By Dr. Mercola
The clinical use of sulfur as an adjunct in our diet is becoming progressively more recognized as an important tool for optimizing health. Certainly, diet is the primary tool for reducing your risk for chronic degenerative diseases. But the practical question becomes, how do you obtain the needed sulfur from food grown in depleted soils?
The nutrient MSM (methylsulfonylmethane) is a naturally occurring sulfur compound found in all vertebrates, including humans. MSM is already well-known for its joint health benefits, but it may be important for a whole host of other reasons as well.
Rod Benjamin is the director of technical development for Bergstrom Nutrition, the largest producer of the highest quality MSM that is produced by distillation purification. MSM is a metabolite of DMSO (dimethyl sulfoxide, an organosulfur compound), but DMSO is approved for use in veterinary medicine only, not in humans.
What Is MSM Good For?
MSM goes by many names, including dimethyl sulfone, DMSO2 and methyl sulfone. Basically, it is an organic sulfur that naturally occurs in vegetables, fruits, grains and milk. It's also found in the urine of animals.1
But what exactly is MSM good for? A lot, apparently. It's useful not just for acting as a crucial "building block" for your bones and joints, but also for your immune system.2 The list of MSM's uses is quite impressive – from alleviating pain, promoting oral hygiene and disinfecting wounds, to relieving digestive issues like constipation and diverticulosis.3
This article will touch on some of the potential uses of MSM, the role of sulfur in its benefits and what you should look for in a high-quality MSM supplement.
Are the Health Benefits of MSM Related to Sulfur?
I first became aware of DMSO decades ago, when I saw a 60-Minutes episode in which they revealed its therapeutic impact on race horses. It supported their soft tissues, helped with muscle soreness and soft-tissue injury. It also benefitted the horses' lung function.
Dr. Stanley W. Jacob pioneered the use of DMSO and later MSM. Originally, he began looking at DMSO because it freezes at about 65 degrees Fahrenheit, and Dr. Jacob had been deeply involved in looking at cryogenic preservation of tissues and organs for transplantation. As a result of being investigated for its cryogenic uses, DMSO ended up being one of the most researched drugs on the market today.
"DMSO is classified as a drug within the United States. You can buy it at a lot of veterinary supply stores and things like that, but it's not to be used for humans," Mr. Benjamin says.
MSM, which is a metabolite of DMSO, and approved for use in humans, primarily impacts your health by reducing inflammation. It's widely used as a supplement for arthritic conditions. Like DMSO, MSM also appears to improve cell wall permeability, so it can be used to help deliver other active ingredients. Perhaps most important, MSM helps protect against oxidative damage.
Within the last two years, at least four human clinical trials have been conducted on MSM and its ability to help with exercise recovery, and muscle injuries like delayed onset muscle stiffness or soreness (DOMS) and large muscle injuries like that from a heart attack—all of which is related to oxidative stress and subsequent cellular damage.
"In one of the studies, they were looking at the VAS pain scores. That's muscle soreness due to exercise. There was a significant reduction in the MSM-treated group versus placebo. That's directly tied to the muscle soreness," Mr. Benjamin says.
The Importance of Sulfur
Furthermore, according to Mr. Benjamin:
"Dr. Stanley Jacob said DMSO – and MSM together with that – in his opinion is much more of a therapeutic principle. It's similar to exercise or proper nutrition. Instead of that singular focus that is so prevalent within the drug or pharmas per se, it's much more of a therapeutic principle, which is overall body wellness [opposed to treating a specific symptom or ailment]."
This suggests that MSM may be providing some kind of missing link, and that link appears to be related to sulfur. MSM is 34 percent sulfur by weight, but as Mr. Benjamin discusses below, it is more than just a simple sulfur donor. It affects sulfur metabolism in the human body, although it's still not entirely clear how.
Sulfur is just now becoming more widely appreciated as a really critical nutrient, without which many other things don't work properly, and most people are probably not getting enough sulfur from their diet anymore. For example, sulfur plays a critical role in detoxification, and also in inflammatory conditions. For detoxification, sulfur is part of one of the most important antioxidants that your body produces: glutathione. Without sulfur, glutathione cannot work.
The plethora of research that was done on DMSO and its therapeutic properties begs the question: How many of those therapeutic properties are due to the DMSO? Or are they due to its metabolite, MSM, once it's been converted in vivo or within the body? (Approximately 15 percent of any DMSO dosage, on average, converts to MSM in the human body.) The answer to that question is still unknown.
Sulfur is found in over 150 different compounds within the human body. There are sulfur components in virtually every type of cell, so it's extremely important.
"Now, as far as MSM's role within the body, it's very complicated. And I will say that it's not a hundred percent understood," Mr. Benjamin says. "I've been working with this compound for 16 years to try and answer that question. We understand a part of the mechanism of action, but not all of it.
...In 1986, Richmond did a study, and it showed that it was taken up into serum proteins. That sulfur was actually incorporated in the serum proteins.
We also have done [something] like the pharmacokinetic study, which showed that radiolabeled sulfur was taken up into hair, skin, and nails. Keratin is a very high sulfur-containing compound, which is a building block for your nails and your hair. But it also showed up in almost all tissues, spleen, and liver. It went all over.
It's complicated. We did a study where we said, 'Okay, let's give it to healthy human volunteers.' We did actually three different dosages – one gram, two grams, and three grams. We measured urinary sulfur output by measuring sulfate, thinking that sulfate will be a waste sulfur product that would show up excreted in the urine.
We did the different doses to see if it was in a dose-dependent manner that we'd be able to correlate back and, say, 'Yes, MSM is giving output of sulfur. We found that they were indeed dose-related, but the interesting thing was it was inversely related. The more MSM you took, the less sulfate was excreted in your urine. What that says is it's much more complicated than just a strict sulfur donor.
It is a compartmentalization of sulfur and sulfur metabolism within the body. That suggests that MSM is actually allowing better metabolism, better incorporation of the sulfur throughout the body. It's not just a simple sulfur donor...'"
MSM Improves Your Body's Ability to Make its Own Antioxidants
As I mentioned earlier, sulfur plays an important role in the production of glutathione—one of the most important antioxidants that your body produces. Glutathione also serves important functions for detoxification. Without sulfur, glutathione cannot work. So, while not an antioxidant by itself, part of MSM's action is to improve your body's ability to make its own antioxidants.
It also provides support for all sorts of structural proteins, where sulfur is an important component. According to Dr. Benjamin:
"[G]lutathione has two different states within your body. There's reduced glutathione and oxidized glutathione. The ratio of those two signifies the overall oxidative status or the ability of your blood plasma to address oxidative stress. MSM improves that overall ratio. In other words, you have much more reduced glutathione that's able to deal with these free radicals.
That's, I think, kind of the key of how MSM really – and DMSO also does the same thing – by controlling that oxidative stress or protecting from the oxidative damage can have these therapeutic [benefits]."
Ideally, you'd be best off getting your sulfur needs filled from the foods you eat. However, this can be a bit of a challenge these days. There's been a transition away from many traditional foods that have been the big sources of sulfur, like collagen or keratin, which we just don't eat much nowadays.
You can perhaps get enough if you cook down bones from organically raised animals into bone broth and 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. According to Mr. Benjamin:
"MSM is in almost all raw foods. It's in leafy green vegetables. Interestingly enough, there's MSM in beer and coffee. Actually, it's been identified as one of the main flavoring constituent in port wines... raw milk has the highest naturally occurring content of MSM."
One caveat is cooking and pasteurization. While MSM is stable to extremes of pH and temperature, it volatilizes and turns to gas very easily. It's also very water soluble. So when cooked at high temperatures, it simply wafts off in the steam. That's why it's easily removed during cooking and processing. Pasteurization cuts the MSM content by approximately 50 percent.
So, in order to ensure you're getting the most MSM from any food, it must be either raw or as minimally processed as possible.
Toxicity and Dosage Recommendations
Toxicity studies have shown that MSM is extremely safe and can be taken at very, very high doses. Even if you have a very rich diet full of raw vegetables and MSM-rich foods, you can still supplement and not hit that toxicity level. Clinical research studies have found that the effective amounts range from about 1.5 grams to 6 grams, although at higher doses, potential side effects include:
- Intestinal discomfort
- Swelling of the ankles
- Mild 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. In that case, you might want to start out with half a gram (500 milligrams) for a couple of weeks and then slowly increase until you get up to the desired dose.
MSM is approved for use in fortified food and beverage and gram quantities may be consumed when consuming raw diet and approved MSM fortified foods. The amount from the fortified foods that have been approved would be between 1.9 to 3.8 grams per day. For comparison, intake of MSM from natural sources such as fruits and vegetables would be in the milligram per day range of about 2.3 to 5.6 mg/day.
How to Select a High–Quality MSM Supplement
As with most other supplements and food, quality is a major issue when it comes to selecting an MSM supplement. Fortunately, with MSM it's fairly easy to determine. There are two methods of purification of MSM:
For MSM, distillation is by far superior. But crystallization is less expensive, and a lot less energy-intensive. According to Mr. Benjamin, only two companies that produce MSM use distillation. Mr. Benjamin explains why you should consider a product that has been purified using distillation.
"A lot of the problems with [crystallization] is you're essentially crystallizing it out of a parent solvent or liquid. If there are any impurities, which could be salts of heavy metals, you could have aromatic hydrocarbons in that… It's actually the parent solvent. It's usually water. It is dependent upon water quality."
Is MSM for You?
As you know, I am very cautious about recommending supplements, as I believe you're best off getting your nutrients from healthful, whole organic foods. But, I'm also realistic, and I understand a perfect diet is hard to come by these days, so some supplements I believe can be quite beneficial. MSM would fall into this category.
It would make sense that, if you're suffering from a decrease in normal dietary sulfur, supplementing with something that's relatively safe and inexpensive would make a lot of sense.
As I've said, sulfur is an emerging stealth player in nutrition and for a variety of mechanisms, including the detox and anti-inflammatory pathways. Remember, if you don't have enough sulfur in your diet, you're not going to be able to naturally produce glutathione, which is absolutely essential for removing heavy metals and many of the toxins you're exposed to. People who might want to consider using some supplemental sulfur sources such as MSM include those who have:
- Chronic inflammatory conditions
- Aches and pains / sore muscles and achy joints
- Premature aging symptoms