Japan: the country of Geisha, Samurai and sushi; earthquakes, volcanoes and onsen. For the uninformed “onsen” is the Japanese word for hot spring and it is because of all these volcanoes and volcanic activity that this island in the North Pacific is literally bubbling with some of the most numerous geothermal waters in the world.
During my years in Japan I could not help but become acquainted with the ‘bathing culture’ that surrounded me. At first I dismissed it, but over time with the multitudes of Japanese around me continuing to recommend it, swear by it, and even lament it when they could not go for their monthly or even weekly soak, you begin to change your mind and slowly you get the nerve to give it a go.
It’s kind of like eating raw fish: just try it already.
So in while in Tokyo a local but completely natural source hot spring “sento” or bathhouse was recommended to me. With much trepidation I set out one afternoon, my bones aching from the constant urban onslaught. As I approached the bathhouse, an undeniable feeling of calm washed over me. Maybe it was the black pebble path to the entrance? The cozy natural wood and bamboo enclosure? Could have been. But it was equally the unmistakable smell in the air. What was that smell? It turns out it that distinctive, rotten egg odour is evidence of the intense mineral composition of the water and hydrogen sulfide, in particular. There was something soothing about it. Once inside and in the heavenly 37C water, I was an instant convert. It was physically soothing, mentally calming with a host of medicinal properties that left you feeling and looking like a million bucks. What exactly was it about that distinct smelling, cloudy hot water that led me back to the bathhouse as often as possible?
Many things of course. The instant grounding effect of being submerged in water. Feeling a connection with nature, surrounded by rocks and bamboo (the onsen was outside). That was the obvious. The not so obvious was that the amazing mineral content of the water seemed to bring a feeling of inner contentment and peace that lasted for hours afterwards. While we have spoken about the importance of minerals before (here and here) the mineral and in particular sulfur content of these waters confer health benefits that the Japanese know cannot be underestimated. While many minerals are essential for health, sulfur is in a class of its own.
The Beauty Mineral
Yes, one look in the mirror after a dip in sulfur rich hot spring waters will make you instantly aware of one thing, if nothing else: your skin looks fabulous. Sulfur: that mineral that sits just below oxygen on the periodic table is without question a superstar, foundational mineral for beauty. Why? Because sulfur is present in every cell in the body and is especially concentrated in the joints, hair, skin, and nails. So when we don’t get enough, the quality of the aforementioned will suffer and we won’t look our best. The fact is that sulfur and sulfur compounds are very much needed for the production of collagen and keratin. Collagen is that magic protein that makes up our skin, connective tissue and even our bones and teeth. Take a look around and you will notice that collagen products seem to be everywhere- from creams and powders to both internal and external applications. In order to produce collagen, certain substrates need to be present- certain amino acids such as cysteine, adequate vitamin C, and sulfur. The presence or absence of these will to a large extent dictate whether the overall flexibility, fluidity, and overall structure of the skin. Picture the underlying structure of skin as a chain link fence: the finer the weave of the fence, the stronger and more flexible it is. Collagen helps to keep the weave of the fence and its overall structure strong. In order to build stronger collagen (and great skin) we need enough of these building blocks and this depends to a large degree on adequate sulfur in the body. The more collagen reserves the less wrinkling, sagginess, cracking and generally lackluster skin. Sulfur also works wonders to help alleviate skin conditions such as rosacea, scar formations, dark spots and sun damage. It is also worth noting that due to the large size of the collagen molecule, collagen creams or other external applications have very little effect on the skin.
But the beauty benefits don’t stop there. Additional sulfur in the diet is fabulous for hair health and growth. In terms of the structure of our hair sulfur is found in significant amounts in keratin. You hair obsessives know that keratin is that fibrous protein that makes our hair and nails strong and which is why keratin is found in so many hair products. The only problem is that when applied externally (as in shampoos and conditioners) keratin is not lasting and washes out quite quickly. A more permanent solution is to address our hair needs internally. As we are continuously building and rebuilding ourselves everyday and over time it is imperative that we give our cells the necessary substrates to do this. Increase your sulfur intake and watch your hair grow and strengthen like never before. Bottom line? Give your cells the adequate building blocks to grow and be healthy. Give it sulfur.
Nutrients in, waste out
Yet another remarkable function of sulfur is its ability to make the cells in our body more flexible and more permeable. As we age, our cell walls become thicker and more rigid. The consequence of this is less nutrients and oxygen are able to freely enter the cell and less waste is excreted. Things get stuck. Cellular regeneration is hampered, slowed. In the presence of sulfur this bad cellular behavior is reversed. Sulfur assists in regulating the sodium/potassium electrolyte balance of the cell meaning that the membrane becomes more flexible and better at regulating what goes into and out of the cell. Cells begin to behave more intelligently; assisting to drive more nutrients in and waste products out. Sulfur is therefore a great blood cleaner and overall detoxifier. Got metals? Some studies have also shown that sulfur plays a significant role in binding to mercury and other heavy metals so that they may be easier eliminated from the body. Mercury is a big no-no, an aggressive enzyme inhibitor and as such is a threat to the overall health and function of our cells. If that weren’t convincing enough, sulfur is a also known to be a significant precursor to glutathione otherwise known as the master anti-oxidant.
Less waste and more nutrients mean more energy and cellular repair and who doesn’t want that?
Taken with other vitamins and minerals, sulfur also acts as a potentiator meaning that it assists in the assimilation and bioavailability of other nutrients. Sulfur is most commonly taken together with vitamin C, increasing the absorption of the latter by 400% to make this a superstar beauty ritual indeed. Again, more permeable cells make for better assimilation of the good stuff. Are you in the habit of raising your micronutrient profile? Take your vitamins with a good dose of sulfur.
All around healer
Due to its profound positive effects on cellular health, the benefits of added sulfur in the diet are significant and wide reaching. The list is seemingly endless- better immune function, accelerated healing, reduced pain and inflammation, liver detoxifier…. it seems the only thing sulfur can’t do is wash your dishes. Here are just some of the benefits of adding more sulfur to your diet:
- helps to heal skin conditions such as acne and rosacea
- alleviates symptoms of allergies and asthma
- great for arthritis, helps to make joints more flexible
- anti-parasitic, good for chronic yeast infections and candida
- good for chronic constipation
- insulin regulator, good for diabetics
- improves digestion and gut health
- good for migranes
- boost for fragile hair and nails
- increases energy, good for chronic fatigue
- excellent anti-inflammatory and pain reliever
Yes, sulfur is truly remarkable, potentially life changing stuff that we should all take more of. Of course some will argue that sulfur is present in nearly everything that we consume already from raw fruit, vegetables and grains. Those notorious smelly, anti-social foods such as onions and garlic are rich in sulfur as are cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, and brussels sprouts. The problem is food processing and simple cooking methods destroy a large percentage of the sulfur naturally present in our food. So we supplement. And we do this with something called MSM. MSM stands for methylsulfonylmethane, which is an organic form of sulfur. It is approximately 34% bio-available, making it the richest source of organic sulfur available. MSM as a supplement is relatively inexpensive and easy to incorporate into your routine. Since the half-life of MSM consumed in the body is only 12 hours, supplementation may be best twice a day, usually morning and evening. Start with a teaspoon in water combined with any other vitamins or supplements you desire.
So unless you have ready access to a hot spring with a view of Mt. Fuji….