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Do We Need Sulfur in Our Diet?

Beverley has a degree in Science and additional certifications in nutrition and aromatherapy. She's published on and offline.

Symbol for the mineral sulfur

Symbol for the mineral sulfur

In response to the article’s title…yes! We need sulfur in our diet. Here’s why. Without it, we’re unable to synthesize a couple of essential amino acids. Those amino acids are part of our body’s protein-making process. They add firmness and pliability to our skin, hair, and nails.

Sulfur has other important functions too, like inhibiting or fighting off allergies, and treating sore muscles and skin conditions such as rosacea.

This is the third most abundant mineral in our body, and a natural nutrient in foods such as cruciferous vegetables, allium veggies, nuts, grains, some meats, fish, and dairy. It is also available as sulfur supplements dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) and methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), and as topical applications.

How Does Sulfur Work in the Human Body?

In the human body, sulfur aids in the production and repair of cellular DNA. The macronutrient helps build and maintain cellular structure and protects us from diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and heart failure among others. It also helps us synthesize food.

Methionine synthesis

Methionine synthesis

Health Benefits of Consuming Sulfur

According to research, the roles sulfur plays may provide us a number of health benefits, including the

Cysteine synthesis

Cysteine synthesis

Production of Life-Sustaining Amino Acids

Sulfur is an essential component in the body’s production of amino acids methionine and cysteine. Both amino acids are necessary to create proteins, the building blocks of our body. Proteins are also crucial in making enzymes, which are themselves key in functions such as metabolism and digestion.

Support for Antioxidant Activity

Glutathione and taurine are powerful antioxidants. And as you may know, antioxidants are compounds that gobble up the free radicals, which occur when cells undergo the oxidative process. This is important because free radicals can damage cells gravely. Sulfur is an essential component of glutathione and taurine. Sulfur is also found in other antioxidant agents in the body.

Collagen-like peptides

Collagen-like peptides

Fingernails

Fingernails

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Manufacture of Keratin and Collagen

What are keratin and collagen? They are the proteins in the cells of our skin, nails, and hair. Keratin gives cells strength and structure. Collagen provides elasticity and suppleness. We need sulfur to make keratin and collagen. Hence the reason you may have seen it in your skincare and/ or hair products.

Collagen is also part of the connective tissue in our joints.

Support for Insulin Production

The body needs sulfur to make insulin hormone. Insulin controls the sugar levels in our blood. No sulfur equals no insulin equals out-of-balance blood-glucose levels equal the risk of diabetes.

Human Body, muscular

Human Body, muscular

Treatment for Arthritis and Other Inflammatory Conditions

Arthritis refers to inflammation in our joints and other connective tissues. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) claims that 58.5 million adults in the United States suffer from this disease. The CDC also states that arthritis is the primary reason for “work disability.” Methlysulfonylmethane (MSM) is a sulfur supplement used to treat arthritis pain and inflammation.

Other types of inflammatory conditions treated with sulfur supplements and products include fibromyalgia, eczema, sports injuries, and respiratory tract infections including the cold.

Scallions

Scallions

Prevention of Certain Cancers

Research studies indicate that sulfur may prevent or disrupt lung, stomach, colorectal, ovarian, prostate, and breast cancers.

In lung cancer, sulfur seems to stimulate apoptosis or cell death.

Studies using sulfur-rich allium vegetables such as garlic, onion, and scallion, on subjects with the potential for developing stomach, colorectal, ovarian, and prostate cancers, suggest a decrease in the risk or prevention.

Research on mice with breast cancer indicates that MSM may prevent the DNA activity that leads to cancer cell production. More tests are needed, however.

Coronary Heart Disease, Atherosclerosis

Coronary Heart Disease, Atherosclerosis

Prevention of Heart Disease

Sulfur may prevent cardiovascular disease due to its effect on cholesterol. Studies found that the mineral in the sulfur-containing amino acids methionine, cysteine, and taurine may lower the “bad” LDL cholesterol in the blood.

Rosacea

Rosacea

Treatment for Skin Conditions

As mentioned, sulfur is used as an ingredient in several skincare and hair products. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also approved sulfur-containing drugs for treating acne and dandruff. Drugs are also available for treating rosacea and scabies, warts, and poison ivy and oak infections.

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What Happens When We’re Sulfur-Deficient?

Sulfur is such a critical mineral. It’s not only responsible for protein production but is also involved in a number of the body’s enzymatic processes and functions. A lack of sulfur can lead to malnutrition and issues such as cardiovascular disease, poor immune system function, and other degenerative ailments such as dementia.

Broccoli

Broccoli

Salmon fillet

Salmon fillet

What Foods Naturally Contain Sulfur?

Dietary sulfur is an essential component in the cells of all living organisms, and that includes plants. It’s reasonable to assume that it would be a constituent of our animal- and plant-based foods. What are some of the sulfur-containing foods? Check out the following list:

- Cruciferous vegetables: cabbage, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, turnip

- Allium vegetables: garlic, onion, scallion, chive, leeks, shallot

- Nuts and seeds: almonds, Brazil nuts, cashew, macadamia, sesame seeds

- Legumes: kidney beans, black beans, soybeans, lentils, split peas, chickpeas

- Grains: wheat germ, oats, couscous

- Dried fruits: peaches, apricots, figs, pineapple, raisins, apples (contains controversial sulfur dioxide food preservative)

- Eggs

- Dairy: milk, cheese, yogurt, kefir

- Seafood: shellfish, salmon, sardine, cod

- Poultry: turkey, chicken

- Meats: organs, beef, veal, pork

MSM (methylsulfonylmethane) molecule

MSM (methylsulfonylmethane) molecule

DMSO (dimethyl sulfoxide)

DMSO (dimethyl sulfoxide)

Additional Information About Sulfur Supplements

The jury is still out, so to speak, on whether MSM and DMSO are really therapeutically-effective. Research also questions the effectiveness of glucosamine sulfate, another product used primarily for osteoarthritis. The efficacy of sulfur nasal sprays seems to have passed the test, according to studies. Clearly, more clinical trials on humans are warranted. If individuals choose to consume supplements, what’s the recommended dosage?

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Appropriate Dose for Sulfur Supplements

Topical treatments and cosmetics begin with a two-percent concentration for a specified period of use. For adults, it may rise to six percent. There is no standard dose for oral supplements at this time.

Note, there’s no medical evidence to support sulfur supplements curing, treating, or preventing disease in humans. Always consult your healthcare provider before consuming any food source or supplements for health and wellbeing purposes.

Side Effects of Sulfur Consumption

According to the Rxlist website, topical products containing 10 percent or less sulfur are relatively safe for up to eight weeks of use. Some individuals, however, may develop dry skin. Others may be allergic or sensitive to sulfur-containing products such as sulfonamide in certain antibiotic drugs and/ or food and beverage products.

In small concentrations used over short durations of time, topical sulfur may be safe for pregnant and breastfeeding women and children.

MSM and DMSO have been known to cause headaches, dizziness, nausea, diarrhea, swelling, fatigue, and other symptoms when consumed orally.

Beef

Beef

Consuming Too Much Sulfur

Can we overdose on sulfur? Food and drugs aren’t the only sources of sulfur. The mineral can appear as an inorganic ingredient in drinking water as well. If the content is high, the water’s odor and taste will be affected. Think rotten eggs. It may also cause diarrhea and ulcerative colitis. The latter condition can also occur from over-consumption of sulfur-containing foods.

Additionally, consuming too much sulfur foods and beverages may stimulate gut bacteria with a penchant for creating sulfide, to create inflammatory diseases such as IBD or inflammatory bowel disease.

How Do You Consume Sulfur?

Bottom Line

Sulfur, whose element in the periodic table is S, is a naturally-occurring mineral in food. It is used in the controversial food preservative sulfur dioxide. It is also is essential to our diet because as a macronutrient, it plays a critical role in our body’s functions and processes such as in the production and repair of DNA, essential proteins, and food synthesis. It is the third most prevalent mineral in our body. Whether we consume it from food, beverages, or in supplemental form, research studies imply that a diet deficient in sulfur leaves us vulnerable to a number of nasty, debilitating diseases.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2021 Beverley Byer

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