Intrigued by the claims my friends were making—not the least of which was that sulfur can combat cancer, though it's also purported to help prevent diabetes, contribute to glowing skin, and aid in pain relief—I decided to investigate.
Sulfur, as it turns out, is a pretty big deal. "It's the third most common element in the body," says renowned heart surgeon and inflammation expert Steven Gundry, MD. "Sulfur is so important that many theorize that on some other planet, a sulfur-based life form (as opposed to our planet's, which is carbon-based) could exist."
Impressive, but what do our bodies actually do with it? Quite a lot, says naturopathic doctor Amy Chadwick, ND, who practices at OM-cinita's Four Moons Spa. "The body uses sulfur to support blood vessels, joints, and the digestive tract lining," she says. "Sulfur also plays a role in the pathways that break down hormones and neurotransmitters."
Importantly, she says, sulfur is also necessary for making glutathione, the body's primary intracellular antioxidant. "[Glutathione] helps the cells get rid of their garbage, which allows for healthier cell communication and reduces cell damage," she explains. "The cells of the body keep each other healthy through feedback and signaling, but when communication becomes disrupted, cells become isolated." This is a contributing factor, she says, to autoimmune disorders, inflammatory disorders such as joint pain or skin inflammation, and cancer.
"Sulfur is so important that many theorize that on some other planet, a sulfur-based life form (as opposed to our planet's, which is carbon-based) could exist."—Steven Gundry, MD
Typically, we get our sulfur through food and water. Dr. Chadwick notes that cruciferous vegetables (e.g. cauliflower, broccoli, watercress), leafy greens, peas, onions, garlic, legumes, and whole grains are rich in the mineral. So, too, are pasture-raised eggs, dairy, grass-fed meat, and wild fish. But Dr. Gundry points out that these foods might not be as high in sulfur today as they were in the distant past. "The use of petrochemical fertilizers has depleted sulfur from many soils, and thus may be depleted in [the foods we eat]," he says. Dr. Chadwick adds that eating a vegan or vegetarian diet, without enough sulfur-containing grains and veggies, can also result in a sulfur deficiency.
That said, sulfur deficiencies are rare and for most healthy people, Dr. Chadwick feels supplementation is unnecessary. Where sulfur-rich supplements such as methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) and N-acetylcysteine (NAC) can be very useful, however, is in treating specific health concerns. MSM, Chadwick says, can be effective in treating joint pain and arthritis, while NAC may be useful for lung disorders. Dr. Gundry adds to this list the supplement SAMe, which he says was shown in 2004 to be as effective as the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) Celebrex in relieving joint pain.
My friends, meanwhile, take their sulfur supplements in crystal form, the idea being that they are less processed and more potent than the supplements listed above. However, the two doctors' advice for getting all the sulfur you need is to eat an organic and plant-heavy diet, with grass-fed and free-range animal products mixed in if that suits your dietary preferences. Pretty simple. Oh, and Dr. Gundry offers one final suggestion for upping your sulfur intake, and it's a welcome one—take an Epsom salt (aka magnesium sulfate) bath. This begs the question: Is there anything that superstar self-care ritual can't soothe?
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