The detoxification effect

Sulfur is the third most abundant mineral in your body, after calcium and phosphorous. It’s an important mineral element that you get almost wholly through dietary proteins, yet it’s been over 20 years since the U.S. Food and Nutrition Board (FNB) issued its last update on recommended daily allowances (RDA) for it.

In a study examining critical elements about how sulfur works in the body, researchers say the importance of this mineral may be underestimated, and that it’s possible that we may not be getting enough of it.

The Importance of Sulfur and the detoxification effect

Close to half of the sulfur in your body can be found in your muscles, skin and bones, but it does much more than benefit just these three areas. It plays important roles in many bodily systems.

Sulfur bonds are required for proteins to maintain their shape, and these bonds determine the biological activity of the proteins. For example, as explained in the featured MSM newsletter, hair and nails consists 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.

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 the enzymes cannot function properly, which can cascade into a number of health problems as without biologically active enzymes, your metabolic processes cannot function properly.

Sulfur also plays an important role in:

Your body’s electron transport system, as part of iron/sulfur proteins in mitochondria, the energy factories of your cells
Vitamin-B thiamine (B1) and biotin conversion, which in turn are essential for converting carbohydrates into energy
Synthesizing important metabolic intermediates, such as glutathione
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
Detoxification
The featured study looked at a broad scope of overlapping metabolic pathways in order to determine which ones may be affected by insufficient intake of dietary sulfur. They also evaluated the modes of action of a variety of sulfur-containing dietary supplements, including chondroitin and glucosamine, commonly used to improve joint health.

According to the authors:

“Sulfur amino acids contribute substantially to the maintenance and integrity of the cellular systems by influencing cellular redox state and the capacity to detoxify toxic compounds, free radicals and reactive oxygen species.

… Sulfur containing metabolites, of which glutathione is a key exponent, merge in their functioning with many other compounds that play a major role in mechanisms which are receiving tremendous interests as parts of conventional and complementary medical care. These include the n-3 and n-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids, minerals such as Selenium, Zinc, Copper and Magnesium, vitamins E and C, antioxidants such as the proanthocyanidins and lipoic acid, many of which are involved in the synthesis of prostaglandins and in the antioxidant cascade.

More and more evidence is accumulating and focusing on the cooperative role that glutathione and other sulfur metabolites play in the homeostatic control of these fundamental mechanisms.”

Are You Getting Enough Sulfur in Your Diet?

As stated in the featured research, only two of the 20 amino acids normally present in foods contain sulfur:

Methionine, which cannot be synthesized by your body and must be supplied through diet, and
Cysteine, which is synthesized by your body but requires a steady supply of dietary sulfur in order to do so
Neither of these are stored in your body. Rather, “any dietary excess is readily oxidized to sulphate, excreted in the urine (or reabsorbed depending on dietary levels) or stored in the form of glutathione (GSH),” according to the researchers. (Glutathione is comprised of three amino acids: cysteine, glutamate, and glycine, and is your body’s most potent antioxidant, which also keeps all other antioxidants performing at peak levels.)

Furthermore:

“The availability of cysteine appears to be the rate limiting factor for synthesis of glutathione (GSH).

GSH values are subnormal in a large number of wasting diseases and following certain medications leading frequently to poor survival. By supplying sulfur amino acids (SAA) many of these changes can be reversed.

In the brain, which is usually the most spared organ during nutrient deficiencies, GSH concentration declines in order to maintain adequate levels of cysteine. This loss of GSH impairs antioxidant defences… Cartilage, less essential for survival, may not fare well under conditions of sulfur deprivation, explaining why dietary supplements containing sulfur (chondroitin sulfate, glucosamine sulfate, MSM (Methylsulfonylmethane), etc.) may be of benefit in the treatment of joint diseases.”

In conclusion, they state that:

“Out of this study came information that suggested that a significant proportion of the population that included disproportionally the aged, may not be receiving sufficient sulfur and that these dietary supplements, were very likely exhibiting their pharmacological actions by supplying inorganic sulfur.”

Dietary Sources of Sulfur

The best and most ideal way to obtain sulfur is through your diet. Sulfur is derived almost exclusively from dietary protein, such as fish and high-quality (organic and/or grass-fed/pastured) beef and poultry. Meat and fish are considered “complete” as they contain all the sulfur-containing amino acids you need to produce new protein. Needless to say, those who abstain from animal protein are placing themselves at far greater risk of sulfur deficiency.

Other dietary sources that contain small amounts of sulfur include: read more

Key source of sulfur

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Sulfur is an interesting nonmetallic element that is found mainly as part of larger compounds. It is not discussed much in nutrition books, mainly because it has not been thought to be essential—that is, sulfur deficiency does not cause any visible problems.

Sulfur represents about 0.25 percent of our total body weight, similar to potassium. The body contains approximately 140 grams of sulfur-mainly in the proteins, although it is distributed in small amounts in all cells and tissues. Sulfur has a characteristic odor that can be smelled when hair or sheep’s wool is burned. Keratin, present in the skin, hair, and nails, is particularly high in the amino acid cystine, which is found in sulfur. The sulfur-sulfur bond in keratin gives it greater strength.

Sulfur is present in four amino acids: methionine, an essential amino acid; the nonessential cystine and cysteine, which can be made from methionine; and taurine, which is not part of body tissues but does help produce bile acid for digestion. Sulfur is also present in two B vitamins, thiamine and biotin; interestingly, thiamine is important to skin and biotin to hair. Sulfur is also available as various sulfates or sulfides. But overall, sulfur is most important as part of protein.

Sulfur has been used commonly since the early 1800s. Grandma’s “spring tonic” consisted mainly of sulfur and molasses. This also acted as a laxative. Sulfur has been known as the “beauty mineral” because it helps the complexion and skin stay clear and youthful. The hydrogen sulfide gas in onions is what causes tearing. This gas can also be made by intestinal bacteria and is absorbed by the body or released as gas with a characteristic odor.

Sulfur is absorbed from the small intestine primarily as the four sulfur-containing amino acids or from sulfates in water or fruits and vegetables. It is thought that elemental sulfur is not used by the human organism. Sulfur is stored in all body cells, especially the skin, hair, and nails. Excess amounts are eliminated through the urine or in the feces.

Sources: As part of four amino acids, sulfur is readily available in protein foods-meats, fish, poultry, eggs, milk, and legumes are all good sources. Egg yolks are one of the better sources of sulfur. Other foods that contain this somewhat smelly mineral are onions, garlic, cabbage, brussels sprouts, and turnips. Nuts have some, as do kale, lettuce, kelp and other seaweed, and raspberries. Complete vegetarians (those who eat no eggs or milk) and people on low-protein diets may not get sufficient amounts of sulfur; the resulting sulfur deficiency is difficult to differentiate clinically from protein deficiency, which is of much greater concern.

Functions: As part of four amino acids, sulfur performs a number of functions in enzyme reactions and protein synthesis. It is necessary for formation of collagen, the protein found in connective tissue in our bodies. Sulfur is also present in keratin, which is necessary for the maintenance of the skin, hair, and nails, helping to give strength, shape, and hardness to these protein tissues. Sulfur is also present in the fur and feathers of other animals. The cystine in hair gives off the sulfur smell when it is burned. Sulfur, as cystine and methionine, is part of other important body chemicals: insulin, which helps regulate carbohydrate metabolism, and heparin, an anticoagulant. Taurine is found in bile acids, used in digestion. The sulfur-containing amino acids help form other substances as well, such as biotin, coenzyme A, lipoic acid, and glutathione. The mucopoly-saccharides may contain chondroitin sulfate, which is important to joint tissues.

Sulfur is important to cellular respiration, as it is needed in the oxidation-reduction reactions that help the cells utilize oxygen, which aids brain function and all cell activity. These reactions are dependent on cysteine, which also helps the liver produce bile secretions and eliminate other toxins. L-cysteine is thought to generally help body detoxification mechanisms through the tripeptide compound, glutathione.

Uses: In its elemental form, sulfur was used for many disorders during the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, the focus is more on the sulfur-containing amino acids, used internally; or as elemental sulfur-containing ointments used for skin disorders such as eczema, dermatitis, and psoriasis. Psoriasis has been treated with oral sulfur along with zinc. Other problems of the skin or hair have been treated with additional sulfur-containing compounds.

Joint problems may be helped by chondroitin sulfate, which is found in high amounts in the joint tissues. For centuries, arthritis sufferers have been helped by bathing in waters that contain high amounts of sulfur. Oral sulfur as sulfates in doses of 500-1,000 mg. may also reduce symptoms in some patients. Magnesium sulfate, which is not absorbed, has been used as a laxative. Taurine, another sulfur-containing amino acid, has been used in epilepsy treatment, usually along with zinc. A physiologic form of sulfur called methylsulfonyl methane (MSM) has recently become available and may be helpful in patients with allergies (see Chapter 7, Accessory Nutrients).

If we need additional sulfur, we can get it by eating an egg or two a day or eating extra garlic or onions, as well as other sulfur foods. There is no real cause for concern about the cholesterol in eggs if the diet is generally low in fat and blood cholesterol level is not elevated.

Deficiency and toxicity: There is minimal reason for concern about either toxicity or deficiency of sulfur in the body. No clearly defined symptoms exist with either state. Sulfur deficiency is more common when foods are grown in sulfur-depleted soil, with low-protein diets, or with a lack of intestinal bacteria, though none of these seems to cause any problems in regard to sulfur functions and metabolism.

Requirements: There is no specific RDA for sulfur other than the amino acids of which they are part are needed to meet protein requirements. Our needs are usually easily met through diet. About 850 mg. are thought to be needed for basic turnover of sulfur in the body. There is not much information available on sulfur content of foods, nor are there supplements specifically for sulfur. I have found that it is not really a nutritional concern.

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Are the Health Benefits of MSM Related to msm organic sulfur?

Excellent article about the health benefits of our products:

MSM Health Benefits May Be Related to Its Sulfur Content

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.

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].”

Sulfur-Rich Foods

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:

Distillation
Crystallization
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
  • Toxicity

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