Eat More Sulfur

Recently by Mark Sisson: What To Eat on an Upset Stomach

“Be sure to eat your sulfur.”

When’s the last time someone told you that? Except for the Wahls talk, probably never. My mother certainly didn’t.

Few people even know much about sulfur besides the whole rotten egg, fire and brimstone thing. It’s a mineral with a role in our physiology, but it doesn’t showboat like the obscenely corporeal calcium, forming bones and teeth that you can literally feel and see. It won’t immediately soothe your restless muscles or put you right to sleep, like magnesium. Unlike zinc, it doesn’t figure prominently in the production of a sexy hormone like testosterone. And though you can take iodine and get an instant reaction from your thyroid, taking sulfur doesn’t produce anything tangible. In short, sulfur lurks in the background and keeps a low profile.

So why does Terry Wahls promote the consumption of three cups of sulfur-rich vegetables every day?

Before we get to that, let’s define what we’re discussing here. What exactly qualifies as a sulfur-rich vegetable? Any and all fibrous non-leafy (although some have leaves, they’re never the culinary focus) usually-green vegetables that steam well and emit a distinctive, offensive-to-some odor probably contain considerable amounts of sulfur and can be called “sulfur-rich”:

  • Brassicas — cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, and related vegetables.
  • Alliums — onions, shallots, garlic, leeks.
  • Lots of edible stalks, lovely smells if you cook it wrong, and a tendency to go well with lemon butter. That sort of thing.

Back to Wahls’ recommendation to eat more sulfur. What’s the justification for it?

Well, by weight, sulfur is one of the most abundant mineral elements in the human body, coming in at around 140 grams for the average person. And as any regular reader of this blog should know, you don’t get to be an abundant mineral in human physiology by accident. Nope: sulfur is involved in hundreds of physiological processes. Let’s explore some of the big ones:

Sulfur is required for the synthesis of glutathione, one of our premier endogenous antioxidants. I’ve talked a bit about glutathione before. It’s one of the good ones.

Sulfur, in the form of disulfide bonds, provides strength and resiliency to hair, feathers, and feathered hair.

Sulfur is required for taurine synthesis. Taurine is essential for proper functioning of the cardiovascular system, our muscles, and the central nervous system.

Sulfur binds the two chains of amino acids that form insulin. It may seem like we bag on insulin a lot, but it’s absolutely necessary for life.

Sulfur is found in methionine, an essential amino acid (think meat, eggs, cheese), and in cysteine, a “non-essential” amino acid (think pork, poultry, eggs, milk).

But wait a minute. If sulfur can be found in all the animal foods we’re already eating — beef, chicken, eggs, pork, dairy — what’s the point of eating all those sulfur-rich vegetables?

There are two reasons, I think, for focusing on “sulfur-rich” vegetables. First, it’s helpful to group things. We’ve got the leafy greens, we’ve got the brightly colored produce (more on this next week), and we’ve got the sulfurs. We want to eat things from all three categories, and making the latter a separate group ensures that we won’t “overdose” on spinach. It’s just a neat, slick way to get the pro-vegetable message across and increase variety of intake. Second, and most importantly, sulfur-rich vegetation tends to come with extremely potent organosulfur compounds that offer a lot of benefit to those who eat them. Animal sources may contain plenty of sulfur-rich amino acids, which we undoubtedly require, but they don’t contain the organosulfur compounds.

Let’s explore them and go over a few of their potential benefits.

Alliums and Their Allyl Sulfur Compounds

Garlic, onions, shallots, and leeks all contain various organosulfur compounds, some of which show major potential.

Garlic-derived organosulfur compounds have shown promise as anti-cancer operatives in in vitro studies.

Various garlic sulfides protected mice from peroxidative damage and increased glutathione activity in the liver. The garlic sulfides were delivered via corn oil, but I would recommend garlic butter if you’re looking for a fatty vessel.

When cooking meat, using an onion and garlic-based marinade reduced the formation of heterocyclic amines (a carcinogenic compound).

Onion-derived sulfur compounds improved the glucose tolerance of diabetic rats (but garlic-derived compounds did not).

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