Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S) is extremely toxic, even lethal when inhaled. Its odor is iconic as a key component of the smell from rotten eggs, and flatulence. Its abundance in the atmosphere has been cited as a contributing factor in the End-Permian mass extinction.
Why then, are physiology researchers touting its beneficial role in everything from cardiovascular health to lessening oxidative stress in the liver and assisting in tissue repair? The answer comes via decades-long studies in the areas of vascular health and cell repair. More recently a study published by Rui Wang, Dean, Faculty of Science, York University, Canada suggests we can protect improve our cardiovascular health, and reduce cardiometabolic risk factors by tricking our tissues to produce more H2S. Cardiometabolic risk factors are those linked to heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
Since the early 1990s, studies using rats showed that limiting their intake of sulfur amino acids – most specifically methionine and cysteine, caused their cells to increase the production of H2S. This led to an increase in new blood cell generation an important factor in cardiovascular and cardiometabolic health. All well and good for the rats, how would this work in humans?
Earlier this year results of the NAHNES III US National Nutritional Survey, with data from 11,567 adults supported the same conclusions as to the earlier studies conducted with rats; restricting the intake of sulfur amino acids leads to a cascade of effects benefitting cardiometabolic health.
Here lies the problem, our diets in North America, heavy in meat, dairy, and eggs result in an intake of 2.5 times the recommended daily intake of sulfur amino acids. Red meat, along with fish and white-meat poultry are particularly high in these amino acids; dark-meat poultry contains less it is noted. Sulfur amino acids are crucial growth factors, so the results of those studies should not be applied to children.
All of these data point to the fact that plant-based sources offer us sources of protein that better support our cardiovascular health and lead to healthier aging overall. One caveat is that soy protein is high in sulfur amino acids, so tofu and other soy-derived foods would fall into the same category as meats, eggs, and dairy. Pulses, beans, lentils, brassica vegetables are all viable sources of low sulfur protein. Although broccoli and its cousins contain sulfur, it is not in the amino acid bound form.
As toxic as it is known to be, we are now discovering how crucial H2S is as a signaling molecule. The trick is getting it exclusively to where it is needed. Cellular biologists at pharmaceutical companies are now experimenting with target delivery of H2S in the body, taking advantage of its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. This could be useful in pain management therapies for many conditions where inflammation is a problem.
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