The Importance of Sulfure in Medicicne

Dr. Stephen Parcell, ND. Alternative Medicine Review Volume 7, Number 1, 2002 Thorne Research, Inc.

Because the role of elemental sulfur in human nutrition has not been studied extensively, it is the purpose of this article to emphasize the importance of this element in humans and discuss the therapeutic applications of its compounds in medicine. It is the sixth most abundant macromineral in breast milk and the third most abundant mineral based on the percentage of total body weight.

The amino acids it contains (SAAs) are methionine, cysteine, cystine, homocysteine, homocysteine, and taurine. Dietary SAA analysis and protein supplementation may be indicated for vegan athletes, children, or patients with HIV, because of an increased risk for SAA deficiency in these groups.

Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), a volatile component in the sulfur cycle, is another source of the mineral found in the human diet. Increases in serum sulfate may explain some of the therapeutic effects of MSM, DMSO, and glucosamine sulfate. Organic sulfur, as SAAs, can be used to increase the synthesis of S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe), glutathione (GSH), taurine, and N-acetylcysteine (NAC). MSM may be effective for the treatment of allergy, pain syndromes, athletic injuries, and bladder disorders.

Other compounds such as SAMe, dimethylsulfoxide (DMSO), taurine, glucosamine or chondroitin sulfate, and reduced glutathione may also have clinical applications in the treatment of a number of conditions such as depression, fibromyalgia, arthritis, interstitial cystitis, athletic injuries, congestive heart failure, diabetes, cancer, and AIDS. 

Dosages, mechanisms of action, and rationales for use are discussed. The low toxicological profiles of these compounds, combined with promising therapeutic effects, warrant continued human clinical trails.

By Dr. Mercola.

This mineral is the third most abundant in your body, after calcium and phosphorous. It’s an important mineral element that you get almost wholly through dietary proteins, yet it’s been over 20 years since the U.S. Food and Nutrition Board (FNB) issued its last update on recommended daily allowances (RDA) for it. 

In a study examining critical elements about how it works in the body, researchers say the importance of this mineral may be underestimated, and that it’s possible that we may not be getting enough of it.

Dr. Gulizar Atmaca, Department of Physiology, Trakya University, Medical Facility, 22030 Edirne, Turkey.

The term thiol refers to compounds containing this mineral. Thiol-containing compounds are found in all body cells and are indispensable for life. Some of these include cysteine, methionine, taurine, and glutathione. The number of sulfur atoms determines, at least in part, the modulatory activity on the glutathione-related antioxidant enzymes.

Authors: Dahl, Christiane, Friedrich, Cornelius G.

In nature, the mineral occurs in many different oxidation states and is one of the most versatile elements in life. It is an integral part of many important cell constituents, such as the amino acids cysteine and methionine, and many sulfur compounds serve as the basis for energy-related processes in prokaryotes. 

In recent years, new methods have been applied to study biochemistry and molecular biology of reactions of the global sulfur cycle, the microorganisms involved and their physiology, metabolism, and ecology. These activities have uncovered fascinating new insights for the understanding of aerobic and anaerobic metabolism of the mineral.

Departments of Surgery and Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA. 90032, USA

Sulfur, after calcium and phosphorus, is the most abundant mineral element found in our body. It is available to us in our diets, derived almost exclusively from proteins, and yet only 2 of the 20 amino acids normally present in proteins contain sulfur. One of these amino acids, methionine, cannot be synthesized by our bodies and therefore has to be supplied by the diet. 

Cysteine, another sulfur-containing amino acid, and a large number of key metabolic intermediates essential for life are synthesized by us, but the process requires a steady supply of sulfur. Proteins contain between 3 and 6% of sulfur amino acids.

A very small percentage of sulfur comes in the form of inorganic sulfates and other forms of organic sulfur present in foods such as garlic, onion, broccoli, etc.

The minimal requirements (RDA) for all the essential amino acids have always been estimated in terms of their ability to maintain a nitrogen balance.

This method asses amino acid requirements for protein synthesis, only one of the pathways that methionine follows after ingestion. To adequately evaluate the RDA for methionine, one should perform, together with a nitrogen balance a sulfur balance, something never done, neither in humans nor animals. 

With this in mind, we decided to evaluate the dietary intake of sulfur (as sulfur amino acids) in a random population and perform sulfur balance studies in a limited number of human volunteers. Initially, this was done to try and gain some information on the possible mode of action of a variety of sulfur-containing compounds (chondroitin sulfate, glucosamine sulfate, and others) used as dietary supplements to treat diseases of the joints. 

Out of this study came information that suggested that a significant proportion of the population that included disproportionally the aged, may not be receiving sufficient sulfur and that these dietary supplements, were very likely exhibiting their pharmacological actions by supplying inorganic sulfur.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute

Garlic is unique because of its high sulfur content. In addition to sulfur, garlic also contains arginine, oligosaccharides, flavonoids, and selenium, all of which may be beneficial to health. Protective effects from garlic may arise from its antibacterial properties or from its ability to block the formation of cancer-causing substances, halt the activation of cancer-causing substances, enhance DNA repair, reduce cell proliferation, or induce cell death.

Department of Dermatology and Cutaneous Surgery, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, Miami, FL, USA.

Sulfur, used for acne since the time of Cleopatra, is useful as a drying and antibacterial agent. It is available in washes, leave-on lotions, creams, foam formulations, and also as prescription and non-prescription masks. 

Sulfur can be useful when treating patients who may also have rosacea and/or seborrheic dermatitis, as these conditions can also respond to this medication. Sodium sulfacetamide is often combined with sulfur and has anti-inflammatory properties. When used alone, it can also treat acne and is marketed for sensitive skin acne patients.

Department of Surgical Oncology, Roswell Park Cancer Institute, Buffalo, NY 14263.

Several organoselenium compounds have been shown to have powerful anticarcinogenic activity. In view of certain similarities between selenium and sulfur biochemistry, we have evaluated the chemopreventive efficacy of three pairs of analogs using the 7,12-dimethylbenz[a]anthracene (DMBA)-induced mammary tumor model in rats. 

The compounds tested were selenocystamine/cysteamine, Semethylselenocysteine/S-methylcysteine, selenobetaine/sulfobetaine. In the first study, each agent was added to the basal AIN-76A diet and was given before and continued after DMBA treatment until the end. All three selenium compounds were active; a 50% inhibition was achieved at approximately 25 x 10(-6) mol/kg with Se-methylselenocysteine and selenobetaine and at approximately 40 x 10(-6) mol/kg with selenocysteine. 

In the sulfur series, only cysteamine and S-methyl cysteine produced anticancer activity, and the levels required for comparable responses were 500- to 750-fold higher compared to the corresponding selenium analogs. Sulfobetaine was inactive even when present at near maximally tolerated levels.

In the second study, Se-methyl selenocysteine and S-methyl cysteine were chosen for further examination during the initiation and post-initiation phases of mammary carcinogenesis. Se-Methylselenocysteine was effective when it was given either before or after DMBA administration. 

In contrast, S-methyl cysteine was effective only after DMBA treatment. Thus, compared to the sulfur structural analogs, selenium compounds are much more active in cancer protection and may have a multi-modal mechanism in preventing cellular transformation as well as in delaying or inhibiting the expression of malignancy after carcinogen exposure.


(a) Ammonium sulfate ((NH4)2SO4, CAS Reg. No. 7783-20-2) occurs naturally and consists of colorless or white, odorless crystals or granules. It is prepared by the neutralization of sulfuric acid with ammonium hydroxide. (b) The ingredient meets the specifications of the “Food Chemicals Codex,” 3d Ed. (1981), pp. 22-23, which is incorporated by reference. 

Copies may be obtained from the National Academy Press, 2101 Constitution Ave. NW., Washington, DC 20418, or maybe examined at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). For information on the availability of this material at NARA, call 202-741-6030, or go to 

(c) The ingredient is used as a dough strengthener as defined in 170.3(o)(6) of this chapter, firming agent as defined in 170.3(o)(10) of this chapter, and processing aid as defined in 170.3(o)(24) of this chapter. (d) The ingredient is used in food at levels not to exceed good manufacturing practice in accordance with 184.1(b)(1). 

Current good manufacturing practice results in a maximum level, as served, of 0.15 percent for baked goods as defined in 170.3(n)(1) of this chapter and 0.1 percent for gelatins and puddings as defined in 170.1(n)(22) of this chapter. (e) Prior sanctions for this ingredient different from the uses established in this section do not exist or have been waived. [45 FR 6086, Jan. 25, 1980; 45 FR 16469, Mar. 14, 1980, as amended at 49 FR 5611, Feb. 14, 1984]

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