By David Blyweiss, M.D.
What do garlic, glutathione, N-acetyl cysteine, alpha-lipoic acid and MSM have in common? Sulfur—a compound that helps the body in a variety of ways, from maintaining healthy joints to boosting the immune system. It’s so important that it is found in every cell of the body. Many amino acids (protein building blocks), vitamins, and minerals also contain sulfur. But, as important as sulfur is to good health, it’s not a topic of hot discussion—and that’s a shame.
Sulfur is the third most abundant mineral in the body after calcium and phosphorus. By sheer quantity, sulfur is more important to health than magnesium, zinc, iron, copper, sodium, iodine—and, for that matter, all vitamins. Sulfur contributes to fat digestion and absorption, because it is needed to make bile acids. Sulfur makes up part of your bones, teeth and collagen. As a component of insulin, sulfur is needed to regulate blood sugar.
It also helps maintain oxygen balance for proper brain function.
Good food sources of sulfur include egg yolks, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, kale, collards, asparagus, onions and garlic. But, even though sulfur is critical for the normal structure and function of proteins, many people—especially seniors—don’t get enough from their diets.
The bad news is that you can’t just run out and by a “sulfur supplement.” The good news is that many common over-the-counter nutrients provide hefty amounts of this key compound. Here are some of my favorites:
Alpha-lipoic acid. This vitamin-like antioxidant is sometimes called the “universal antioxidant” because it is soluble in both fat and water. ALA improves insulin function and relieves nerve pain and numbness in people with type 2 diabetes. It also boosts vascular health. Try 300 to 600 mg. one to three times daily. Just be sure to monitor your blood sugar, which can also be lowered with alpha-lipoic acid.
Biotin. This little-known B vitamin plays a fundamental role by regulating genes involved in the metabolism of glucose, amino acids and fatty acids. Large amounts of biotin can lower triglyceride levels, and a combination of biotin and chromium picolinate can lower blood sugar levels. Try 1,000 to 5,000 mcg. one to two times daily. Be sure to monitor your blood sugar and talk with your doctor about adjusting your medication if your blood sugar drops to lower than normal levels.
Methylsulfonylmethane. Commonly known as MSM, this supplement is 34 percent elemental sulfur. It is the oral form of dimethyl sulfoxide, also called DMSO. MSM supplements significantly reduced pain and improved physical functioning in a study of 50 patients, published in Osteoarthritis and Cartilage. Another study reported that a combination of MSM and glucosamine sulfate was far better than the latter alone in reducing pain. Try 1,000 to 5,000 mg. daily, starting with 1,000 mg. and increasing your dose by 1,000 mg. per day, as some people have digestive upset from MSM.
N-acetylcysteine (NAC). Rich in sulfur, NAC quickly boosts glutathione levels. Glutathione is a vitamin-like substance that is the most powerful antioxidant made within the body. According to an Italian study of seniors, NAC supplements can block influenza symptoms. Recent studies have found that NAC supplements reduce drug and alcohol cravings, as well as several types of obsessive-compulsive behavior. One study found that NAC supplements eased symptoms of polycystic ovary syndrome. Try 500 to 2,000 mg. daily. Take NAC and all other amino acids on an empty stomach.
Vitamin B1. This sulfur-containing vitamin helps drive the Krebs cycle, the biochemical process that breaks down food for energy. A high intake of carbohydrates increases vitamin B1 requirements. Large supplemental doses of vitamin B1 can lower levels of microalbuminuria (a sign of kidney damage) in people with type 2 diabetes. Try 50 to 300 mg. daily.
Along with increasing the amount of sulfur-rich foods you eat, it’s smart to take at least one of these supplements. Which one? If you’re in generally good health, opt for either alpha lipoic acid or N-acetylcysteine because of their broad benefits. If you suffer from joint problems or chronic pain, add MSM. If you are overweight or suffer from diabetes, I recommend a daily dose of biotin and B1. You certainly don’t need to take all of these. But increasing the amount of sulfur you consume through both diet and supplementation can help you achieve optimum health.
Bauchart-Thevret C. Intestinal metabolism of sulfur amino acids. Nutrition Research Reviews. 2009;22:175-187.
Heinisch BB. Alpha-lipoic acid improves vascular endothelial function in patients with type 2 diabetes: a placebo-controlled randomized trial. European Journal of Clinical Investigation. 2009 Dec 27. [Epub ahead of print]
Kim LS. Efficacy of methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) in osteoarthritis pain of the knee: a pilot clinical trial. Osteoarthritis and Cartilage. 2006;14:286-294.