Sulfites and Chronic Disease
The No Sulfites website and the book Headaches, Asthma, Fries and a Cola are based on my personal experience with sulfites. Over the past few years, I have received email from many people with similar problems. My biggest surprise came from email describing the mischief the Brimstone Demons can cause. Sensitive people have many reactions to sulfites and sulfur dioxide including typical allergic symptoms like hives, rosacea, facial swelling, throat constriction, muscle cramps, digestive upsets, headache and allergic shock. But many diseases are also complicated by sulfites including asthma, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia and arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, heart arrhythmia, irregular blood pressure, liver dysfunction, lupus, G6PD deficiency, lichen planus, Marfan syndrome and Behcet's vasculitis. These diseases are chronic in nature and last for years or even a lifetime. And sulfites can make them worse. Don't ask your doctor to confirm this. I have not been able to find references in the medical literature beyond hives, asthma and allergic shock. But if chronic diseases were well understood, they wouldn't be chronic. They seem to be conditions defined by symptoms rather than by definite causes. Avoiding sulfites won't cure these diseases but, in many cases, avoiding sulfites will help.
My next surprise came from the slow, painful realization that all food on this planet contains natural sources of sulfur dioxide (with the possible exception of distilled water.) I should have known this when I discovered that cheese, peanuts, eggs and chocolate gave me headaches but there are some things you just don't want to admit. Of course, natural concentrations are much lower and less of a problem but, in a hearty meal, they cannot be ignored. The worst offenders are onion and garlic which is probably not much of a surprise to you. Raw onion contains about 1 ppm and raw garlic a whopping 4 ppm. Thankfully, most other natural foods are under 1 ppm of effective sulfur oxide. The following are at the top of the natural list: maple syrup, soy flour, pork and hot peppers. The cleanest foods are: lettuce, milk, rice, noodles, corn and chicken. Just about everything else is in between. Do you have to be worried? Not unless you are very sensitive. Let's do a sample calculation. Pork is rated at 1 ppm and a large serving might be 8 ounces or 240 grams. This would add 240 micrograms of effective sulfur oxide to your diet. That's about what you get from a super-sized cola at a hamburger stand. If your threshold is well beyond cola, don't worry. But if you are like me, order chicken instead of pork.
Of more concern are vitamins and supplements that contain natural sulfur dioxide. Some of the pills you take every morning to improve your health contain hidden Brimstone Demons. I'm not talking about the starch fillers or gelatin coatings; these add only a few micrograms of sulfur because pills don't weigh much. I'm talking about sulfur dioxide as part of the chemical structure of vitamins and supplements, part of every molecule. Two vitamins contain sulfur, thiamin (B1) and biotin (B7). Upon digestion, thiamin is a very weak source of sulfur dioxide, so don't be concerned if your multi-vitamin contains a bit of it. Just don't swallow a high potency B supplement with 50 times the minimum daily requirement of thiamin. Biotin is another story. Biotin is an incredibly strong sulfite. Just half of the minimum daily requirement gives me a headache. My advice is to look for a vitamin that does not include much biotin. Most biotin in the human diet is produced by intestinal flora in your tummy, so supplements are of marginal value even to people without a sulfite problem. Also beware of the amino acid taurine. It is not usually included in supplements but taurine is celebrated in trendy energy drinks. Red Bull contains 1000 mg of taurine resulting in more effective sulfur oxide than some wines. Finally, don't even look at a sulfur supplement like MSM, methyl sulfonyl methane. No matter what you hear, MSM is bad news for people that are sensitive to sulfites.
Much to my dismay, caramel color is not the only food color that hides a sulfur demon. If you examine the chemical formulas of the FD&C approved colors, you will find that 6 out of 7 contain SO3 in every molecule. Fortunately, food color is poorly digested and little sulfite is actually released within the body. If not, I would certainly be a brightly colored corpse right now. To calculate its effect on your diet, you can treat FD&C artificial colors about the same as caramel color. Sorry, that means that red soda is just as bad as brown cola. By the way, the best drinks for people like us are Whole Foods 365 sodas (made with sugar) and Snapple Diet Peach Tea. Watch out for the artificial sweeteners asulfame-k and/or saccharin. Like artificial color, both asulfame-k and saccharin contain sulfur dioxide in every molecule. Will it never end?
Which brings us to prescription medications. It is no secret that drugs can contain sulfites. But what can you do? It is a very complicated matter. Some drugs contain sulfite preservatives like food. Some are called sulfa drugs and carry warnings. Some that are not considered sulfa drugs contain sulfur and oxygen that can digest to cause a problem. How do you know which ones and how much? Like everyone else, doctors included, I felt intimidated by the scope of this problem. Until I discovered that the internet contains most of the needed information and I could treat drugs just like I treated food. So, I divided prescription drugs into groups, obtained samples and tested them to see how much of a headache each group is likely to cause. The numbers I obtained are included in a drug database and they allow a comparison to similar numbers that can be calculated for food.
Sulfa drugs are based on or derived from the chemical sulfonamide which contains a sulfur dioxide group in each molecule. In my body, about 15% of the drug is digested to release sulfur dioxide and cause a headache. A common sulfa drug is Celebrex, prescribed for the pain of arthritis, and a typical 200 mg pill has the sulfite punch of a glass of red wine. So now you have a benchmark. When you are prescribed a drug, look at the data sheet that comes with it. If the data sheet mentions sulfite preservatives, sulfa drugs or gives a warning to the sulfite sensitive, reject the drug. If no warning signs are present, look at the chemical structure of the drug. If it contains a sulfur dioxide group (S with two O's), you can make a worst case assumption that it will be no stronger than a sulfa drug. Compare the prescribed dose to the 200 mg Celebrex pill mentioned above. If the dose is half of Celebrex, you would be safe in assuming the threat to be less than half of a glass of wine. Relate the threat to your personal threshold and decide if you want to risk taking the drug.
If you are not highly sensitive to sulfites, the
information on the No
Sulfites website is more than sufficient to allow you to
your problem. Print out the tables, read labels and avoid the major
When it comes to natural sulfites, just be aware of them and don't pig
on pork. Make sure your doctor knows about your problem and check out
medications. Please, don't let all of this detailed information make
paranoid. Only if you continue to have symptoms do you need to get
about the lesser demons and natural sulfites.