochondria. However, it is also capable of participating in non-enzymatic conjugation with some chemicals, as in the case of N-acetyl-p-benzoquinone imine (NAPQI), the reactive cytochrome P450-reactive metabolite formed by paracetamol (or acetaminophen as it is known in the US), that becomes toxic when GSH is depleted by an overdose of acetaminophen.