What is MSM and Should I Be Taking It?

MSM, short for methyl sulfonyl methane, has become popular among the alt med set and is credited with so many benefits that it’s being called a “miracle” and a “cure-all.” This kind of talk immediately makes me skeptical.

But I dug into the research, and MSM has many potential benefits with relatively few risks. It is most commonly associated with helping treat arthritis; but it has other beneficial actions throughout the body.

Here’s what we really know about it, and whether you should consider taking it.

What is MSM?

MSM is a bioavailable form of sulfur that occurs naturally in the human body. It is manufactured by algae and other marine microorganisms in the oceans, and then, via the rain cycle, eventually makes its way into the soil, plants, and all living things. Foods high in sulfur include onions, garlic, broccoli, asparagus and cabbage. It is also found in milk, seafood, meat, and even coffee and tea.

What Does MSM Do?

The most well-documented effects of MSM are its anti-inflammatory properties, which are responsible for its positive effect on certain conditions, particularly arthritis. At a cellular level, MSM has these actions in the body:

  • Anti-inflammatory – MSM down-regulates prostaglandins and cytokines like TNF-α and IL-6, among others
  • Oxygen-scavenging – MSM has antioxidant properties, and is capable of binding to and inactivating free radicals, which can damage healthy cells
  • Enhances cell well permeability – MSM helps membranes stay flexible, which improves the ability of nutrients to enter cells and waste products to be excreted

What Are the Benefits of MSM?

All of these benefits of MSM are supported in the scientific literature to an extent:

  • Can help improve arthritis, easing joint pain and stiffness; protects cartilage. This in turn may improve range of motion and physical function
  • Inhibits the breakdown of collagen and strengthens keratin, which may help skin look younger and less wrinkled; also contributes to healthier hair and nails
  • Increases levels of glutathione, an important antioxidant. This in turn may protect the mucus layer of the gastrointestinal system, helping prevent or heal leaky gut
  • Speeds recovery of muscle damage from exercise
  • Can help with the detoxification of heavy metals by increasing cell well permeability
  • Topically, may help with wound healing (more theoretical than proven)
  • Can help improve acne when used topically by killing acne bacteria and reducing inflammation. The original Clearasil formula was based on sulfur, which continues to be the lead ingredient in many acne treatments (it doesn’t smell great though)
  • Topically, may improve rosacea (studied in combination of silymarin, which is derived from milk thistle)
  • Topically, may improve hemorrhoids (studied in combination with hyaluronic acid and tea tree oil)
  • Eases eye inflammation when drops are instilled directly in the eyes. This is due to the greater cell well permeability MSM provides; it helps other medications penetrate more readily
  • May help fight cancer of the stomach, esophageal, liver, colon, skin and bladder. Research is in the test-tube only; preliminary but intriguing

Is MSM Safe?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that MSM is generally recognized as safe (GRAS). Its side effects are few or mild. But note:

  • One study suggests MSM may build up in the body over time. For that reason, I recommend cycling on and off of it. Take it for a month and then take a month off
  • When applied topically, MSM may cause irritation, or swelling and pain in people with varicose veins or other vascular problems
  • Don’t take MSM if you are on a blood thinner, as it has a blood-thinning effect
  • Theoretically, MSM may make alcohol less tolerable, but more studies are needed
  • It is not known if it is safe to take MSM when pregnant or breastfeeding

So Should I Take MSM?

If you are interested in the benefits of MSM, and don’t have any of the issues mentioned in the Safety section, I’d give MSM a try. It is one of the few supplements that has a relatively high benefit/low risk profile.

Also, if you are elderly, you might not be getting enough sulfur, according to at least one study; MSM supplements can help.

I take five drops of liquid MSM in my morning coffee every day for a month, every other month. I have a little bit osteoarthritis in my left knee, and it seems a bit better since I started taking MSM six months ago.

I’ve also tried a skin cream with MSM, but found it irritating (not sure if it was the MSM or a different ingredient). I plan to try it again by adding it to my regular moisturizer via the same drops I take internally.

As always, talk to your physician before taking ay supplements, and follow the package or your physicians’ instructions.

How to Take MSM

MSM comes in many forms:

  • Pill
  • Liquid
  • Powder
  • Lotion/gel

An easy way to incorporate it to your routine is to add the liquid or powder to your morning coffee or smoothie.

  • If you prefer a pill form, follow instructions on the package, or take one 500-3,000 mg pill daily with food
  • Ideally, divide the dose into two doses a day – take half with breakfast and half with dinner
  • For joint pain, consider taking MSM in conjunction with glucosamine, as some of the studies were conducted with this combination
  • For eye health, instill liquid drops directly in eyes per package or your doctor’s instructions

Again, consult your doctor when taking any new supplements.

When looking for a brand to buy, consult CosumerLabs.com. It’s a paid membership site, but they are one of the few unbiased organizations out there testing supplements for quality and consistency with their label.

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  • Bloomer RJ, Melcher DA, Benjamin RL (2015). Serum MSM Concentrations Following One Month of MSM Treatment in Healthy Men. Clin Pharmacol Biopharm 4:135. doi:10.4172/2167-065X.1000135
  • Kim, L.S.; Axelrod, L.J.; Howard, P.; Buratovich, N.; Waters, R.F. (March 2006). Efficacy of methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) in osteoarthritis pain of the knee: a pilot clinical trial. Osteoarthritis and Cartilage, 14(3), 286-294. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.joca.2005.10.003
  • Usha, P.R., Naidu, M.U.R. (2004). Randomised, Double-Blind, Parallel, Placebo-Controlled Study of Oral Glucosamine, Methylsulfonylmethane and their Combination in Osteoarthritis. Clin. Drug Investig. 24,353–363. https://doi.org/10.2165/00044011-200424060-00005
  • Nimni ME, Han B, Cordoba F. Are we getting enough sulfur in our diet?. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2007;4:24. Published 2007 Nov 6. https://doi.org/10.1186/1743-7075-4-24

Vicki Spellman

Vicki Spellman is a certified Holistic Nutritionist (AFPA) and Senior VP at a large healthcare communications firm.

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