Natural therapies for arthritis continued: MSM
March 30, 2011
What is MSM? Where does it come from? What does it do? How was it discovered?
MSM stands for methyl-sulfonylurea-methane. It is a bioavailability form of sulfur that appears naturally in the human body and in all living things on earth: plants, animals, and fish. Its discovery involves another substance called DMSO, dimethysulfoxide. DMSO is one of the three types of sulfur compounds that make up the majority (85 percent) of the sulfur found in all living things. The other two are MSM and DMS (dimethysulfide). DMSO is obtained from trees as a by-product of the process used to make wood pulp. MSM is derived from DMSO. DMSO was found to have potent pain-reduction and anti-inflammatory properties for people as well as animals. However, DMSO does have a not insignificant side effect: everyone who takes DMSO, including animals, emits a fishlike odor and has a fishlike taste in his mouth that lasts the entire time he takes the supplement. Flatulence is often a problem, too. For continuous use for a chronic condition such as arthritis, these side effects of DMSO are a serious drawback.
When DMSO enters the body, it breaks down into several components. MSM is its major breakdown component. Another metabolite is DMS, which is responsible for the fishlike odor and taste as well as the flatulence. MSM does not have the DMSO odor. But it does have many of the DMSO effects, among them relief of pain and reduction of inflammation. Research indicated it was the MSM that gave DMSO its healing properties.
Evidence of effectiveness
Most of the evidence for the efficacy and safety of MSM comes from anecdotal evidence of patients treated by Dr. Stanley W. Jacob, MD and Dr. Ronald M. Lawrence, MD and reported in their 1999 book, The Miracle of MSM. In their clinical observation and experience, MSM produced pronounced relief of pain in patients suffering from degenerative arthritis. There is speculation that a deficiency of dietary sulfur may be implicated in the development of osteoarthritis. This speculation is based on a long sulfur healing tradition in the alleviation of symptoms of osteoarthritis. From time immemorial people have made pilgrimages to hot sulfur springs to ease painful joints. Furthermore, many of the dietary supplements shown to have some success in alleviating the symptoms of osteoarthritis, such as MSM, contain large amounts of sulfur. They may act by helping overcome a dietary sulfur deficiency.
How can we develop a sulfur deficiency when MSM is so widely distributed in the food supply? MSM is a delicate structure and can be easily destroyed during food processing and cooking. Americans consume a diet that is dominated by processed food and, therefore, greatly depleted of nutrients, including sulfur. MSM is found most reliably in foods that are unprocessed and uncooked, which is not how most Americans eat.
Adding to the problem, ironically enough, is the use by many people with arthritis of a common over-the-counter painkiller. Acetaminophen (Tylenol, Datril) can deplete the body of sulfur because it must be coupled with sulfur when it is excreted in the urine, thereby accentuating any deficiency.
Side effects and dosage
MSM does have side effects. Among them are headaches, skin rashes, and gastrointestinal (GI) upsets such as diarrhea, mild abdominal cramping, or nausea. If these occur, reduce the dose until symptoms disappear. Also it is best to take MSM in the morning and/or early afternoon because MSM can increase energy levels, disrupting the sleep cycle and causing insomnia. Paradoxically, MSM can also induce the reverse of this side effect: it can cause fatigue. A friend of mine took MSM and within a few days started to experience fatigue. She did not attribute the fatigue to the MSM until she stopped taking it, and the fatigue disappeared, again within a few days. Finally, MSM appears to have some blood-thinning effects; thus if you are on a blood thinner such as aspirin, heparin, or coumadin, consult with your doctor before taking MSM. It is important to be aware of these side effects so that if they should occur, you know what to attribute them to.
Side effects can usually be controlled by dosage and timing. According to Drs. Jacob and Lawrence, thousands of patients have experienced healing benefits by taking 2 to 8 grams (2000 to 8000 milligrams) of MSM a day, the amount depending upon GI tolerance and severity of condition. Their general recommendation is to start low and work up slowly, building to an optimum dose perhaps over a two or three week period. It is best to take MSM during meals or after eating to minimize the possibility of minor GI upset. It is important to remember that MSM is a nutrient and not a drug that kills pain in a matter of minutes. Although MSM can provide quick pain relief for some people, it can be a matter of day, weeks, or even months before noticeable improvement occurs.
Mary Lou Williams, M. Ed., is a lecturer and writer in the field of nutrition. She welcomes inquires. She can be reached at 267-6480.