The Health Benefits of Sulfur

How Sulfur Supplements Are Used to Reduce Pain

Onions, garlic and shallots

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Sulfur is the third most abundant chemical in the human body. The element is also found in a number of foods such as garlic, onions, eggs, and protein-rich foods. Sulfur is necessary for the synthesis of the essential amino acids cysteine and methionine.

As a supplement, sulfur is available in capsule or powder form. It is also an ingredient in many topical preparations. Dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) and methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) are types of sulfur supplements. MSM is sometimes called "organic sulfur."

Sulfur supplements are taken orally to raise sulfur levels in the body. Some believe that this helps to protect against allergies, osteoarthritis, and muscle soreness. It is also used topically to manage conditions ranging from dandruff to rosacea.

So far, scientific support for the health benefits of sulfur supplements is limited.

Health Benefits

Sulfur plays an important role in the body and is necessary for the synthesis of certain key proteins. For example, sulfur is needed for the synthesis of glutathione, which acts as a potent antioxidant, protecting your cells from damage.

While sulfur consumed naturally in foods is important for the body, there is scant evidence that taking sulfur supplements is helpful. So far, research has focussed on a few key areas of interest.

Dandruff

Sulfur is an FDA-approved ingredient for use in over-the-counter dandruff products. It is often combined with salicylic acid. However, there is limited evidence to support this use.

A small study was conducted in 1987 on 48 subjects with dandruff. Results indicated that when subjects used a shampoo containing sulfur and salicylic acid they reported less scaling and dandruff.

Further studies are needed to know if this treatment is effective.

Osteoarthritis

Sulfur supplements are often used to treat osteoarthritis. MSM may be of some benefit to people with osteoarthritis of the knee, according to a research review published in the journal Osteoarthritis Cartilage in 2008.

Study authors found that "data from the more rigorous MSM trials provide positive but not definitive evidence that MSM is superior to placebo in the treatment of mild to moderate osteoarthritis of the knee." However, since most of the reviewed studies were of poor quality, the review's authors note that "no definitive conclusion can currently be drawn for either supplement."

There's also some evidence that balneotherapy may benefit people with osteoarthritis. Balneotherapy is an alternative therapy that involves treating health problems by bathing, usually in hot springs and other naturally mineral-rich waters. In many cases, the water used in balneotherapy contains sulfur.

In a 2007 report from Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, for instance, scientists sized up seven trials on the use of balneotherapy in the treatment of osteoarthritis and found that the therapy resulted in significantly greater improvements in pain and quality of life (compared to a placebo).

But a 2015 report from the same journal looked at trials on the use of balneotherapy in treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and found that there was not enough evidence to say for sure that the treatment is effective.

It's important to note that the authors of each review caution that most of the reviewed studies were poorly designed and that more research is needed before balneotherapy can be recommended in the treatment of arthritis.

Allergies

MSM supplements may help alleviate allergy symptoms, according to a small, older study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in 2002. For the study, 55 patients took either MSM supplements or a placebo every day for 30 days. Looking at data on the 50 participants who completed the study, researchers found that those assigned to the MSM supplements experienced significantly greater improvements in lower respiratory symptoms compared to members of the placebo group.

Rosacea

Topically applied sulfur may help treat rosacea, according to a 2004 report from the journal Cutis. According to the report's authors, sulfur-containing lotions and/or cleansers may help enhance the benefits of other topical and oral therapies for rosacea.

Possible Side Effects

There is not enough known about oral sulfur supplements to know for sure if they are safe. However, there are some reports that MSM and DMSO may cause certain side effects, such as headaches, dizziness, nausea, and diarrhea.

Sulfur is possibly safe when used topically. In clinical studies lasting up to eight weeks, researchers have safely used products containing sulfur in concentrations up to 10% .

It's important to note that self-treating a condition with sulfur and avoiding or delaying standard care may have serious consequences. Speak to your healthcare provider if you are considering using a sulfur supplement to treat a medical condition.

Dosage and Preparation

There is no recommended daily allowance for sulfur. It is found naturally in foods including dairy, eggs, beef, poultry, seafood, onions, garlic, turnips, kale, and broccoli. Most people consume enough sulfur in their diet to meet the body's needs. Although, at least one study has suggested that sulfur intake may be insufficient in people over the age of 75.

Regarding supplements, there is no standard dose of sulfur. Not enough is known about oral supplements to recommend an appropriate amount to use. However, various topical doses have been used in research.

For example, in studies examining sulfur's effects on dandruff, shampoos containing two percent sulfur and two percent salicylic acid was used twice weekly for five weeks.

When research studied sulfur treatments for scabies, treatments containing between 2% and 20% sulfur in jelly were applied every night for 3 to 6 nights.

Due to the limited high-quality clinical trials, it's too soon to recommend sulfur-containing supplements, topically applied sulfur, or balneotherapy for the treatment of any health condition. If you're still considering using sulfur, make sure to consult your healthcare provider to discuss whether it's appropriate for you. 

What to Look For

Sulfur is available for purchase online and sold in many natural-food stores and in stores specializing in dietary supplements. You many see sulfur supplements in capsule form or sold as crystals to be used in the bath.

When looking for a sulfur supplement, you are likely to see many MSM or methylsulfonylmethane products. Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) is a naturally occurring organic compound that contains sulfur. It is also sometimes called dimethyl sulfone, methyl sulfone, sulfonylbismethane, or crystalline dimethyl sulfoxide. MSM is also referred to as "organic sulfur." The word organic is used to describe it because it is a carbon-containing molecule, not because it meets USDA standards for "organic" as it is used in the farming, production, and sale of food.

When choosing a supplement, always check the product label to see if it contains other ingredients. There have also been published reports of supplements containing ingredients not disclosed on the label. Also, in some cases, the product may deliver doses that differ from the amount specified on the label.

Lastly, keep in mind that supplements are largely unregulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). While it is it illegal to market a dietary supplement product as a treatment or cure for a disease or to reduce symptoms of a disease, the FDA does not test products for safety or effectiveness. When choosing a supplement, try to look for products that have been certified by ConsumerLabs, The U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention, or NSF International. These organizations don't guarantee that a product is safe or effective, but they do provide a certain level of testing for quality.

Other Questions

What are some alternatives to sulfur for reducing joint pain?

For more help managing arthritis pain, practicing yoga, taking tai chi, and/or undergoing acupuncture may help alleviate arthritis pain and enhance functioning in some.

Does sulfur smell bad?

No. Pure sulfur has no smell. People often assume that the bad smell of rotten eggs is attributable to sulfur but it is actually caused by hydrogen sulfide.

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