Why Foods High in Sulfur Can Be Unhealthy

By: Michael Lam, MD, MPH


Foods High in Sulfur may have unexpected effectsYour neuroendocrine system includes your adrenal glands. They secrete over fifty hormones. Your most important anti-stress hormone is cortisol. When the mind and body experience prolonged severe stress, the adrenal glands can become overworked and cease to function properly. This condition is commonly referred to as adrenal fatigue. To successfully treat this serious condition, it is necessary to view the problem from a NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) perspective, which focuses not on a single organ, but on how the body’s multiple systems work together to combat stress. Foods high in sulfur are one of the lesser known components that affect adrenal health and recovery.

In a world of increasing specialization, it can be easy to lose sight of the bigger picture, even when it comes to your own health. If auto mechanics specialize in only one part, the way many health care providers specialize in only one body part, one mechanic would know everything about carburetors, another would know everything about oil pumps, but neither would understand how both parts simultaneously affect the overall performance of the vehicle. This would not be very effective, yet specialization within the healthcare system has moved towards compartmentalization of each organ system, often forgetting about how it works with the whole body.

Your modern life is full of stressors and how you deal with stress is affected by a complex combination of physical and environmental factors. Diet, nutrition, exercise, and exposure to toxins, or emotional trauma, can all affect your stress levels. In addition, your genetic predispositions and beliefs affect each of your physiological systems. Attitudes also affect how you deal with stress.

Some of the most common symptoms of adrenal fatigue are low blood pressure, insomnia, and fatigue. Other symptoms include anxiety, panic attacks, heart palpitations, reactive hypoglycemia, brain fog, and low libido, all of which adversely affect the quality of life. Hypersensitivity to medications and natural supplements containing forms of sulfur is also a common symptom.

Inflammation and Food Sensitivities

There is a link between adrenal exhaustion and an increase in food sensitivities. Many of your body’s neurotransmitters are made in the GI tract, which is why the gut is sometimes called the second brain. The gut, the microbiome, and the immune system regulate the inflammatory circuit of the NEM stress response system. Stress, infection, toxins, and antibiotics damage cells in the gut and increase permeability and leakage, allowing proteins, sugars, and toxins to pass through the gut wall and into the bloodstream. This causes chronic inflammation in the bowels and the rest of the body. The inflammation also extends to the brain, sometimes appearing as depression symptoms. As inflammation increases in the body, the threshold for any type of food to cause a reaction is lowered; and as there are so many inflammatory molecules in the body, even a little bit of inflammation can cause the dam to break and overflow. For this reason, it is very important to not only lower inflammation in your body, but also be very conscious and careful of what you put into your body.

Sensitivities to Foods High in Sulfur

An Allergic Reaction caused by Foods High in SulfurThere are different types of sulfur allergies. About 100,000 Americans have sensitivity to sulfites. The allergic reaction releases histamine into the bloodstream, which can cause rashes, hives, swelling, and rhinitis (characterized by post-nasal drip, sneezing, and itchy, watery eyes). In severe cases, a sulfite allergic reaction can cause anaphylaxis, seizures or even death. A hypersensitivity to sulfonamide develops within seven to 14 days of administering the drug. A high fever and a headache are the first symptoms, followed by the development of a maculopapular rash that begins in the trunk of the body, and spreads to the extremities.

There are many foods high in sulfur, and to determine whether symptoms are being caused by sensitivity to sulfur, experts recommend a sulfur exclusion diet. On a sulfur exclusion diet, all foods high in sulfur, along with any medications and natural supplements containing sulfites, are completely eliminated for ten days. They are then re-introduced into the diet one at a time, closely monitoring the physical reaction, to each food, over the course of several days before introducing another.

Check out this easy to understand infographic about foods low and foods high in sulfur

Foods High in Sulfur to Avoid

Vegetarians and vegans may have to temporarily eliminate some of what are considered vegetarian staples. Foods high in sulfur, in the vegetable category, include favorites like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, collard greens, bok choy, spinach, asparagus, peas, and green beans. Root vegetables, high in sulfur, include turnips and rutabagas. Vegetables customarily used to flavor dishes such as onions; shallots, chives, garlic, radishes and mustard should also be avoided. Turmeric, a commonly used spice, while not one of the foods high in sulfur, does raise the thiol level (related to sulfur molecules) of foods.

Protein based foods, high in sulfur, containing the amino acids cystine, methionine, and cysteine should be avoided. Eggs are among the highest dietary sources of sulfur. Dairy products of any kinds should be avoided for their sulfur content. Animal proteins also provide a small amount of sulfur but are tolerable if you are on a low sulfur diet. For vegans, it is best to avoid beans of any kind, including lentils, peanuts, bean curd and bean sprouts. Soy products, including tofu, tempeh, soymilk and cheeses are also foods high in sulfur.

Foods high in sulfur, in the carbohydrate category, include quinoa, whey, buckwheat, and yeast extract. Most difficult for some people is cutting out items that are traditionally used for quick bursts of energy, like coffee, chocolate, and even carob. All are foods high in sulfur. Most fruits, with the exception of papaya and pineapple, are low in sulfur.

The list of natural supplements to avoid during the ten day exclusion period includes alpha lipoic acid, glutathione, MSM, DMSO, N-Acetyl Cysteine, L-methionine, L-cysteine, L-taurine, glucosamine, L-glycine, SAMe, methylcobalamine, methyl-folate, Betaine, HCL, choline and B-complex. Epsom salt baths should be avoided as well.

Foods to Include

The list of proteins containing low sulfur includes most types of meats. Beef, duck, fish, chicken, shellfish, eel, pork, goose, game hen, rabbit, lamb, and turkey are all low in sulfur. Seeds, including sunflower, linseeds, pumpkin seeds and flax are also sources of protein low in sulfur. However, protein should be limited to less than 50 grams per day.

Vegetables low in sulfur include squash, artichokes, eggplant, beets, celery, corn, carrots, peppers, mushrooms, lettuce, and cucumbers.

Bulgur is an alternative to foods high in sulfurCarbohydrates low in sulfur include potatoes, yams, sweet potatoes, bulgur wheat, barley, oats, rice, and semolina. Virtually any fruit or melon, including figs, dates, and coconut is permissible during the ten-day sulfur exclusion period. Spices and seasonings, such as brown sugar, honey, butter, cinnamon, and fresh ginger root, as well as fresh herbs like basil, thyme, and rosemary are also safe to use, as are olive and sesame oils.

After abstaining for ten days, foods high in sulfur should be reintroduced into the diet one at a time while closely monitoring for any sign of inflammation for a few days before introducing another food. Through this process, many people have successfully identified the real source of their symptoms—and gained their freedom from the pain of inflammation. Your adrenal fatigue symptoms might rebalance due to the decreased amount of stress from food sensitivity, and their neuroendometabolic pathways will then regain enough stability to respond adequately to inflammation.

© Copyright 2016 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.


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Dear Dr. Lam,
 
I would like to express my gratitude for all the help you have given me concerning my adrenal issues. You know more about the adrenals than any other doctor I have worked with. I feel much more stable and I am regaining my energy. I will continue to follow your recommendations.




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5 Comments

  • randy says:

    Every other site I’ve visited says that Avacado’s are extremely high in sulfur. What is correct ?

    • Dorine Lam RDN says:

      You are correct in your observation. I have found a source that stated Avocado is 19.4mg/100g. While boiled asparagus is 50.7mg/100g, boiled brussel sprouts is 77mg/100g, boiled broccoli top is 45mg/100g. I hope this can help you to place avocado as far as it’s sulfur content.

      Dorine Lam, RDN, MS, MPH
      Registered Dietitian and Senior Holistic Nutritionist

  • Elena says:

    Wow, this is great information! I’m on the road to AFS recovery and for about a month I’ve had a hives on my face and chest that would come and go throughout the day, developed a rash on both my hands and have odd migraines at the base of my neck (my migraines are normally in the front or sides of my head). I’m sneezing constantly and my nose and eyes are leaking. I feel like I’m falling apart. I did some research and I thought maybe I could have Histamine Intolerance, so the last 4 days I eliminated all foods high in histamine. Not that I expect miracles in 4 days but I thought my flare-ups would cease. They have not. After reading this, I feel I may have a sulfur sensitivity. Onto a another elimination diet! I have a couple of questions though. Can you be tested for sulfur sensitivities by your doctor (I’m getting an allergy test panel in a couple of weeks and want to make sure sulfur is on the list)? When you say to avoid epsom salts do also mean Magnesium too? I use a Magnesium spray and I take Magnesium Citrate everyday. I wonder if those are the culprits? Thank you so much Dr. Lam for your informative and helpful articles. I look forward to them!

    • Molly says:

      I would like to know about the sulfur sensitivity test as well.

    • Dr.Lam says:

      There are many potential culprits. Magnesium spray, for example, can make things worse in some people. the best way to test for sulfur is to elminate exposure to food and sulfur type compounds. epsom salt is magnesium sulfate. For some people it is not tolerated.

      Dr Lam.