By Dr. Mercola
Sulfur is the third most abundant mineral in your body, based on percentage of total body weight.1 While close to half of it can be found in your muscles, skin and bones, sulfur plays important roles in hundreds of physiological processes.2
Sulfur bonds are required for proteins to maintain their shape, and these bonds determine the biological activity of the proteins.
For example, hair and nails consist of a tough protein called keratin, which is high in sulfur, whereas connective tissue and cartilage contain proteins with flexible sulfur bonds, giving the structure its flexibility.
With age, the flexible tissues in your body tend to lose their elasticity, leading to sagging and wrinkling of skin, stiff muscles and painful joints. A shortage of sulfur likely contributes to these age-related problems.
The Many Biological Roles of Sulfur
In addition to bonding proteins, sulfur is also required for the proper structure and biological activity of enzymes. If you don't have sufficient amounts of sulfur in your body, enzymes cannot function properly.
A cascade of health problems may thus ensue, since your metabolic processes rely on biologically active enzymes. Sulfur also plays an important role in:3
✓ Your body's electron transport system, as part of iron/sulfur proteins in mitochondria, the energy factories of your cells
✓ Thiamine (vitamin B1) and biotin (B7) conversion, which in turn are essential for converting carbohydrates into energy
✓ Synthesizing important metabolic intermediates, such as glutathione — one of the most important antioxidants that your body produces — S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe), taurine and N-acetylcysteine (NAC)4
✓ Proper insulin function. The insulin molecule consists of two amino acid chains connected to each other by sulfur bridges, without which the insulin cannot perform its biological activity
✓ Glucose metabolism. One hypothesis5 is that if sufficient amounts of sulfur is available, it will act as a decoy to glucose, effectively diverting it to reduce the sulfur rather than glycating and causing damage.
This would have the beneficial effect of reducing chronic inflammation, as sugar (glucose) is highly inflammatory and wreaks havoc in your body
Sulfur, Cholesterol and Vitamin D Work in Tandem
In 2011, I interviewed Stephanie Seneff, Ph.D., a senior research scientist at MIT, about the influence of sulfur on health and disease. I've included that interview above for your convenience.
Sulfur deficiency is quite common — in part due to demineralization of soils — and may be a contributing factor in health problems such as obesity, heart disease, Alzheimer's and chronic fatigue, just to name a few.
Studies have also noted that sulfur is helpful for conditions such as skin disorders, arthritis and shingles, for example, suggesting sulfur plays an important role in these conditions as well.6 Importantly, Seneff discusses the connections between cholesterol, sulfur and vitamin D.
She points out that heart disease may actually be related to cholesterol sulfate deficiency, and explains how elevated LDL cholesterol is a sign of this deficiency. In short, high LDL (incorrectly referred to as "bad" cholesterol) is your body's way of compensating for cholesterol sulfate deficiency.
When LDL is turned into plaque, blood platelets inside the plaque produce cholesterol sulfate, which your heart and brain needs for optimal function. Seneff also explains why lowering LDL with statins can lead to heart failure.
Essentially, by elevating LDL, your body is protecting itself from the harmful effects of cholesterol sulfate deficiency. When you simply remove the LDL, you remove this "backup" mechanism aimed at keeping your heart going strong. As a result, heart failure becomes a distinct possibility.
How Sun Exposure Helps Optimize Cardiovascular Health
That said, high LDL IS correlated with cardiovascular disease, so the question then becomes: How can your body produce cholesterol sulfate without having to create harmful LDL?
Under normal, healthy conditions, your skin synthesizes vitamin D3 sulfate when exposed to sunlight. Vitamin D3 sulfate is water soluble and can travel freely in your blood stream. If you have sufficient amounts of vitamin D3 sulfate in circulation, your body does not need to produce more LDL to create sulfate-producing plaque.
In essence, sensible sun exposure may be an important part of heart and cardiovascular health. Vitamin D3 supplements, on the other hand, are unsulfated. This is a significant drawback, as the unsulfated form needs LDL as a vehicle of transport.
Seneff's suspicion is that the oral non-sulfated form of vitamin D likely will not provide the same benefits as the vitamin D created in your skin from sun exposure, because it cannot be converted to vitamin D sulfate.
Fibrous, non-leafy vegetables are rich in sulfur. Examples include:
- Cruciferous veggies7 such as cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, mustard greens and bok choy
- Alliums such as onions, shallots, garlic and leeks
- Edible stalks and stems such as celery, fennel and asparagus
Cruciferous vegetables have become well known for their anti-cancer properties, and the organosulfur compound sulforaphane is one of the primary compounds responsible for this effect. As noted by The World's Healthiest Foods:8
"… [S]ulforaphane increases the activity of the liver's Phase 2 detoxification enzymes. These enzymes … are well known for their ability to clear a wide variety of toxic compounds from the body including not only many carcinogens, but also many reactive oxygen species, a particularly nasty type of free radical.
By jump starting these important detoxification enzymes, compounds in crucifers provide protection against cell mutations, cancer and numerous other harmful effects that would otherwise be caused by these toxins."
Prepare Your Broccoli Correctly to Optimize Sulfur Content
As described in a previous article, to maximize the cancer-fighting potential of broccoli it's important to not overcook it. You also don't want to eat it raw. When you eat raw mature broccoli, you only get about 12 percent of the total sulforaphane content theoretically available based on the parent compound.
Steaming your broccoli spears for three to four minutes will optimize the sulforaphane content by eliminating epithiospecifier protein — a heat-sensitive sulfur-grabbing protein that inactivates sulforaphane — while still retaining the enzyme myrosinase, which converts glucoraphanin to sulforaphane. Without it, you cannot get any sulforaphane. Avoid boiling or microwaving your broccoli past the one-minute mark, as this will destroy a majority of the myrosinase.
If you want to boil your broccoli, blanch it in boiling water for no more than 20 to 30 seconds, then immerse it in cold water to stop the cooking process. Adding myrosinase-containing food, such as mustard seed, daikon radishes, wasabi or cole slaw to the broccoli can maximize sulforaphane content even further.
Other Sulfur-Rich Foods
Other foods that are high in sulfur include:
- Protein-rich animal products such as organic pastured egg yolks, grass-fed beef, organic pastured chicken and wild-caught fish
- Nuts such as walnuts, almonds and cashews
- Seeds such as sesame seeds and sunflower seeds
- Dairy products such as milk, cheese and sour cream (ideally from organic grass-fed cows)
- Certain fruits: coconut, bananas, pineapple and watermelon
Despite the fact that sulfur is found in many foods, it can still be a challenge to get sufficient amounts from your diet. Again, this is largely a problem stemming from the demineralization of soils in which the food is grown. Perhaps the best way to ensure sufficient amounts of sulfur from your diet is to cook down bones from organically raised animals into bone broth.
Either drink the broth regularly, or use for soups and stews. The connective tissues are sulfur-rich, and when you slow-cook the bones, you dissolve these nutrients out of the bone and into the water.
Sulfur can also be obtained through supplementation with dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) or methylsulfonylmethane (MSM). DMSO is primarily used in veterinary medicine. In animals, DMSO has been found to support soft tissue health and helps heal soft-tissue injury.
In humans, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved DMSO for intravesical use in the treatment of interstitial cystitis.9 DMSO can also be found in creams and oral supplements but are best avoided. Industrial DMSO is a byproduct of paper making, and may contain impurities.
Great care is required to make sure you're getting a quality, pharmaceutical grade product, so do not use DMSO without medical supervision. DMSO may also interact with a number of medications. All in all, you're far better off using MSM, as it's far safer and doesn't appear to have any adverse drug interactions.
MSM for Osteoarthritic Knee Pain
MSM's primary benefits are related to its ability to reduce inflammation. In your body, about 15 percent of DMSO breaks down into MSM, and MSM is 34 percent sulfur by weight. MSM is more than just a simple sulfur donor, however. It also affects sulfur metabolism, but it's still not entirely clear how.
As a supplement, MSM (which is a metabolite of DMSO) is widely used in the treatment of pain, especially pain associated with arthritic conditions. One clinical trial found that people with osteoarthritis of the knee who took 3 grams for MSM twice a day for 12 weeks experienced significantly decreased pain and improved physical function, compared to a placebo.10
Another study found that patients with mild to moderate osteoarthritis benefited from oral glucosamine and MSM, both individually and in combination. Here, the treatment groups received 500 milligrams (mg) of glucosamine and/or 500 mg of MSM three times a day for 12 weeks. According to the authors:11
"Glucosamine, MSM and their combination produced an analgesic and anti-inflammatory effect in osteoarthritis. Combination therapy showed better efficacy in reducing pain and swelling and in improving the functional ability of joints than the individual agents.
All the treatments were well tolerated. The onset of analgesic and anti-inflammatory activity was found to be more rapid with the combination than with glucosamine. It can be concluded that the combination of MSM with glucosamine provides better and more rapid improvement in patients with osteoarthritis."
Toxicity studies have shown that MSM is extremely safe and can be taken at very high doses. Even if you eat plenty of MSM-rich foods, you can still supplement and not hit that toxicity level. Clinical research studies have found the effective amounts range from about 1.5 grams to 6 grams.
That said, potential side effects at higher doses include intestinal discomfort, ankle swelling and skin rashes. These are likely detoxifying effects that can typically be mitigated or minimized by cutting back on the initial dosage and slowly working your way up. To learn more about MSM and its uses, please see my previous article, "MSM Health Benefits May Be Related to Its Sulfur Content."
The Benefits of Epsom Salts
Epsom salt (magnesium sulfate) is made up of magnesium, sulfur and oxygen. While most of the benefits associated with Epsom salt baths relates to magnesium12 — such as improved sleep, stress reduction and reduced pain and muscle cramping — its sulfur content is also important for health.
As mentioned earlier, sulfur plays an important role in detoxification, and people who struggle with toxicity will often have a deficiency in the sulfation pathway. As explained in Enzyme Stuff:13
"… [M]ost people with autism conditions have a deficiency in a key detoxification pathway. The pathway involves using sulfur in the form of sulfate (known as sulfation). The enzyme involved is phenol sulfur-transferase (PST), but the problem is thought to hinge on an inadequate supply of usable sulfate ions, not the metabolic enzyme itself.
Dr. [Rosemary] Waring found that most children on the autism spectrum are very low in sulfate and may be as low as 15 percent of the amount in neurologically typical people. People with low or no ability to convert compounds to sulfate have problems handling environmental chemicals, some medications, and even some chemicals produced within the body.
They include people with other conditions such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, rheumatoid arthritis and chemical sensitivities.
The PST sulfation pathway is necessary for the breakdown and removal of certain toxins in the body. This includes the processing of a type of chemical called a phenol … All foods contain some phenolic compounds. However, some foods have a much higher content than others do. If the sulfation pathway is not functioning well, a person may not be able to process out the phenolic compounds as fast as they consume them.
There is a cumulative effect. When the phenols start backing up in the system, it can cause a myriad of negative reactions. Symptoms of phenol intolerance include night waking, night sweats, irritability, eczema and other skin conditions. The symptoms of phenol intolerance and yeast may be very similar because they both involve the body trying to deal with toxins."
Toxicity May Cause Sulfur Food Intolerance
It's quite common for people with mercury toxicity to have poor tolerance for foods high in sulfur. The sulfur mobilizes mercury (and other toxins), thereby causing adverse effects.14,15 Other food ingredients, such as food dyes, can exacerbate PST sulfation pathway problems by further suppressing PST enzyme activity. To address this situation, it's recommended you:
- Go on a low-sulfur diet to reduce the amount of phenols you consume
- Reduce the amount of toxins entering your body by eating organic and avoiding household toxins of all kinds
As your toxicity is reduced, you can start adding sulfur-rich foods back into your diet, one at a time. Next, it's important to enhance your body's detoxification process by supplying more sulfate. MSM, or the sulfur-containing amino acids cysteine and taurine can be used, but Epsom salt baths are often preferable here as the sulfur in Epsom salt is readily available to your body without having to be converted.
As a general recommendation, use 1 to 2 cups of Epsom salt to a tub of water. The warmer the water, the more of the salt will be dissolved, and the more your body will be able to absorb, as the heat opens your pores. If you experience a negative reaction, such as irritability or hyperactivity, decrease the amount used and incrementally increase the amount based on your tolerance. Alternatively, use one part Epsom salt to two parts water for a foot bath. Soak your feet for about 30 minutes.
Sulfur Is Important for Optimal Health
In summary, your body needs sulfur to detoxify, but if you're excessively toxic, you'll have to go slow. If your detox pathways are not working properly, adding a lot of sulfur can overload your system with mobilized toxins, making you extremely ill. You have to first stop the toxic input, and then support your body's natural detoxification processes. Sulfur is an important part of that. Without it, your body simply cannot mobilize and release toxins.
Sulfur is also important for heart and cardiovascular health, mitochondrial health, insulin function and vitamin conversion. In all, sulfur deficiency may be a hidden factor contributing to the ill health of many. So, if you or someone you love struggles with any of the conditions mentioned here, including but not limited to high LDL, attention deficit syndromes, autism, obesity, arthritis, Alzheimer's and chronic fatigue, you may want to take steps to improve your sulfur status, and see if your condition improves.