Sulfur is a nutrient that has anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and antioxidant effects, which is why veggies that are high in this mineral — such as onions, broccoli and cabbage — are some of the best foods for your joints and immune system.
What Is Sulfur?
Sulfur is a nonmetallic chemical element. It’s also the third most abundant mineral in the human body next to calcium and phosphorus.
Our bodies can’t make it on their own, so we must acquire this mineral from our diets, including from both plant- and animal-derived food sources, as well as from drinking water that comes from certain sources.
The type of sulfur we get from from drinking water is called inorganic sulfate. There are also sulfur-containing compounds found in many foods, which are called organosulfur compounds.
Why do we need sulfur? Within the human body, functions of sulfur include:
- Protecting against cellular damage and oxidative stress
- Helping with synthesis of antioxidants
- Building and repairing DNA
- Maintaining nitrogen balance
- Supporting immune function
- Controlling inflammation
- Inhibiting certain harmful bacteria
Foods High in Sulfur
You’ll find sulfur in a wide variety of foods, including plant-based and animal foods. It’s present in varying amounts in:
Studies have found that most people get their highest intake of dietary sulphur from foods that provide two amino acids: methionine and cysteine (organosulfur compounds). These are found in foods that provide protein, such as seafood, meat, legumes, milk and eggs.
Other food groups that provide a high percentage of sulfur in people’s diets are alliaceous and cruciferous vegetables, which include veggies like onions, garlic, broccoli, cauliflower and others. One study found that these two groups of vegetables contributed up to 42% of total sulphur intake among sampled diets.
What fruits are high in sulfur, and which vegetables have the most sulfur?
Below is a list of the top sulfur-rich foods:
- Organ meats
- Crustaceans/seafood (like crab, lobster, shrimp and scallops)
- Poultry (chicken and turkey)
- Dairy products (cheese, milk, yogurt, kefir, etc.)
- Brussel sprouts
- Sesame seeds
- Sunflower seeds
- Kidney beans
Here’s more about what we know regarding the benefits associated with foods high in sulfur and higher intake of this mineral:
1. Help Fight Inflammation and Joint Pain
Sulfur foods, such as garlic and onions, are thought to have anti-inflammatory effects. This means they can reduce chronic inflammation that contributes to pain along with a range of chronic diseases.
Consumption of sulfur foods may help decrease joint and muscle pain. That is why the compound called methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), which is a sulfur-containing compound found in plant- and animal-based foods, is added to dietary supplements intended to lower joint pain.
2. Support Cardiovascular Function
A diet that includes sulfur dioxide from foods, especially from nutrient-rich foods like allium and cruciferous vegetables, may help lower one’s risk of developing heart disease.
Some sulfur-rich foods, such as broccoli and cauliflower, contain high levels of beneficial compounds called glucosinolates that seem to offer protection against cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes and some neurodegenerative diseases.
3. Have Antimicrobial Properties
Sulfur and its derivatives naturally have some antimicrobial effects due to their ability to inhibit growth of harmful bacteria.
This explains why topical treatments are sometimes used by dermatological to manage skin conditions, including acne, dandruff, rosacea and warts.
Glucosinolates found in cruciferous vegetables also have antimicrobial effects, especially in the digestive system, and the ability to enhance detoxification. They have been shown to decrease proliferation of bacterial and other microbes that can damage the intestines and colon.
4. May Help Defend Against Cancer
A number of sulfur-rich foods, especially those in the cruciferous and allium plant families, contain antioxidants and other compounds that have demonstrated anti-cancer effects.
Allium and cruciferous vegetables, both concentrated with organosulfur compounds, have been shown in some studies to help stop growth of certain cancer cells, including those that cause breast, prostate, gastrointestinal and lung cancer.
There’s also evidence that MSM not only has immune-supporting and anti-inflammatory effects, but also antioxidant properties that can lower risk for certain cancers, such as colon, gastrointestinal, and liver cancers.
5. Have Antioxidant Effects
Sulfur plays a role in the synthesis of glutathione, considered to be one of the most powerful antioxidants. Increased glutathione enzyme activity, which can happen when you consume a diet high in sulfur, helps fight inflammation and oxidative stress that lead to symptoms associated with aging and certain chronic diseases.
For example, glutathione is thought to help lower the risk of certain neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and Parkinson’s disease, because it helps defend brain cells against damage and promotes clearance of amyloid-beta plaque buildup in the brain, which is associated with cognitive decline.
Risks and Side Effects
Sulfur from natural food sources is usually very safe to consume and beneficial. However, you may consume too much if you take sulfur-containing supplements or drink too much water containing this mineral.
What does too much sulfur do to the body?
High intake of sulfur supplements, such as MSM, or sulfur water may cause mild side effects for some people, including indigestion, upset stomach, diarrhea/loose stools, and skin and eye irritation.
It’s also not suitable for people taking blood-thinner medications due to potential side effects affecting the heart and cardiovascular system that may occur. If you’re pregnant, you’ll want to speak with a doctor before taking sulfur supplements.
Certain people can also be sensitive to the effects of this mineral, especially those with inflammatory bowel disease. A diet rich in sulfur, particularly from animal products, may potentially worsen GI issues in people with impaired gut function due to how it affects bacteria in the gut.
According to some research, high amounts of sulfur obtained from an animal-based diet pattern also tend to be low in fiber, which can negatively shift ratios of microbiota in the gut and increase protein fermentation. This may have certain damaging effects.
How can I reduce sulphur in my body?
It’s unlikely that your health will suffer from eating foods with sulfur, but there are people who are sensitive to sulfite preservatives (derived from sulfur) that are added to foods and beverages.
It remains up for debate how common this is, but it’s estimated about 1% of adults (1 in 100) are negatively affected by sulfites. If you suspect they are causing you problems, avoid products like:
- wine with added sulfites
- pickled foods
- bottled juices
- most condiments
- canned and frozen foods
How to Add to Diet (Plus Dosage)
As you can see from the list of sulfur-rich foods above, there are plenty of options for adding more of this mineral to your diet.
Whether you’re a plant-based eater or an omnivore, you can increase your intake of this essential mineral by eating a balanced diet that includes a variety of food groups, especially foods high in protein, allium vegetables and cruciferous vegetables.
It’s believed that sulfur and other beneficial compounds found in veggies like broccoli, onions and garlic are most available when these foods are cooked. Try steaming broccoli and similar veggies for several minutes or sautéing garlic and onions,to helps maximize the bioavailability of sulfur-containing compounds.
There are currently no recommended daily intakes (official guidelines) for sulphur.
One study found that, on average, people consumed about 950 milligrams of sulfur per day (with a range of 630 to 1,270 milligrams) from diets containing a variety of foods, especially green veggies, onions, garlic and protein foods.
If you’re using MSM supplements to improve your health, a standard dosage recommendation is about 500 milligrams of MSM per day, taken two to three times daily. Other reports show that up to three to six grams of MSM daily (divided into three doses normally) seems to be safe and well-tolerated.
- Foods high in sulfur include those in these food groups:
- Allium vegetables: garlic, leeks, onions, scallions, and shallots
- Cruciferous vegetables: arugula, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, and radishes
- Legumes: chickpeas, kidney beans, lentils, and peas
- Meat and seafood: chicken, crab, lobster, scallops, and organ meats
- Dairy products: milk, yogurt, parmesan cheese, and cheddar cheese
- Nuts and seeds: almonds, walnuts, sunflower seeds
- Benefits of consuming more foods high in sulfur include protection against inflammation, joint pain, oxidative stress and impaired immune function.
- There is no recommended daily allowance for sulfur, but because it’s found in a variety of animal and plant foods, the best way to get enough is to eat a varied, balanced diet.