Sometimes I don’t know how I get started on a topic but this time I do. My little Westie is stiff in the mornings, so I was researching what would be a good way to naturally help him with his little hips. The little guy is also plagued by allergies and we are always battling his skin issues because apparently he is like sweet, sweet sugar to every biting insect and fungus around. So, what I was looking for was something that would help his joints and also help with his allergies. That was what I found in sulfur.
We are many things and of the most common elements in our body, sulfur comes in eighth in line behind oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus and potassium. We also have sulfur in two of our essential amino acids, methionine and cysteine, so sulfur plays an incredibly important role in our health. Yet, sulfur is not a very lauded nutritional element. There is no RDA for sulfur even though it is a crucial nutritional element.
Why the disrespect? I propose it is due to its association with a bad smell. That association is actually a mistake. Elemental sulfur has a faint odor similar to match heads. What we have come to wrongly associate as a ‘sulfur smell’ of rotten eggs is actually hydrogen sulfide. My pointing this out is not going to change the common belief, but it does explain a probably reason why this nutrient gets overlooked and under-studied. Who wants to be known as the sulfur guru? You may be thinking that something as simple as bad smell couldn’t influence scientific research and you would be correct. There are plenty of studies and research into sulfur as a nutritionally important substance. Marketing however is another thing entirely. Who wants to market ole stinky? And with that, sulfur falls to the wayside and we promote the pristine and wonderful vitamin C which reminds us of citrus or the wonderful powers of vitamin D which reminds us of sunshine. Strange as it may seem, these concepts help promote common knowledge of these nutritional components and negative associations keep sulfur in the deep, dank dark.
But not today. Today I am about to change your ideas of sulfur and in fact let you know that like vitamin D, sulfur should remind us of sunshine.
Cholesterol Sulfate the other Sunshine Nutrient
When our skin is exposed to sunlight we generate the useable form of vitamin D, called D3 in the form of vitamin D3 sulfate. What is less known is that we also generate cholesterol sulfate. In fact, our skin is the main producer of cholesterol sulfate. If you are like me, you may have not heard about this because even though we need it to keep our blood cells intact, most nutritional studies completely overlook it. It also helps to make our skin a barrier to invading organisms like bacteria and fungi. Both vitamin D3 sulfate and cholesterol sulfate are water soluble which means they can travel through the body without being transported by LDL cholesterol molecules. What these water soluble agents do for us is not known except that the D3 sulfate does not transport calcium like the fat soluble D3. It has been proposed that cholesterol sulfate may be used to protect fat and muscle cells from damage from glucose and oxygen. In fact it has been proposed that sulfur may work as an anti-oxidant/anti-glycation agent, sacrificing itself to protect protein and fat cells. There is a wonderful article that goes in-depth on these ideas as well as further about sulfur deficiencies at Weston A. Price.
Sulfur Deficiency and what to do about it
What would happen if we did not have enough sulfur in our diet? Well since sulfur helps create our cartilage, tendons and ligaments we would have problems there as well as increased joint pain. We may in fact feel more pain in general because sulfur can reduce nerve impulses that send pain signals to our brain. We need it for the essential amino acids cysteine and methionine so the lack of these would harm our protein synthesis. We use sulfur in vitamin B1 (thiamine) and biotin conversion that lets us turn carbohydrates into energy so we might be experiencing fatigue. We need it to synthesize glutathione, an important antioxidant that protects our muscles and brain. We also need sulfur for proper insulin function. It seems in fact we would not be fairing very will without enough sulfur.
Luckily we can obtain sulfur easily through our diet by consuming fish, meat and poultry as well as eggs, garlic, onions, legumes, Brussel sprouts, kale, asparagus and wheat germ. If however you are not drawn to eating these things or think you may be experiencing symptoms due to sulfur deficiency you may want to increase your sulfur through a supplement. There is also a very easy to obtain organic form of sulfur called methylsulfonylmethane, or more likely referred to as MSM (organic in this case means from plants versus inorganic sulfur from non-living sources). MSM is known for its anti-inflammatory properties and it is often taken to combat arthritis pain. However it is also sited as being helpful for reducing allergies and potentially reversing and preventing heart disease through its anti-inflammatory effect.
MSM supplements are inexpensive and considered non-toxic, however if you are allergic to sulfa drugs you may have trouble with MSM. It is suggested that these be taken with meals and like most supplements it is better to begin with small doses to see how your body reacts. If you are opposed to taking supplements, MSM can also be obtained through raw vegetables, fruits and aloe vera.
You may be wondering why there is not more being said about sulfur in general if it is so important to health. One problem is due to the bias I think sulfur suffers from due to its association with the smelly gas hydrogen sulfide. Another problem is nutritional science in general. We are at the bare beginnings of understanding nutrition when you take into account that most of our vitamins were not discovered until the mid 1950s. We also seem to be confused by a seemingly endless parade of contradictory nutritional information.
One of the reasons that nutrition information seems to constantly contradict itself is that we don’t ask complicated enough questions. Is this nutritional component good for fill-in-the-blank? We might get answer – yes, but the real answer is actually yes with about 30 pages of conditional attachments going with it. Most scientific research sets up the study as an A plus B equals C scenario when reality is all about A(with many different conditional components) plus B(with many different variables) equaling C(with an unlimited number of outcomes depending on influences from the variables in A and B plus other unnoticed things). It is a wonder that we can know anything at all.
Although science is driven by the quest for knowledge, the funding of science is driven by potential profits. The study of a drug which can make the developers billions is far more ‘sexy’ than the study of something like sulfur that cannot be patented. Yet, even here there is some new interest as developers are learning how to patent proprietary forms of certain vitamins. In the coming years there will likely be a change in scientific interest into a healthier way of life through better nutrition, mind you via a totally patented and somewhat expensive proprietary vitamin formula. Someday in the future even lowly sulfur will be re-branded and taken from its lowly rotten egg associations. I eagerly await the new sulfur – the other sunshine nutrient.