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Sulfur: Health Benefits and Deficiency

Sulfur is an essential macronutrient which can be found in nearly all human proteins, the building blocks of the body’s tissues and organs. This mineral element makes up 0.3% of the body weight, the same as potassium. Calcium and phosphorus are the only other minerals that are yet more abundant in human body.

Proteins that are particularly high in sulfur include collagen and keratin, the two structural proteins that make strong bones, teeth, connective tissue, skin, hair and nails. Sulfur helps to ensure skin elasticity and maintain the shape of the body. A lack of sulfur may contribute to premature age-related problems like wrinkles, sagging skin, thin and fragile hair or painful joints.

Sulfur is absorbed in the small intestine as cysteine or methionine from protein-rich foods. The body also obtains small amounts of sulfur as inorganic sulfate or in the form of small organic sulfur-based compounds from some fruits, vegetables and other plant foods.

Although no recommended dietary allowances have been established for sulfur, most experts recommend 800-900mg of sulfur per day for adults, 1,200mg per day for pregnant women and 1,500mg per day for patients with osteoarthritis. Likewise, there is no established upper limit but most physicians do not recommend more than 3,000mg (3 grams) of sulfur per day (please note that this includes the total amount of sulfur obtained from food and supplements).

Health Effects of Sulfur

Sulfur in the body is mostly found in two amino acids – cysteine (including its oxidized form cystine) and methionine. (The remaining sulfur is present in the cells in the form of sulfates.) The human body can make cysteine (provided there is a steady supply of sulfur) whereas methionine can only be obtained from food. These two amino acids bond together with various other amino acids in the body to build proteins. Protein high in sulfur-containing amino acids known as collagen is mainly used to form connective tissue such as cartilage, ligaments and tendons, which are all needed to support the joints. Another high-sulfur protein called keratin is the key structural component of the skin, hair, nails and the tooth enamel.

Sulfur also aids in the production of glutathione, the body’s key antioxidant. Other vital roles of sulfur in the body include assisting in carbohydrates metabolism, reducing pain by slowing the nerve impulses that transmit pain signals, ensuring the proper functioning of enzymes, and producing growth hormones and insulin, thus helping to prevent diabetes.

Sulfur Deficiency

Given current knowledge, a deficiency in sulfur appears to be rare. However, some experts believe that it is becoming a growing concern. This is because of dramatic changes in most people’s diets over the past decades, leading to consumption of processed foods that lack sufficient amount of sulfur. Although poorly studied, sulfur deficiency is thought to be among the factors responsible for growing rates of obesity, chronic fatigue, heart disease, skin problems, allergies and even Alzheimer’s disease.

Sulfur Health Risks and Overdose

Most people cannot overdose on sulfur because its excess amounts are readily excreted through urine. Strong urine odour and, sometimes, minor gastrointestinal problems including diarrhea and flatulence will be the only symptoms of overdose. However, those who cannot metabolize the amino acid cysteine properly can suffer damage to the kidneys and the eyes due to build-up of cysteine in the tissues.

Patients with Crohn’s disease and Lou Gehrig’s disease may experience worsening of their condition when consuming a diet high in sulfur. In addition, sulphur may interfere with storage of copper. However, this is not a serious problem because most people get enough copper from their diets. Sulfur is a calcium and potassium antagonist and, therefore, high sulfur intake may also aggravate conditions associated with low calcium and potassium levels.

Dietary Sources of Sulfur

For most people, high protein foods, such as meats, poultry, fish, legumes, eggs and nuts, are the main source of dietary sulfur. Other foods rich in sulfur include garlic, onions, cruciferous vegetables, avocados, tomatoes, mustard, bananas, watermelon and pineapple. Some beverages such as tea and cocoa also contain sulfur.

Conditions Treated with Dietary Supplements MSM, DMSO and GS

Sulfur is available as a dietary supplement in three major forms: methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) and glucosamine sulphate (GS). They can be taken by mouth or used topically (except for MSM which is not absorbed through the skin). Most people take these supplements to treat pain associated with arthritis (joint inflammation), osteoporosis, bursitis, tendonitis, muscle cramps, musculoskeletal disorders and shingles as well as to treat common headaches. Others also use sulfur supplements for acne, eczema, psoriasis, rosacea, scleroderma, melasma, scabies, wrinkles, stretch marks, faster hair growth and fuller hair, folliculitis, dandruff, bunions, calluses, wound healing, sunburns, allergies, snoring, cataracts, eye inflammation, inflammatory bladder disease, yeast infections, hemorrhoids, periodontal disease, depression, chronic fatigue syndrome and chronic constipation.

There are no officially established dosages for these supplements but people who use MSM should not take more than 6 grams per day (3 grams twice daily), which corresponds to 2 grams of sulfur per day (*). DMSO is usually applied to the skin. If taken by mouth, always follow the doctor’s instructions. Oral glucosamine sulfate is typically used to treat osteoarthritis and most doctors recommend up to 1.5 grams of GS per day (often alongside 400mg or 0.4 grams of chondroitin sulfate). This corresponds to just 0.1 grams (105mg) of sulfur per day (while chondroitin sulfate adds additional 28mg of sulfur).

* Please note that molecular weight of sulfur is 32 versus 94 for MSM, 78 for DMSO, 456 for glucosamine sulfate and 463 for chondroitin sulfate, whereas each of these compounds contains only one atom of sulfur with atom weight of 32.