by August Hurtel
I live in Shreveport, Louisiana and work in the interlibrary loans department at Shreve Memorial library. I am 39 years old.
I believe, due to experiences I will expand upon below, that excess sulfur compounds, especially sulfites, may contribute to and even cause irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). If you have IBS, you can try to verify this in a few ways.
1) Try molybdenum. I take Carlson Lab’s Moly-B 500 mcg tablets (one tablet/day).
2) Avoid foods and supplements high in sulfur.
3) If you have already purchased the services of 23&me or want to, you can look at this thread in the forums — “Reactions to food containing sulfites, sulfur dioxide, bisulfite, metabisulfite. SUOX gene” — and see if you have the same polymorphisms, though if you just do the first two, you’ll be able to guess.
The woman who started that thread at 23&me goes by the name Red Ringlets. She asked if anyone with four polymorphisms involved in sulfur processing experience reactions to sulfur compounds commonly added to foods as preservatives and/or for antibacterial purposes. I have three of these polymorphisms. I knew I was allergic to certain medicines, but I had not thought about the effect of sulfur coming from my food and supplements largely because I associated reactions to sulfur with hives and headaches.
Several years ago once the appetite suppression the Shangri-La diet kicked in, I adopted what most would consider a paleo template for my diet. This means I generally avoid grains, legumes, and dairy with caveats (like rice, now that I work out, and butter because it is animal fat and therefore good according to evolutionary thinking). Additionally a substantial amount of the meat that I buy comes from conventional sources.
Despite not being technically paleo, I enjoyed coffee, chocolate, and red wine, which are all high in sulfur. Sulfur is also added to various coconut products, shrimp, fish, dried fruit — many products a person trying to eat paleo might eat. I ate them. And I would have gastrointestinal distress that I could not explain despite getting leaner.
In the summer of 2013 after a few social functions that served grilled hamburgers, grilled shrimp, and other summer party foods a paleo dieter might think would be okay, I went to the emergency room. I had a serious pain where my appendix should be. Sometimes the pain would get worse after eating, and I would often get diarrhea. I thought I had appendicitis, but the doctors found nothing wrong. They took regular X-rays and did blood tests, and came back and said they found nothing. I got really angry about that, so they ordered a CT scan. The CT scan also showed nothing. They told me I had IBS because they had gone through a list of other things it might be and eliminated all of them.
When I went to the emergency room, I also inadvertently took with me a large amount of sulfur. I had a couple of 90% Lindt bars with me. My chocolate intake had risen during that time, too. I had stuff to do, places to go — and an excuse to treat chocolate like a food group.
I was aware, from reading on the internet, of FODMAPs, which are osmotic carbohydrates that draw water into the gut, causing gas, bloating, cramping and diarrhea. They seemed a likely culprit because these were the symptoms I experienced. Following a low FODMAP diet seemed to help, but not perfectly so.
There is some overlap between the two lists of foods to avoid (high sulfur and high FODMAP), so avoiding FODMAPs might have helped because it made me avoid sulfur. It also made it possible for me to have days where I didn’t eat any FODMAP foods but I would eat something like shrimp and then I’d have symptoms despite not eating any FODMAPs. So, looking back on it, I think of attending a wedding, eating nothing but shrimp, and drinking a little bit of red wine, and then having IBS problems and not understanding why because it doesn’t fit in well with the FODMAP story. I think FODMAPs are problematic in a gut that has already been compromised, but FODMAPs are not evolutionarily novel, and thus are unlikely to be the original cause of the problem.
Since it was summer and I just gotten through that ER experience, I stopped eating a lot of fruits, chocolate, wine, etc. One of the things that figures largely for me as a source of sulfur during this time though is shrimp. I kept thinking it was a safe food to eat, and didn’t realize until later it was a source of sulfur. Additionally, I was taking several supplements that contained sulfur: gelatin, biotin, glutathione, NAC, ALA, MSM. I had gotten into the habit of trying different supplements since 2010 because of a neuralgia that neither doctors nor dentists could explain. Though I was not taking all of them at once, I did supplement enough to assume I kept my sulfur level high throughout this time period.
I noticed the thread Red Ringlets posted at 23&me in August of 2013. In October I asked whether or not sulfur could cause a dehydrating effect. I asked this because I’ve noticed wine can take more water out of me than other drinks containing alcohol do. I didn’t get an answer to that question, but I began to explore some of the links people had put into the thread. I read through this site: www.learningtarget.com. I found the following page particularly helpful because it mentioned that molybdenum is a vital part of the sulfite oxidase enzyme: Vitamins and Supplements for Sulfite Problems.
I still had not made a connection between sulfur and irritable bowel syndrome, but I decided to supplement with fucoidan, which is a sulfated polysaccharide found in some seaweeds. I thought it would help my gut, but it caused diarrhea. It was as if I had decided to supplement with cholera. The effect was large and obvious enough for me to realize it was probably the supplement I had just taken. Once I accepted that, I put together what I had learned from the 23&me thread.
Now, in retrospect, I think fucoidan may have caused diarrhea for completely different reasons. I learned in my 23&me health report that I am norovirus resistant, and I have subsequently read that this has something to do with my ability (or inability) to make fucose. I can’t remember where I read this, but it made me think fucoidan could have destabilized my gut flora for reasons unrelated to its sulfur content.
Whatever the reason for the extreme reaction to fucoidan, I decided the beneficial reaction to molybdenum meant that I had a genetically limited capacity to deal with all the extra sulfur in my food and supplements. I threw out my high sulfur supplements and tried to stick to low sulfur foods. Within about two weeks I started having normal bowel movements. This was better than what I was achieving before the entire fucoidan fiasco. I had migrated to a diet of rice and fish which helped me approximate normalcy, but any time I tried to have any variety in my diet, I would run into problems. By avoiding sulfur, I was able to eat a larger variety of foods without incident.
Eventually I found if I was very careful, I could eat small amounts of high sulfur foods, but this is hit or miss because I can’t reliably gauge what the potential dose is, nor is it always clear whether a food has sulfur in it. I still supplement with molybdenum but I think the long term strategy here is both molybdenum and at least avoiding high sulfite foods because my genetics suggest it is doubtful I am going to be able to process as many sulfites as other people do regardless of how much molybdenum I have.
As I mentioned before, I think once the gut is compromised, many things become irritants. Removing excess sulfur has increased my health a lot, but I suspect I need to improve gut flora, and possibly heal some tissue damage. The doctors may not be able to see it, but I still have residual pain in the region where my appendix is.