The Soaking Life

The Pursuit of Health, Good Food and Hot Water

Sulfur: The Divine Stink

Mineral deposits beside the wellhead at Jemez Springs, New Mexico

To some of us soaking enthusiasts, the infernal stench of sulfur dioxide doesn’t remind us of pitchforks, hellfire or rotten eggs, but of pain and tension seeping out of sore muscles and joints. We associate the rich, earthy smell of sulfur with the soothing warmth of sulfurous water and the way this mineral leaves our skin glowing after a long soak in a sulfur spring.

Hydrogen sulfide and sulfurated alkaline metals occur naturally in geothermal springs throughout the world. Sulfur arises in areas that have experienced volcanic activity, and the scent of sulfur is reminiscent of the aftermath of an eruption from the bowels of the earth. As one of the most plentiful minerals in the body, sulfur contributes to the formation of the proteins that make up our connective tissues, skin, nails and hair. The pain-relieving properties of sulfur may come from its ability to slow the conduction of pain signals through the nervous system.

Sulfur occurs naturally in many nutritious foods. Onions, garlic, eggs and broccoli get their delightful aroma from sulfur-containing compounds, and meat, poultry, fish, milk, grains and legumes contain this vital mineral. If you eat a balanced diet, you are probably getting enough sulfur from the foods you eat, and nutritional supplementation usually isn’t required. However, taking sulfur supplements orally or absorbing sulfur through balneotherapy may have therapeutic benefits if you suffer from joint or muscle pain, irritated skin or respiratory congestion.

In oral form, sulfur can be taken in the form of methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) or dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) to ease the pain of arthritis.  Topical sulfur-based creams are used to treat shingles, acne and other skin disorders. In hot springs, small quantities of sulfur can be absorbed transdermally or inhaled as a mineralized mist to provide relief from a number of conditions:

  • Arthritis – when absorbed transdermally, sulfur may alleviate the pain and swelling of osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis
  • Skin conditions -  sulfur eases irritated itchy, reddened, irritated skin and may minimize the symptoms of psoriasis, dermatitis, dandruff, eczema and warts
  • Respiratory congestion – when inhaled as a mist, sulfur has a mucolytic effect, clearing mucus from the lungs and facilitating breathing
  • Liver disorders – sulfur may assist the liver in its detoxifying functions
  • Digestive disorders – sulfur-containing compounds may facilitate digestion and minimize the effects of acid reflux
  • Gynecological disorders – sulfurous water has been used to treat disorders of the female reproductive system

Sulfur-rich mud can be applied to the skin to relieve the symptoms of arthritis, rheumatism or psoriasis. For full-body relief, try immersion in a sulfur mud bath. Therapeutic sulfur mud baths are popular in France, Italy and Japan. We had the opportunity to take advantage of the benefits of sulfur on a visit to Hungary in 2010, where we soaked in sulfurous water and even drank a few sips of this potent brew at the Luckas Spa in Budapest.

Springs rich in sulfur and sulfates are found on almost every continent. A few of the spas known for sulfur include Aix-les-Bains in France, Harrogate in Great Britain, Araxa in Brazil, Beppu in Japan and Calistoga and Palm Springs in the United States. Here in Colorado, sulfurous water can be found at Idaho Springs or Hot Sulphur Springs. This is only a brief list of some of the geothermal sources of this mineral.

If you have the opportunity to visit a sulfur spring, don’t hold your breath; inhaling sulfur vapors may help you breathe easily. Consult your health-care provider before taking sulfur supplements or adding balneotherapy to your personal treatment program.

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Altman, Nathaniel. Healing Springs: The Ultimate Guide to Taking the Waters. Healing Arts Press: Rochester, VT, 2000.

PubMed Central: Nutrition & Metabolism. (2007) “Are We Getting Enough Sulfur in our Diet?” M.E. Nimni, et al.

University of Maryland Medical Center. Sulfur.

Photo by Eric Havelock-Bailie, copyright 2009. Polaroid photograph. 

Author: Anne Tourney

I am a registered nurse and freelance writer who specializes in health and nutrition topics. I have a background in medical-surgical nursing, behavioral health and geriatric nursing. My special interests include alternative health, massage and, of course, balneotherapy.

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