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Sulfur Deficiency In Diet, May Be The Link To The Rise Of Obesity In Men And Women

*Soroush Niknamian1 BSc, Sora Niknamian2 MSc

 1Biology Student at Islamic Azad University, Central Tehran Branch (IAUCTB)

2Graduated from KNTU Department Of Physics

[email protected], [email protected]


Obesity has become one of the main health issues in present day, and has also risen to epidemic proportions worldwide. Its epidemic is mainly associated with the adoption of a Western-style diet. More specific, these fast foods include heavily processed derivatives of corn, soybeans, rape-seed and grains, grown on highly efficient mega-farms. Sulfur depletion of soil in agricultural areas specially around the major cities,11 is  the main reason of sulfur deficiency in industrialized cities. By looking deep into the volcanic regions in the world we can observe the amount of obesity in non-volcanic areas is so higher.


Sulfur, Obesity, Epidemic, Processed foods.

Introduction And Methods

Sulfur is an interesting non-metallic element that is found mainly as part of larger compounds. It is not discussed much in nutrition books, mainly because it has not been thought to be essential—that is, sulfur deficiency does not cause any visible problems. Sulfur is the third most abundant mineral element in the body. The amino acids cysteine and methionine are used by the body to make glutathione. Excess cysteine and methionine are oxidized to sulfate by sulfite oxidase, eliminated in the urine, or stored as glutathione which can serve as a store for sulfur.13 The two sulfur-containing amino acids, methionine and cysteine, play essential physiological roles in human body. But, sulfur has been overlooked by those addressing the issues of nutritional deficiencies. One consequence of sulfur’s limbo nutritional status is that it is omitted from the long list of supplements that are commonly artificially added to popular foods like cereal.

Sulfur is found in a large number of foods, and, as a consequence, it is assumed that almost any diet would meet the minimum daily requirements. Excellent sources are eggs, onions, garlic, and leafy dark green vegetables like kale and broccoli. Meats, nuts, and seafood also contain sulfur. Methionine, an essential amino acid, is found mainly in egg whites and fish. A diet high in grains like bread and cereal is likely to be deficient in sulfur. Increasingly, whole foods such as corn and soybeans are disassembled into component parts with chemical names, and then re-assembled into heavily processed foods. Sulfur is lost along the way, and so is the awareness that this loss matters.

Sulfur depletion in the soil creates a serious deficiency for plants.1 It is estimated that humans obtain about 10% of their sulfur supply from drinking water. Especially, people who drink soft water have an increased risk of heart disease compared to people who drink hard water.2 Many possible reasons have been suggested for why this might be true, and just about every trace mineral has been considered as a possibility, But, the main reason may truly be that hard water is more likely to contain sulfur.3

I. Sulfur And The Obesity Rates

The main source of sulfur on earth is volcanic rock, mainly basalt, got out from the earth’s core in the time of volcanic eruptions. Generally, it is believed that humans first evolved in the African rift zone, a region that would have enjoyed an abundance of sulfur due to the heavy volcanic activity there.

The three principal suppliers of sulfur to the Western nations and populations are Greece, Italy and Japan. These mentioned countries also have low rates in heart disease, obesity and increased longevity. In the United States, Oregon and Hawaii, two states with significant volcanic activity, have among the lowest obesity rates in the country. By contrast, the highest obesity rates are found in the mid-west and in southern farm country, the epicenter of the modern agricultural practices (mega-farms) that lead to sulfur depletion in the soil. It should be mentioned that Among all fifty states, Oregon has the lowest childhood obesity rates.

Hawaii’s youth are faring less well than their parents, however, while Hawaii ranks as the fifth from the bottom in obesity rates, its children aged ten through seventeen weigh in at number thirteen. As Hawaiians have recently become increasingly dependent on food imports from the mainland, they have suffered accordingly with increased obesity problems.

When compared to North Americans, the Icelanders have almost half the death rate from heart disease and diabetes, significant less obesity, and a greater longevity. In fact, the average life span for Icelanders is within the longest in the world. Their high fish consumption, associated with high intake of omega-3 fatty acids, may be the main beneficial factor. Former Icelanders who move to Canada and also eat lots of fish do not also enjoy the same decreased rate of depression and heart disease.4

When we look deep into the area of Island, we can conclude that Icelanders’ good health which has been mentioned above, lies in the string of volcanoes that make up the backbone of the island, which sits atop the mid-Atlantic ridge crest. The mass exodus to Canada was due to extensive volcanic eruptions in the late 1800s, which blanketed the highly cultivated southeast region of the country. This means, that the soils in today’s time, are highly enriched in sulfur. The cabbage, beets and potatoes that are staples of the Icelandic diet are likely providing far more sulfur to Icelanders than their counterparts in the American diet.

For instance, We looked deep into the obesity of Iranian people by areas that volcanos exist. The obesity rate in the villages around Damavand, Bazman, Qal'eh Hasan Ali, Sabalan, Sahand, Taftan and specially Shahsavaran is very low and the rate in the major cities, specially Tehran, is high. The amount of pollution in the major cities also deplete the body of sulfur12.

II. Sulfur Deficiency And Obesity Relation

Sulfur has been shown to be as a healing mineral, and a sulfur deficiency in human body often leads to pain and inflammation associated with various muscle and skeletal disorders.14 Sulfur plays a role in many biological processes, one of which is metabolism. It is present in insulin, the essential hormone that promotes the utilization of sugar derived from carbohydrates for fuel in muscle and fat cells. However, our extensive literature search has led us to two mysterious molecules found in the blood stream and in many other parts of the body: vitamin D3 sulfate and cholesterol sulfate.5

Upon exposure to the sun, the skin synthesizes vitamin D3 sulfate, a form of vitamin D that, unlike un-sulfated vitamin D3, is water soluble. As a consequence, it can travel freely in the blood stream rather than encapsulated inside LDL for transport.1 The form of vitamin D that is present in both human milk6 and raw cow’s milk2 is vitamin D3 sulfate which the pasteurization process will destroy it.15

Cholesterol sulfate is also synthesized in the skin, where it forms a crucial part of the barrier that keeps out harmful bacteria and other microorganisms such as fungi.5 Cholesterol sulfate regulates the gene for a protein called profilaggrin, by interacting like a hormone with the nuclear receptor ROR-alpha. Profilaggrin is the precursor to filaggrin, which protects the skin from invasive organisms.7, 8 A deficiency in filaggrin is associated with asthma and arthritis. Therefore, cholesterol sulfate plays an important role in protection from asthma and arthritis. Like vitamin D3-sulfate, like cholesterol-sulfate is also water-soluble, and unlike cholesterol, does not have to be packaged up inside LDL for delivery to the tissues.

It has been determined that the sulfated form of vitamin D3 is strikingly ineffective for calcium transport, that is known as the primary role of vitamin D3.9 However, vitamin D3 clearly has many other positive effects and these include a role in cancer protection, increased immunity against infectious disease, and protection against heart disease that is fully established. Researchers don’t yet understand how it achieves these benefits, which have been observed empirically but remain unexplained physiologically. However, we strongly suspect it is the sulfated form of the vitamin that instantiates these benefits that is written below.

One specific feature of cholesterol-sulfate, opposing to cholesterol itself, is that it is very agile. Because of its polarity, it can pass through cell membranes freely.10 This means that cholesterol sulfate can easily enter a fat or muscle cell. Cholesterol-sulfate may be able to protect fat and muscle cells from damage due to exposure to glucose, a dangerous reducing agent, and to oxygen, a dangerous oxidizing agent. With insufficient cholesterol-sulfate, muscle and fat cells become damaged, and as a result, become glucose intolerant and then they will unable to process glucose as a fuel. This happens first to muscle cells but eventually to fat cells, as well. Fat cells become storage pockets for fats to supply fuel to the muscles, because the muscles are unable to utilize glucose as a fuel.  Fat cells also become too disabled to release their stored fats. Fatty tissue then accumulates on the body eventually.


Human activities have a major effect on the global sulfur cycle. The burning of coal, natural gas, and other fossil fuels has greatly increased the amount of S in the atmosphere and ocean and depleted the sedimentary rock sink. Without human impact sulfur would stay tied up in rocks for millions of years until it was uplifted through tectonic events and then released through erosion and weathering processes. Instead it is being drilled, pumped and burned at a steadily increasing rate. Over the most polluted areas there has been a 30-fold increase in sulfate deposition (Pham et al., 1996).

Structure of 3'-phosphoadenosine-5'-phosphosulfate, a key intermediate in the sulfur cycle.

Although the sulfur curve shows shifts between net sulfur oxidation and net sulfur reduction in the geologic past, the magnitude of the current human impact is probably unprecedented in the geologic record. Human activities greatly increase the flux of sulfur to the atmosphere, some of which is transported globally. Humans are mining coal and extracting petroleum from the Earth's crust at a rate that mobilizes 150 x 1012 gS/yr, which is more than double the rate of 100 years ago.16 The result of human impact on these processes is to increase the pool of oxidized sulfur (SO4) in the global cycle, at the expense of the storage of reduced sulfur in the Earth's crust. Therefore, human activities do not cause a major change in the global pools of S, but they do produce massive changes in the annual flux of sulfur through the atmosphere. (Schlesinger 1997).


When SO2 is emitted as an air pollutant, it forms sulfuric-acid through reactions with water in the atmosphere. Once the acid is completely dissociated in water the pH can drop to 4.3 or lower causing damage to both man-made and natural systems. Acid-rain is a broad term referring to a mixture of wet and dry deposited material from the atmosphere containing higher than normal amounts of nitric and sulfuric acids. water without any dissolved constituents, which contains no carbon dioxide, has a neutral pH of 7. Rain naturally has a slightly acidic pH of 5.6, since carbon dioxide and water in the air react together to form carbonic-acid, a very weak acid.


Modern lifestyle practices conspire to induce major deficiencies in cholesterol sulfate and vitamin D3 sulfate. We are told to avoid sun exposure and minimize dietary intake of cholesterol-containing foods. Most people world-wide consume a high-carbohydrate, low fat diet which, as we have mentioned in our article,34 leads to impaired cholesterol uptake in cells. Depletion of sulfur in our body will interfere with the metabolism of mitochondrion which is important in our fat storage or burning them as a feul. Therefore, as listed above, consuming high sulfur diet may fix this metabolical disorder and reduce the epidemic of obesity which is much of a concern in today’s world.


1. Joseph Jez, “Sulfur: a Missing Link between Soils, Crops, and Nutrition.” Agronomy Monograph #50. (2008) American Society of Agronomy, Inc.

2. T. Crawford and Margaret D. Crawford, “Prevalence and Pathological Changes of Ischaemic Heart-Disease in a Hard-water and in a Soft-water Area,” The Lancet (1967) 4 February.

3. Biorck, G., Bostrom, H., Widstrom, A. “Trace Elements and Cardiovascular Diseases” Acta Med. Scand. (1965) 178, 239.

4. Dr. Daphne Miller, The Jungle Effect, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, New York, Paperback edition, 2009.

5. Charles A. Strott and Yuko Higashi, “Cholesterol sulfate in human physiology: what’s it all about?” Journal of Lipid Research (2003) Volume 44, pp. 1268-1278.

6. Dilnawaz R. Lakdawala and Elsie M. Widdowson, “Vitamin D in Human Milk,” Lancet (1977) Volume 309, Issue 8004, 22 January, pp 167-168.

7. Sandilands A, Sutherland C, Irvine AD, McLean WH, “Filaggrin in the frontline: role in skin barrier function and disease,” J Cell Sci. (2009) May 1;122(Pt 9):1285-94.

8. S. Seneff, G. Wainwright, and L. Mascitelli, “Is the metabolic syndrome caused by a high fructose, and relatively low fat, low cholesterol diet?” Archives of Medical Science (2011), Vol. 1, pp.8-20.

9. Lorraine E. Reeve, Hector F. DeLuca, and Heinrich K. Schnoes, “Synthesis and Biological Activity of Vitamin D3 Sulfate,” Jrnl Biol. Chem. (1981) Vol. 256., #2. Jan 25, pp. 823-826.

10. W. V. Rodriguez, J. J. Wheeler, S. K. I.imuk, C. N. Kitson, and M. J. Hope, “Transbilayer Movement and Net Flux of Cholesterol and Cholesterol Sulfate between Liposomal Membranes” Biochemistry (1995) 34, 6208-6217.

11. Neekmaram, M.S. Rezaie, H. Agricultural Research Center, Uromieh (Iran Islamic republic). Soil and Water Research Dept. Effect of different amount of elemental sulfur on reclamation of saline sodic soils  [1992].

12. G . Atmaca, “Antioxidant Effects of Sulfur-Containing Amino Acids,” Yonsei Medical Journal, Vol. 45, #5, 776-788, 2004.

13. Nimni ME, Han B, Cordoba F (2007), "Are we getting enough sulfur in our diet?", Nutr Metab (Lond). 4 (1): 24. doi:10.1186/1743-7075-4-24. PMC 2198910. PMID 17986345.

14. Marcel E Nimni, 1 Bo Han,1 and Fabiola Cordoba2., Are we getting enough sulfur in our diet? Nutr Metab (Lond). 2007; 4: 24. Published online 2007 Nov 6. doi:  10.1186/1743-7075-4-24.

15. Anna Huag, Arne T Hostmark, and Odd M Harstad, Bovine milk In human Nutrition, Lipids health dis: 2007; 6:25. Published online 2007 sep 25, doi:  10.1186/1476-511X-6-25.

16. Brimblecombe, P., Hammer, C., Rodhe, H., Ryaboshapko, A., Boutron, C.F., 1989, Human Influences on the sulphur cycle. pp. 77–121. In P. Brimblecombe and A.Y. Lein (eds.), Evolution of the Global Biogeochemical Sulphur Cycle, Wiley, New York.

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