Sulfur-containing vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts offer numerous health benefits, but can trigger inflammatory symptoms in people with dietary sulfur sensitivity.
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In my clinical practice, I see clients with all sorts of food sensitivities. However, by far the most challenging food sensitivity I’ve run into is dietary sulfur sensitivity. Dietary sulfur is found in cruciferous vegetables, Allium family vegetables, animal proteins, and legumes, just to name a few sources. It is crucial for supporting glutathione production and facilitating phase II liver detoxification, among many other processes. However, in certain people, the consumption of sulfur-containing foods triggers disconcerting symptoms, rather than supporting well being. Read on to learn about dietary sulfur sensitivity and how a short-term low-sulfur diet may be beneficial for easing symptoms.
What Causes Dietary Sulfur Sensitivity?
There is basically no research on dietary sulfur sensitivity in the scientific literature, other than the few papers on sensitivity to sulfites, sulfur compounds added to wine and many processed foods. The dearth of research on dietary sulfur sensitivity does a disservice to the growing number of people who appear to suffer from this food intolerance. In my own recovery from Lyme disease and chronic illness, I experienced dietary sulfur sensitivity. I thought I was going crazy when I began to experience adverse reactions to broccoli, cauliflower, and other “healthy” sulfur-containing foods. I didn’t realize that while these foods are indeed extremely healthy for most people, they can trigger an inflammatory cascade in sensitive individuals.
Since there is essentially no research on dietary sulfur sensitivity, we are left to hypothesize about the potential underlying causes of this condition. In my client population, I’ve observed that SIBO, general gut dysbiosis other than SIBO, chronic infections such as Lyme disease, and mast cell activation disorder often precede the onset of dietary sulfur sensitivity. This may be because gut bacteria play important roles in intestinal sulfur metabolism and an excess hydrogen sulfide, a type of gas produced by sulfate-reducing gut bacteria, has both localized (in the gut) and systemic inflammatory effects on the body. (1, 2) An impaired detoxification capacity often accompanies gut dysbiosis and may further exacerbate dietary sulfur sensitivity. In these people, a temporary low-sulfur diet can quench inflammation and help them make headway in healing the underlying causes of their chronic conditions.
Symptoms of Dietary Sulfur Sensitivity
These are the sulfur sensitivity symptoms I’ve observed in myself and my clients. This is by no means a definitive list.
Joint stiffness and swelling, particularly the wrists
Puffiness and swelling around the eyes; feelings of pressure behind the eyes
Water weight gain/edema of approximately 10-15 lbs; the weight may be quickly shed when sulfur-containing foods are removed (if the edema is indeed caused by dietary sulfur sensitivity)
Facial flushing and rashes
Constipation and gut dysfunction
The Low-Sulfur Diet
A temporary low-sulfur diet can alleviate the inflammatory symptoms associated with dietary sulfur sensitivity. However, due to its highly restrictive nature and omission of many healthy foods, it is intended to be used short-term while you and your healthcare provider work on resolving the underlying causes of the sensitivity.
The low-sulfur diet restricts plant foods that contain significant amounts of sulfur and proteins rich in sulfur-containing amino acids. If sulfur sensitivity is contributing to your health issues, then the low-sulfur diet should produce a notable reduction in symptoms within a week. Here are the general guidelines for the diet:
Avoid: Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, kale, rutabaga, arugula, brussels sprouts, radishes), vegetables from the Allium family (garlic, onion, scapes), legumes (chickpeas, lentils, etc.), whey protein, collagen, gelatin, eggs.
Limit: Animal protein (beef, poultry, fish). I recommend having a small serving of protein (4 ounces) at each meal to balance your blood sugar and provide crucial nutrients found only in animal foods such as heme iron and vitamin B12.
Low-sulfur vegetables: Artichoke, bamboo shoots, beets, bell pepper, carrots, cassava, celery, cucumber, eggplant, fennel, lettuce, mushrooms, white potatoes, plantains, squash, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, zucchini
Fruits: Avocado, apple, banana, berries, cherries, citrus fruits, unsulfured dried fruits, grapes, kiwi, grapefruit, mango, melon, nectarines, passion fruit, peaches, pears, persimmon, plums
Healthy fats: Olive oil, butter, ghee, coconut oil (may be triggering for some people), all seeds, fresh or soaked/sprouted nuts may be tolerated
Grains*: Organic white rice, white rice pasta
A note on grains: While grains are technically low in sulfur, the possibility of gut dysbiosis triggering sulfur sensitivity raises the question of whether grains are an ideal food for people with the sensitivity, given their poor digestibility and high propensity for worsening gut symptoms in compromised people. I find plain white rice to be well-tolerated because most the potentially irritating components – phytates and lectins – have been removed.
You’ll also want to avoid the following sulfur-containing supplements:
Alpha lipoic acid
I recommend filtering your drinking water to remove extraneous sulfur. I personally use a Berkey filter – have been for the past ten years! – and recommend it to all my clients.
If you are in the midst of a sulfur sensitivity crisis, experiencing extreme inflammation and discomfort associated with the consumption of too much sulfur-containing food or supplements, try the following strategies for quenching the inflammation (alongside the low-sulfur diet):
Take a bath with Ancient Minerals Magnesium Bath Flakes – Be sure to choose their bath salts free of MSM, as MSM is a sulfurous compound!
Apply magnesium lotion such as Ancient Minerals Magnesium Chloride Lotion
Take a binding agent such as Bulletproof Coconut Charcoal – Charcoal is an agent that helps bind endotoxin, mycotoxins, and other inflammatory compounds in the gastrointestinal tract that may be contributing to overall inflammation.
Take calcium-d-glucarate – I suspect that the body eliminates sulfurous compounds at least partly through a biochemical process called glucuronidation. You can support your natural endogenous glucuronidation processes with a supplement called calcium-d-glucarate. I used to recommend Thorne Calcium-d-Glucarate but it has since been discontinued, so I am now recommending Pure Encapsulations Calcium-d-Glucarate. Be careful not to purchase a product that also contains DIM, as this is a sulfurous compound that is often paired with calcium-d-glucarate to support hormone balance.
Eat fermentable fibers: If dietary sulfur sensitivity is caused by an accumulation of hydrogen sulfide gas in the intestine, then suppression of hydrogen sulfide gas production may be beneficial for mitigating symptoms. The consumption of fermentable fibers, including resistant starch and fructooligosaccharides (FOS) have been found to suppress intestinal hydrogen sulfide production. (3) Cooked and cooled white rice, allowed on the low-sulfur diet, it an excellent source of resistant starch. Green banana flour, tigernut flour, and cooked and cooled plantains are also good sources of resistant starch.
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