After calcium and phosphorus, sulfur is the third most abundant mineral element in the body, with large amounts (almost half) located in the bones, skin, and muscles. Sulfur is an integral component of a wide variety of processes, from protein synthesis to cartilage maintenance to detoxification. And a deficiency in the mineral has even been linked to heart disease and diabetes. So if you’ve never given much thought to this important substance, maybe it’s time you started asking yourself if you’re getting enough sulfur.
Where Do We Get Sulfur?
The majority of the sulfur in our bodies comes from dietary protein, yet only 2 of the 20 amino acids normally present in protein actually contain sulfur. One of these sulfur-containing amino acids—or sulfur amino acids, as they’re also known—is methionine, which can’t be synthesized in the body and has to be supplied through the diet. And while the other amino acid, cysteine, can be synthesized in the body, the process requires a steady supply of sulfur.
The rest of the sulfur our bodies use comes from inorganic sulfates, such as iron sulfate, chondroitin sulfate, glucosamine sulfate, and magnesium sulfate (Epsom salts), and the organic sulfur found in foods like broccoli, garlic, and kale. In addition, it’s estimated that we obtain approximately 10% of the sulfur in our diets from our drinking water.
Sulfur’s Role in the Body
Sulfur plays an important role in the human body and is required for literally hundreds of physiologic processes. For example, sulfur helps give shape to proteins and thus determine their function—as in the case of the keratin that makes up hair, skin, and nails. Likewise, it’s also critical for the integrity of cartilage and other connective tissues.
Sulfur is required for the formation and proper functioning of enzymes—the catalysts for nearly all chemical reactions within cells. Without sulfur, various functions, including digestion and metabolic processes, would be compromised.
Sulfur is necessary for the conversion of thiamine and biotin and the synthesis of glutathione, which is considered the body’s master antioxidant, as it regenerates other antioxidants. In addition, glutathione is important for boosting the immune system and preventing the damage caused by reactive oxygen species, such as free radicals.
What’s more, sulfur is a vital component of proper insulin function and glucose metabolism and plays a role in preventing diabetes.
Causes of Sulfur Deficiency
According to a review published in the journal Nutrition & Metabolism, a significant number of Americans suffer from a deficiency of sulfur. Although this study focused mainly on older adults, who often eat less and consume fewer sources of protein, sulfur deficiency is thought to be widespread.
This is because modern farming practices have resulted in the depletion of sulfur in the soil, which has, in turn, led to reduced sulfur content in many of the foods we eat.
The combination of sulfur depletion in the soil, decreased consumption of protein, reliance on processed foods, and the destruction of sulfur compounds through the cooking process can result in the perfect recipe for a sulfur deficiency. In addition, our bodies can store only limited amounts of sulfur, and we need to replenish our stores daily.
Taken together, the possibility of a sulfur deficiency is real for many of us. And such a deficiency may:
- Cause cells and enzymes to malfunction
- Contribute to obesity, heart disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, and Alzheimer’s
- Exacerbate acne, depression, and memory loss
- Slow wound healing
- Upset the body’s metabolism
- Promote muscle and joint pain, inflammation, and stiffness
- Lead to insulin resistance
Getting Enough Sulfur Through Diet and Supplementation
While the probability is great that many—if not most—of us lack sufficient levels of sulfur, it’s possible to increase our intake through both our diets and the use of dietary supplements.
One of the best ways to make sure you’re getting enough sulfur is to ensure you’re eating a wide variety of sulfur-rich foods. Good sources of dietary sulfur include:
Due to the depletion of sulfur in our soils, dietary sources of sulfur may still be inadequate to meet the body’s needs. Fortunately, sulfur can be obtained through supplementation as well.
Perhaps the most popular form of supplemental sulfur is methylsulfonylmethane, or MSM. Touted for its ability to reduce symptoms of chronic inflammation and aid in pain relief, MSM has been shown in studies to be beneficial in the treatment of arthritis.
In one study, MSM was demonstrated to improve pain and physical function in people with arthritis. And in another study, a combination of MSM and glucosamine sulfate was shown to significantly improve signs and symptoms of arthritis.
As discussed earlier, one of the principal sources of sulfur is the essential amino acid methionine, which must be obtained from the diet. In addition to increasing sulfur intake, this amino acid also promotes the formation of collagen and cartilage and has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and analgesic properties.
Methionine is also essential for the absorption and bioavailability of selenium and zinc. Moreover, it aids in the detoxification and removal of heavy metals such as lead and mercury and helps the liver metabolize fats.
Another excellent source of sulfur is N-acetylcysteine (NAC)—a modified form of cysteine. Like cysteine, NAC aids glutathione synthesis. It may also be helpful in treating chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other respiratory disorders due to its ability to thin bronchial mucus.
In addition, NAC has shown benefit in the treatment of addictions, compulsive behaviors, and mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Interestingly, you can also boost your body’s sulfur levels by taking an Epsom salt bath 2 to 3 times a week. As mentioned earlier, Epsom salts are composed of magnesium sulfate—an inorganic form of sulfur—and soaking in a bath of these salts is an effective way of absorbing sulfur.
Another way to ensure you’re getting sufficient sulfur is by making certain you’re spending some quality time in the sun. Believe it or not, when your skin is exposed to the sun—without sunscreen—sulfur is produced in the form of vitamin D and cholesterol sulfate.
Sulfur is one of the most important substances in the body, yet it receives very little attention, and depleted soils, processed foods, and cooking help ensure that most people are probably deficient in this vital mineral.
So if you’re concerned about a lack of sulfur in your own diet, make sure you’re eating plenty of sulfur-containing foods, and consider supplementation when necessary.