Sulfite Defense and
The best defense against sulfites is knowing what to avoid. That said, it's not an easy task. Lists of food groups are not much help since there are good and bad choices in all categories. For instance, many lists will warn against canned goods but this is true only if you select the cans wearing a blindfold. Many canned goods are perfectly safe. You just have to take the blindfold off and read the ingredient list. A short list of the problem ingredients is presented on this website under the menu pick "Where To Now?"
Do you need to avoid every last one of the sulfited ingredients? It depends on your problem. If your tolerance is moderate and you experience a reaction only now and then, just ingredients with high concentrations of sulfite need to be excluded. For instance, if you can tolerate a few sips of wine, your tolerance is likely above 1,500 micrograms. In this case, you should avoid all strong sources of sulfite, like wine, lemon juice concentrate, instant potatoes, pickled peppers, dried fruit and labels that declare sulfites. However, a moderate source like corn syrup would take half a cup to yield 1500 micrograms. So, a cookie with a little corn syrup wouldn't be a problem. High fructose corn syrup is even cleaner and you might be able to drink a full glass with no sulfite reaction. Of course, I can't promise that you won't gag on that much syrup.
Do you need to avoid all forms of sulfur? The answer is flatly no. Sulfur is a vital part of human nutrition. If you eliminated all sulfur from your diet, you would die. Sulfite sensitivity usually involves only a few of the oxides of sulfur. The most prominent are sulfite, sulfur dioxide and sulfa drugs. Sulfite contains one sulfur atom bonded to three oxygen while sulfur dioxide and sulfa are built around a sulfur with two oxygen. You may have heard the statement "An allergy to sulfa drugs does not imply an allergy to sulfited foods." This is a very popular stance in the medical profession. It is technically correct but very misleading. Many people write to my website describing a sulfa reaction that blossomed into a full blown sulfite problem. And of course, I am sensitive to all three: sulfite, sulfur dioxide and sulfa. The explanation of this difference of opinion is twofold. An allergy to sulfa may very well be confined to a single drug. But this restricts the meaning of allergy to a narrow immune response involving a subset of antibodies. Most sulfite problems ( along with many food sensitivities ) involve other aspects of human metabolism. In addition, even using the narrow meaning of allergy, you have to wonder what caused the sulfa allergy to manifest in the first place; perhaps, an underlying deficiency in sulfur dioxide metabolism? I think a better statement for the medical profession would be "A reaction to sulfa is a strong predictor of a present or future sulfite problem."
As an extension of avoidance, sometimes you can neutralize sulfites before eating them. Hydrogen peroxide is a strong oxidant and widely available as a 3% solution. When added to sulfite, hydrogen peroxide will oxidize the sulfite ions, converting them to the safer sulfate form. Most sulfite problems do not extend to sulfates. If you suspect that a food may be contaminated with surface sulfites, soak it for a few minutes in a sink full of water with a tablespoon of hydrogen peroxide. Then rinse with fresh water before eating. This will convert surface sulfites to sulfates and lower your risk. Of course, if the sulfite has penetrated the interior of the food, soaking won't help very much. I use this technique on fish and berries to improve my odds. Note that a few unlucky people are also intolerant of sulfates. For these folks, washing with hydrogen peroxide won't help. Sulfate sensitive people usually react to soap, shampoo and toothpaste containing sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) causing skin rashes. So if you don't get skin rashes from soap, don't worry about sulfates.
Can anything else be done? That depends on what causes your sulfite problem. There are two broad classes of sulfite intolerance: allergy and metabolic sensitivity. If you are allergic, your symptoms usually appear within a few hours and allergic antibodies circulate with your blood. For a life threatening allergy, the prescription Epi-Pen is available. It is a single dose of self-injectable epinephrine that helps counter allergic shock. Of course, there is a catch. The Epi-Pen is preserved with sulfite. ( The Brimstone Demons must be laughing. ) For this reason, the Epi-Pen is only recommended for serious situations where it will probably save your life but may complicate your recovery. By the way, most epinephrine is preserved with sulfite and this is true of local anesthetics combined with epinephrine to minimize bleeding. So, ask your dentist to use a version of Novacain without epinephrine.
A safer treatment for allergic reactions is the over-the-counter antihistamine, Benadryl. If taken at the first sign of a reaction, it may ease and shorten the allergic symptoms. How much it will help in your situation is hard to predict. You will have to try it to find out. Also, some people with sulfite allergy have reported success with vitamin B12. In a small trial with asthmatics, B12 increased the sulfite threshold somewhat and reduced the number of attacks. The amount of B12 taken was in the range of 1000 micrograms per day. Since vitamin B12 is both safe and cheap, it is probably worth a try if your sulfite problem is allergic in nature. In general, vitamin B12 deficiency can result in a wide range of symptoms, up to and including problems with mental clarity that mimic Alzheimer's. So if your sulfite sensitivity is coupled with other chronic troubles, you might want to look into B12 deficiency. One fellow writing to my website was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. He claimed large doses of vitamin B12 actually cured his fatigue, muscle aches and sulfite sensitivity. That said, I don't think B12 is a universal cure for sulfite intolerance. Note that my sulfite headaches are not caused by an allergy and neither Benadryl nor vitamin B12 does anything to help.
What if you have a metabolic sensitivity like mine rather than an allergy? In this case, your body simply has trouble processing sulfites and they stick around longer than they should causing mischief all the while. An important player is an enzyme called sulfite oxidase which is pictured to the right. It does about the same thing as hydrogen peroxide but hundreds of times more efficiently. Mutations to the genes that code for sulfite oxidase are quite rare because they are usually fatal. A more common problem has to do with one of the components of this enzyme, the molybdenum cofactor. Molybdenum is a trace element that occurs in very low amounts in our soil and food supply. In fact, the published minimum daily requirement for molybdenum is just 75 micrograms. Anything that disables the molybdenum cofactor can reduce your ability to process sulfite. Lead, mercury and other so-called heavy metals can interfere with molybdenum. Lead is present in the aging paint and plumbing on older buildings. It is also part of the solder used to attach electronic parts to circuit boards in phones, TVs and computers. Since I am an electrical engineer, I have been around lead based solder all of my life. Could this have caused my sulfite problem? To find out, I had my hair analyzed for minerals and metals. Such an analysis gives a good idea of your averaged exposure to contaminants over the period of months it takes to grow hair. To my amazement, the results came back normal for lead but over two times the accepted level for mercury. Guess what, I have 6 amalgam tooth fillings made out of mercury and silver.
Based on hair tests, I decided to try to lower my mercury levels and increase my molybdenum. Toward this end, I took a mineral formula containing molybdenum for one year. I also took herbs and supplements reputed to act as cleansing agents for heavy metals, including cilantro, alpha lipoic acid and chlorella algae. My tolerance slowly increased, tapering off to a steady state twice my starting point. Even though I reached a limit, I was quite pleased and enjoyed expanding my diet. That was several years ago and I have learned some new things recently that you might find interesting. One is a connection to copper which is discussed in the next section along with a possible need for vitamin B6. The other is a property of chlorella algae that has not been documented in the medical literature. Chlorella not only aids in the removal of toxic metals like mercury and lead, it also helps to process sulfite in the digestive tract. Not a lot, but every little bit helps if you are very sensitive like me.
Chlorella is a type of single cell green algae. It is so named because it contains the highest concentration of chlorophyll for any plant on Earth. Chlorophyll is found in the chloroplast structures of plants which convert sunlight to chemical energy. Chlorella algae is also a very balanced source of nutrition, able to sustain life even if eaten exclusively for extended periods. It is one of the most researched plants in medical literature and studies have indicated it may be effective in treating some forms of cancer, high cholesterol, hypertension, fibromyalgia, immune dysfunction and toxicity. As far as sulfites are concerned, what's important is the high concentration of chlorophyll and associated chloroplasts. In a study done at the University of Texas in 2004, chloroplasts were concentrated from fresh wheatgrass and added to mixtures that simulated strongly sulfited wine. Depending on the concentration and time, they were able to remove from 10 to 90% of the sulfite in 1 to 6 hours. It seemed to me that if you could do this with wheatgrass, chlorella algae should work even better. Now, I don't have the equipment to remove and concentrate the chloroplasts from plants, however, I can drop commercial tablets into sulfite solutions and measure the results. So, I prepared three 20 ppm sulfite test solutions and used one as a control, then I dropped 1 gram of wheatgrass or chlorella tablets into the others. After 20 hours, I had measurable results which are summarized in the table below.
Test of Sulfite Reduction by Wheatgrass and
|20 Hours||Difference||Benefit ppm||Benefit ug||Rate
|Control water||20 ppm||18 ppm||2 ppm||Control||Control||Control|
||20 ppm||9 ppm||11 ppm||9 ppm||900 ug||45 ug/hr|
|Chlorella (1g)||20 ppm||8 ppm||12 ppm||10 ppm||1000 ug||50 ug/hr|
In the table, micrograms are abbreviated as "ug" which is typical of the physical sciences, although many in the medical profession prefer "mcg". Note that the control sample showed a small 2 ppm improvement over 20 hours due to the natural degradation of sulfite when exposed to atmospheric oxygen. So, for the benefit columns, I subtracted the control degradation to better characterize the work of the chloroplasts alone. Under these experimental conditions, 900 to 1000 ug of sulfite was neutralized by the tablets.
To bring these lab results into the real world, it
remained for me to take
wheatgrass and chlorella tablets while I ate measured portions of hard
eggs and feta cheese, foods that contain low levels of natural sulfite.
used 2 grams of wheatgrass and chlorella, divided as ten small 200 mg
to evenly distribute the pills with the food. Using wheatgrass, I was
to increase my sulfite threshold by 100 ug, while chlorella did
better. So, how helpful would it be to take wheatgrass or chlorella
your dinner? It depends on your sensitivity. If you can drink a few
of wine without trouble, your tolerance is above 1,500 ug and
this by a mere 100 ug would be hard to notice. Only if you are very
and have a delayed reaction, would wheatgrass and chlorella tablets
any sense. I am in the very sensitive group, so I carry a handful of
tablets in my pocket whenever I go to a restaurant. At least, it gives
a fighting chance if I am very careful about what I order.