Addiction to Salt
The particular salt we refer to in human nutrition, unless otherwise specified, is sodium chloride. It is plentiful and cheap, but it wasn’t always so conveniently available. Sodium chloride once was considered a great delicacy to be used sparingly because it was difficult to obtain and expensive. Roman soldiers of antiquity were often paid in salt, and this was called their "salarium," from which our word "salary" is derived. It was said a soldier was "worth his salt," a term still used for a worthy person. Once paid with salt, it could be used as money in exchange for other goods.
Sodium and potassium individually combine with bicarbonate, phosphorus or chlorine, to make the six major salts in the human body. Potassium and sodium are metals forming positive ions (cations, i.e., missing an electron) each with an electrical charge of +1. Phosphate, bicarbonate and chloride are negative ions (anions) with a negative charge of -1, having an extra electron. All these ions are found in the human body. In health, they all work together along with the kidneys to maintain the acid/base balance of the body within a very narrow, slightly alkaline range. Each cation is balanced by an anion, existing in an almost 1:1 ratio, with a slight excess of anions. Bicarbonate is a buffer, able to absorb and neutralize both acid and base, thus holding the acid/base balance within the narrow range necessary for life.
The concentration of these salts is very close to the concentration of the same salts found in ocean water, out of which our distant ancestors walked a few hundred million years ago to begin animal life on land. Our cells have maintained the memory of sea water from which our ancestors came.
Of all the salts present in the sea and in our bodies, the ones made from sodium are by far the most abundant. Therefore, sodium serves to maintain the concentration of salts in the body necessary for life. It exists in dynamic relationship with potassium — excessive amounts of one will result in depletion of the other — in order to maintain the proper concentration of salts in the body.
The kidneys work by filtration through glomeruli, millions of tiny filtering devices, and then reabsorption through the renal tubules, the passageways from the glomeruli to the bladder. In the distal (second) part of the renal tubules, there is a mechanism called the "sodium pump." Each renal tubule has such a pump, and there are millions of renal tubules. The Sodium Pump mechanism is a cellular/chemical way of recovering sodium from the urine before it is sent to the bladder for excretion. The amount of sodium recovered is related to the degree of need the body has for sodium. If the body is overloaded with sodium, most of the sodium filtered through the glomeruli is allowed to leave the body. If the body is sodium depleted, a large percentage of sodium is recovered and put back into circulation in the body.
There is no pump for potassium in the kidneys comparable to the Sodium Pump — so, we must have continuous replacement of potassium because the kidneys cannot conserve it. Plant foods are rich in potassium but low in sodium, in line with the needs of the body. Animal-derived foods and processed foods usually are the opposite.
Sodium is the pivotal actor among the important cations in the mechanism maintaining the all important acid/base balance of the body. As sodium goes, so goes the acid/base balance of the body. The problem with sodium, as with phosphorus, is not one of deficiency, rather of excess. Salt is plentiful in the soil, and all plants grown in such soil are sufficient in sodium. No supplementation is necessary. Nevertheless, almost all processed food manufacturers add sodium chloride along with sodium iodide to food for taste, promoting an addictive state in order to sell more of their product!
Sodium chloride (common table salt) is the usual form of sodium added to food, so common that the word "salt," in layman’s language, refers to sodium chloride, although in the language of chemistry there are hundreds of different salts. To make matters worse, the social convention is to keep a salt shaker at the ready to add even further salt to food.
Most table salt is 70% sodium iodide and 30% sodium chloride. Sodium iodide tastes even saltier than sodium chloride and was originally mandated by the U.S. Government to be added to table salt to prevent goiter which was especially prevalent around the Great Lakes region of the U.S., an area where the soil is relatively deficient in iodine. Iodine is necessary for healthy thyroid function.
At age forty, the kidneys begin to lose their ability to rid the body of excess sodium, and, as you grow older, sodium sickness becomes more and more likely, especially if you salt your food and/or eat processed foods.
The body can deal with excess sodium by storing it in the spaces between cells (collectively called the "interstitial" space) to protect the acid/base balance of the blood. This condition is called "edema." It appears first around the ankles as puffy tissue, which, upon pressing with moderate force, will hold the impression of your finger for several minutes after pressure is removed. This is called "pitting edema."
When sodium is shunted to the interstitial space, anions are attracted there to balance the electrical charge of the sodium. To maintain the proper concentration, water also is drawn in with this soup. This all has serious consequences for the cells, which must keep out this excess of sodium using their own version of the Sodium Pump. If this mechanism fails in a cell, that cell dies. This pumping action burns a lot of calories, which should be used for other cellular processes. The cells become overworked keeping out the excess sodium.
When this line of defense has reached its limit, sodium appears in the blood in excessive quantities. The same phenomenon then happens, causing increased circulatory volume, elevated blood pressure, stress on the heart and depletion of potassium. If this process continues unchecked, the result is congestive heart failure and death. In affluent societies, elevated blood pressure is found in 25% of adults and 12% of children!
Recent research suggests that the chloride content of table salt is more important in the elevation of blood pressure than is sodium. Nevertheless, the solution is the same, since the two come together: restrict sodium chloride intake.
Sodium is necessary for proper transmission of impulses along the axon of every nerve in your body, and necessary for muscle contraction as well. Deficiency of sodium is difficult to achieve, because sodium salts are everywhere in nature.
Do not worry about deficiency of sodium. Be concerned instead about excess. While the daily requirement for sodium chloride is 50 mg., the average adult consumes 5,000 mg., 100 times more than is needed! Even a young person whose kidneys can handle sodium will feel much better restricting salt: more energy (the Sodium Pump drains a lot of energy), fewer headaches, and better sleep.
Love of the salty taste of salt is an addiction similar in quality to the addictions to alcohol, tobacco, sugar, caffeine and a host of others. The same principles apply to kicking the salt habit as apply to kicking any addiction.
Unless you have one of the conditions causing lowered sodium such as adrenal insufficiency, salt-losing renal disease, colostomy, or chronic postural hypotension, I strongly recommend that you get out of the habit of salting your food. Do not drink beer (25 mg. of sodium per 12 oz.), avoid baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), monosodium glutamate (MSG, a popular preservative), baking powder, sodium-laden laxatives (most are), and home water softener (adds sodium to the water). Do not eat meat. Do not drink diet soda. Look for the words "salt," "sodium," or the symbol "Na" when reading food labels.
Consume the following salt-laden items sparingly: dill pickles, soy sauce and canned vegetable juices. Stay far away from all a prepackaged foods and processed foods until you have carefully read the label and discovered no added salt, sugar, or preservatives (practically impossible). Do not eat salted popcorn or peanuts, and do eat only fresh foods, organically grown. Also, avoid salt substitutes, because they employ potassium, and an accidental overdose of potassium can be fatal.
That is what not to do. Here is what to do. Learn to enjoy the natural flavors of food. Your taste buds have been overstimulated for years with salt, among other items, to the extent that they cannot detect and enjoy subtle tastes. You may use spices in making the transition to the enjoyment of natural flavors. I suggest thyme, tarragon, paprika, sage, basil, dill and oregano. After the transition, you will discover that spices are unnecessary in most cases and the natural food tastes irreplaceable.
Remember, the preference for salt is learned, not natural, and it can be unlearned. If you use salt, use only sea salt, which contains all the other minerals your body needs in a balanced mixture, and use it sparingly.
If you kick the sodium chloride addiction, all things being equal, you will add vitality and a number of wonderful years to your life.