Natural or Synthetic? Resolving the Controversy
by Alexander G. Schauss, Ph.D.
There is controversy in the industry about the question of whether methylsulfonylmethane (also known as dimethyl sulfone or MSM) is a “natural” or “synthetic” product. In some ingredient directories, MSM is listed as either natural or synthetic. How could the same product be both? By understanding how MSM is manufactured, one can answer the question.
MSM has been around for more than 35 years. DMSO and MSM research can be traced back to the 1950s. In fact, there are more than 55,000 studies on DMSO alone. Since DMSO breaks down in the body to MSM and other sulfur compounds, there is considerable evidence of its safety, along with two acute toxicity studies on MSM that basically attest to it being as safe to consume as water.
The most significant body of clinical evidence on the broad range of therapeutic applications for MSM as a dietary supplement comes from the work led by Stanley W. Jacob, M.D., Professor of Surgery at the Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland, Ore. Dr. Jacob has studied MSM’s therapeutic benefits either administered intravenously or orally in more than 15,000 patients seen in his clinic at the medical school over the last three decades.
Jacob is the senior author of The Miracle of MSM(Putnam: New York, 1999). In this book, Jacob and his co-author report how MSM has been found to significantly decrease the discomfort associated with arthritis, back pain, headaches, athletic injuries, carpal tunnel syndrome and a myriad of autoimmune diseases such as scleroderma, lupus and fibromyalgia. This product has been so effective in helping patients with these problems since its introduction into the natural products marketplace that MSM has almost surpassed glucosamine hydrochloride (or glucosamine sulfate) and chrondroitin sulfate as an analgesic dietary supplement, as well as for allergy relief and as an anti-inflammatory agent.
MSM is a simple molecule that contains eleven atoms bonded into one configuration. There are no isomeric forms. MSM that is manufactured by humans is indistinguishable from the MSM found in nature. MSM and DMSO are made in the United States and several foreign countries by–essentially–the same method.
It is important to understand how MSM is made in nature to appreciate the similarity between this process and how chemical engineers have learned to produce MSM. Microscopic phytoplankton living in the oceans eventually die and begin to decompose. As the biomass decays, it gives off a highly odoriferous compound called dimethylsulfide (DMS). This gas is highly volatile and taken up by our atmosphere. Samples of air taken at various elevations in our atmosphere record the presence of DMS.
Both oxygen and sunlight react with DMS; that causes DMS to go through a series of oxidation steps that include the formation of dimethylsulfoxide (DMSO), methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) and other sulfates. Studies on how clouds form have demonstrated that microscopic particles of sulfate are required for water vapor in the atmosphere to form clouds. The water droplets “absorb” DMSO and MSM since both are highly soluble in water. Eventually, when the clouds release their water droplets as rain, trace amounts of these compounds drop to the Earth to be used by plants or returned to the sea to repeat the process.
Plants and animals take in sulfur by using the MSM and other sulfur compounds that have come from the atmosphere. This process is essential for all life on this planet. One would therefore think that plants and microscopic animals would be an ideal “natural” source for MSM since they require it and concentrate it in their tissue and cells. Unfortunately, this is not possible since the amount of MSM in plant or animal cells is no more than a few parts per million, too little for commercial extraction. Hence, the only viable method for producing large commercial quantities of these lifegiving sulfur compounds is by using chemical technology. Therefore, one can not buy “natural” MSM. It is not commercially possible. Instead, one must rely on chemical engineering and the skills of chemical engineers to produce commercial quantities of MSM.
How is MSM Made?
All MSM is formed by catalytic reaction of hydrogen peroxide with DMSO. All DMSO is formed by reaction of nitrogentetroxide and oxygen with DMS. The oxygen atoms for these reactions come from the atmosphere, the same source used in nature.
DMS is made commercially by two competing processes. The most common method, in simplified terms, is reaction of sulfur with natural gas (methane). Methyl alcohol made from natural gas is combined with sulfur in the form of hydrogen sulfide or carbon disulfide in a vapor phase catalytic reaction to form DMS and methylmercaptan (MM). MM is primarily used to make the amino acid methionine, another dietary supplement. DMS is sold for various industrial uses or converted to DMSO. This process is generally favored due to high conversion yield, low energy consumption and its independence from a paper mill waste stream.
The alternate method combines sulfur with paper mill pulping liquids to make DMS. Sulfur (usually obtained as a byproduct from oil refinery processing required to make clean burning fossil fuels) is added to black liquor and heated to about 460EF under high pressure. Crude DMS is stripped from the liquor after about an hour. This process is very energy intensive and limited by low yield and pulping capacity. The black liquor is burned in a recovery boiler to dispose of the remaining organic material from the wood and to reclaim the inorganic chemicals for recycle to make fresh pulping liquor. Crude DMS is purified by a series of extraction and distillation steps to make a product for sale or conversion to DMSO. DMSO produced by either method results in an identical molecule that is indistinguishable as to the original source of DMS.
Many manufacturers of MSM have established facilities and methods for processing. Due to the volatility of sulfur compounds, a single-purpose facility can prevent any cross contamination that might occur if other sulfur-containing products were produced at the same location. Distillation processes prevent contamination, including heavy metals and residual DMSO. Low moisture content helps prevent microbiological contamination and increases stability and shelf life.
In summary, nature does make MSM. However, the amount of MSM found in nature in cells as a source is on a scale so small that the only way to produce commercial quantities for human or veterinarian use is to rely on the manufactunng methods developed by chemical engineers. The process nature uses to produce MSM is rather similar to how humans produce it commercially. But MSM is not “natural,” rather it is a synthetic product. The confusion in qualifying the source of MSM as “natural” or “synthetic” comes from the fact that MSM is identical in structure whether it comes from the factory or is found in nature.
Alexander G. Schauss, Ph.D., is a former Clinical Professor of Natural Products Research at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in, Portland, Ore. For the previous 21 years, he was director of Natural and Medicinal Products Research, Life Sciences Division, AIBMR Inc in Tacoma, Wash. Schauss is the author a new book Minerals, Trace Elements and Human Health (4th Edition), Biosocial Publications, 1999.