American Holistic Health Association (AHHA) - Dr. Wright Clinical Tip 136
Clinical Tip 136
The arthritis miracle that may not be as harmless as it seems
--and how to keep yourself safe

Many people use MSM (methylsulfonylmethane) to treat arthritis. And although the effectiveness does vary, most of the people who use it have experienced relief from their arthritis symptoms.

From all outward appearances, MSM seems to be effective and completely safe. A recent study confirmed that it reduces arthritis pain and lessens functional impairment.1 Studies also show no side effects when it's used for relatively short time periods, such as a few months to a year. Researchers do caution about the safety of long-term MSM use, but as of yet there's no evidence to indicate that it could be harmful. Even people who have used large doses (4 to 8 grams daily) for more than 20 years haven't reported any problems.

But MSM might not be as totally harmless as it seems.

There's at least one long-term effect that is theoretically possible: the depletion of the essential trace element molybdenum. Molybdenum is essential to safe, complete processing of sulfur in human and animal bodies.

MSM contains nearly 30 percent sulfur. Typically, high-sulfur foods like meat, fish, poultry, eggs, milk, and legumes are balanced by nature to contain the essential nutrients needed to completely metabolize the sulfur content.

But unlike natural foods, MSM supplements don't contain any other key nutrients needed to metabolize MSM's high sulfur content. So, in a way, MSM's sulfur is "naked" because it doesn't have a rich complex of vitamins and minerals built in.

A century ago this wouldn't have been a big concern because you would have gotten sufficient molybdenum from the other foods you ate to completely metabolize the sulfur from MSM. But that's not the case today. Although beans, whole grains, nuts, and a variety of other foods can all be good sources of molybdenum, their molybdenum content depends on the amount of this mineral in the soil. Unfortunately, most agricultural soils are much lower in molybdenum and other essential trace minerals than they were 100 years ago.

To make matters worse, processing and refining foods removes most of the remaining molybdenum (and other trace mineral) content. So unless you're eating a mostly organic diet, you're getting much, much less molybdenum than your grandparents or great-grandparents.

If you're taking large quantities of MSM, the molybdenum needed to completely metabolize its sulfur must be "stolen" from an already relatively low-molybdenum diet. Fortunately, there's likely to be enough molybdenum already present in your body to metabolize MSM over shorter time periods, such as weeks or months.

You're probably wondering why I'm still concerned about MSM safety. Once again, I'm not concerned if you're planning to use MSM for just a few months. But if you start using it at age 50 or 60, and it helps relieve your pain, you're likely to take it for another 20 to 30 years or so. So the question is whether there will be enough molybdenum in your food to handle all that extra "naked" sulfur over the years. I can't say for sure, but I expect that in most cases the answer will be no.

So if you plan to take MSM for many years because it helps your joints (or for any other reason), you should try to eat an entirely organic diet to make sure you're getting enough molybdenum to offset the sulfur in the MSM. I know that organic foods can be very expensive, so if eating an entirely organic diet isn't possible for you, look for one of the brands of MSM that contains at least 50 micrograms of molybdenum for every 1,000 milligrams of MSM.

At the very least, I recommend working with a physician skilled and knowledgeable in nutritional and natural medicine and monitoring your molybdenum levels over the years.

1 Kim LS, Axelrod LJ, et al. "Efficacy of methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) in osteoarthritis pain of the knee: a pilot clinical trial." Osteoarthritis Cartilage 2006 Mar;14(3):286-94. Epub 2005 Nov 23.

This article was published in the April, 2006 issue of the Dr. Jonathan V. Wright's Clinical Nutrition & Healing newsletter.