Low Sulfur Diet: How It Supports Your Gut Health

low sulfur diet: sweet potato fries

If you’ve been experiencing brain fog and excessive gas that smells like rotten eggs, you may have a sulfur intolerance. 

There is currently little information available when it comes to testing for and treating the symptoms of sulfur sensitivity, but following a low sulfur diet is typically the first step in regulating sulfur levels in your body.

In this article, we’ll explain what a low sulfur diet is and discuss additional treatment options. We’ll also take a look at the link between gut health and the symptoms of high sulfur levels.

What Is Sulfur Intolerance?

Under certain conditions, sulfur can build up in your body and cause symptoms, leading to intolerance to sulfur-rich foods.

The sulfur-rich amino acid methionine is high in sulfur-rich foods and beverages like red meat, dairy products, coffee, and black tea. It’s also beneficial to your immune system and liver [1].

A mutation of the CBS gene (cystathionine beta-synthase), or other conditions, such as hydrogen sulfide SIBO, a high sulfur diet, sulfur-compound supplements, or well water high in sulfur, can affect sulfur metabolism and lead to sulfur build-up in your body.

This genetic abnormality — combined with hydrogen sulfide SIBO, a high sulfur diet, sulfur-compound supplements, or well-water with high sulfur content — can cause sulfur to build-up in your body.

Sulfur Intolerance Symptoms

Sulfur buildup can result in brain fog, impairing your ability to think clearly and focus. Another reaction to sulfur intolerance is unpleasant smells, such as ammonia in your urine or rotten eggs when you pass gas. 

Other symptoms of sulfur intolerance may be:

  • Bloating and abdominal pain
  • Hives, itching, and flushed skin
  • Stiff and swollen joints
  • Difficulty breathing or asthma  
  • Puffiness, swelling, and water-weight gain

Symptoms of sulfur intolerance often overlap with other health conditions, including histamine intolerance and diabetes. For a sound diagnosis of your symptoms, get checked out by your doctor.

What Is a Low Sulfur Diet?

Sulfur is the third-most common mineral element found in your body and is fundamental for building healthy cells [2]. 

Sulfur is present in two amino acids that contribute to protein production: methionine and cysteine. These sulfur amino acids are found in high-protein foods.

A low sulfur diet reduces or eliminates sources of dietary sulfur that may be contributing to health issues associated with sulfur intolerance. High sulfur foods include animal products like meat and dairy, cruciferous vegetables, and dried fruits.

Low Sulfur Diet Rules

low sulfur diet: vegetables around letter blocks that spell sulfur

One way to reduce the amount of dietary sulfur in the body is to adopt a low protein, low sulfur diet.

A low sulfur diet is free of:

  • Most animal proteins such as meat and dairy
  • Sulfur-containing additives and preservatives
  • Sulfur-compound supplements 

Lots of plants and herbs have varying levels of sulfur due to the type of soil and fertilizer used. However, dried fruit, allium vegetables like garlic and onion, and cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage and kale are naturally sulfur-rich.

Sulfites are preservatives made of sulfur and oxygen. They’re present in many foods, beverages, and medications. Sulfur intolerance, whether to sulfites or other sources, can trigger an inflammatory response.

Decrease your sulfur levels by choosing foods with lower amounts of sulfur:

  • Most fresh fruits and select vegetables
  • Oils, seeds, and macadamia nuts
  • Chicken and turkey dark meat
  • Most herbs and spices
  • White rice
  • Herbal tea and bottled water

Foods high in sulfur include:

  • Dried fruits
  • Papayas and pineapples
  • Veggies such as kale, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and radishes [3]
  • Animal protein such as red meat, dairy products, and eggs
  • Herbs and spices such as mustard, cilantro, and garlic powder
  • Grains and legumes such as wheat and lentils
  • Coconut oil
  • Tea, coffee, alcohol
  • Well water, which often has high levels of sulfur [4]

Find a full list of foods allowed on a low sulfur diet plus meal ideas.

How To Follow a Low Sulfur Diet

With an elimination diet like a low sulfur diet, it’s best to work in phases while paying close attention to how you feel after consuming meals.

Phase 1: Elimination

For one week, eliminate all sulfur-rich foods from your diet. Since this is also a low protein diet, you will be hungrier than usual. So, make sure to eat often and drink plenty of bottled or purified water.

Phase 2: Re-Introduction

If you feel better after the first week, gradually re-introduce high sulfur foods into your diet. Eat multiple servings of sulfur-rich foods for the next one to four days. If you start to feel worse upon eating high sulfur foods, resume a low sulfur diet until your symptoms subside. 

If you don’t notice any change, your symptoms are likely not being caused by sulfur intolerance.

Phase 3: Sulfur Intolerance Support

Once you’ve been diagnosed with a sulfur intolerance, speak with your physician about a supplementation and detoxification plan that will help build your sulfur tolerance over time.

Remember that any diet framework must be tailored to fit your body’s needs. For instance, low sulfur foods may still be problematic for you if you have other intolerances such as gluten. 

Expect to experiment to find what works best for you. Keep a food journal and talk to your doctor or health coach about which foods might be triggering symptoms.

Causes of Sulfur Intolerance

Woman sitting on her bed holding her stomach in pain

Sulfur-containing foods and supplements can elevate sulfur levels in patients who can’t metabolize this mineral properly. However, other internal and external factors may also be at play.

Gut Dysbiosis

Gut dysbiosis refers to an imbalance of gut bacteria and fungi. Environmental and lifestyle factors — including a poor diet, antibiotics, and physical and psychological stress — can lead to this disruption to your GI tract [5].

Sulfur-reducing bacteria (SRB) convert elemental sulfur into a gut gas called hydrogen sulfide. In moderate amounts, hydrogen sulfide can potentially reduce your risk of heart disease and lower your blood pressure [6, 7]. 

However, excess hydrogen sulfide can break down your intestine’s protective mucus barrier, leading to leaky gut [8].

Hydrogen Sulfide SIBO

Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) occurs when there are too many bacteria in the small intestine due to poor diet or complications from abdominal surgery. 

Hydrogen sulfide SIBO is an overgrowth of the bacteria that create hydrogen sulfide in your small intestine. Symptoms of this gut dysbiosis include diarrhea, belching, and frequent flatulence that smells like rotten eggs.

Hydrogen sulfide SIBO contributes to sulfur intolerance and chronic diseases. It’s not easily detected by traditional SIBO tests:

  • One meta-analysis points to high concentrations of sulfur-reducing bacteria and hydrogen sulfide as a key factor in the development of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis [9]. 
  • Other research links the presence of hydrogen sulfide in the stool to colorectal cancer [10, 11, 12, 13].
  • Current SIBO breath testing methods do not adequately measure hydrogen sulfide, although a new breath test is currently in development for this specific condition [14, 15, 16].

Sulfur-Compound Supplements

Sulfur-compound supplements can help alleviate joint pain, reduce inflammation, and boost immunity. However, they can also elevate sulfur levels in your body when taken regularly [17]. 

Supplements that may contribute to sulfur buildup include:

  • Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM)
  • Alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) 
  • Glucosamine sulfate 

A Note About Sulfa Drugs

Sulfonamides, or sulfa drugs, are antibiotics that are used to reduce the symptoms of traveler’s diarrhea, urinary tract infections, and other bacterial infections. 

Sulfa allergies are quite common. While allergic reactions may mimic the symptoms of sulfur intolerance, there is no correlation between sulfa allergies and sulfur intolerance [18, 19]. 

Other Possible Ways To Lower Sulfur Levels

Limiting your dietary intake of sulfur is the easiest way to reduce sulfur levels in your system, but there are additional measures you can take.

Mineral Supplements

Supplements that support sulfur metabolism will limit buildup and symptoms of sulfur intolerance. However, more direct research is required to prove their efficacy. Here are a few that research suggests may help:

Molybdenum

Molybdenum is an enzyme cofactor that helps you metabolize the sulfur amino acids, methionine and cysteine.

Molybdenum deficiency is rare in the United States given that this trace mineral is abundant in a typical Western diet [20]. However, environmental toxins present in pesticides and herbicides may be removing molybdenum from soil, which might be leading to a deficiency of this mineral in patients with high sulfur levels.

Limited research shows that supplemental molybdenum may aid the metabolism of sulfur amino acids and the reduction of sulfur gases [21, 22]. 

B Vitamins

The metabolism of the sulfur amino acid homocysteine requires B vitamins [23]. These B-vitamins include folate, B12, B6, and riboflavin.

Taking a regular B-vitamin supplement could help lower your homocysteine levels, which may improve your bone and heart health [24, 25]. 

Probiotics

Research suggests probiotics are a way to help balance your gut microbiota and prevent the overgrowth of bacteria that cause SIBO and leaky gut [26, 27, 28, 29].

Desulfovibrio and Bilophila are two key bacteria that produce hydrogen sulfide. Currently, further research is warranted to determine which probiotic strains are most effective in limiting the bacteria that create hydrogen sulfide SIBO [30].  

Epsom Salt Baths

Epsom salt contains magnesium sulfate, which can help break down sulfur amino acids [31, 32]. 

Soaking in a warm bath with 2-4 cups of Epsom salts for at least 30 minutes may help your body regulate its sulfur levels. However, more studies are required on the benefits of transdermal Epsom absorption.

Is a Low Sulfur Diet Right for You?

Right now, there is not much research available regarding sulfur intolerance. Effective testing for hydrogen sulfide SIBO is still in an early stage, and many symptoms of sulfur intolerance overlap with other digestive issues. A low sulfur diet may help improve your condition, but you should always speak with your doctor or health coach before adopting any elimination diet. 

If you suspect that your symptoms may be related to high sulfur levels in your body, it’s best to make an appointment with AustinFM’s experienced team of functional medicine practitioners.  They can provide you with a diagnosis and a treatment plan that will help you feel like yourself again. 

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