Nature is extremely generous. The Earth has proven to have an abundance of resources for life above and beyond what would be considered minimally required. Earth has given and given and given. In contrast, modern history could be summarized as the story of humans figuring out how to take more and more and more and then use what we take in ever increasing ways. For some of us it is obvious that this is not always wise; it is not always in our best interest to take whatever we can and use what we take in anyway possible. Some of us, however, believe that abundance is a fact of life and so, taking on any level is justified. And then there are others who believe that we have a right to use whatever we take in whatever way we can.
I am thinking of a particular example that shows the disadvantage of taking excessively and inappropriately. This example is not just about something that the Earth has given us in abundance. It is also about something that the human body has given us in abundance. It is a case where we have abused the generosity of the human body and now are paying a dear price for it.
Many of us may look at our own bodies without a sense of gratitude, much less awe, for its abilities. Many of us are too busy protecting our bodies and catering to its addictions to see how amazing the human body really is. But I am thinking of one particular example of the flexibility of the human body that has made life so much easier for humans and yet, has now caused so much harm because it has been misused. I am thinking about the ability of the body to ingest salt.
Human civilization grew past a certain point to a large degree because the human body was so flexible in its ability to ingest salt. Salt allowed humans to preserve food and the use of salt for that purpose greatly expanded humans’ ability to live close to each other and to live in colder climates. Food could be transported with salt over larger distances. Without salt and other food preservation abilities humans could not have survived in cold climates in any great number nor could they live so close to each other in a village or city. Without salt our ancestors would have a more difficulty selling food to each other in populous cities and during the winter months. Thus, without salt humans would have had much greater difficulty inhabiting all but the warmest parts of the world and having anything but sparsely agricultural or nomadic lifestyles.
Of course, we took it for granted that we are able to salt foods and still be able to eat it later. Salt (I am particularly speaking of sodium chloride which is “tablesalt”) is actually toxic to life. What I mean is that there are few organisms in nature that can survive in contact with sodium chloride. This tablesalt dissolves flesh. Just observe a dog’s paws that has walked on a salt-covered winter road: very painful conditions immediately result. Salt is also very destructive of fresh water aquatic life. Those lifeforms don’t have the defense mechanisms necessary for survival in contact with salt. Our skin shields us from salt but try putting salt into an open wound. The reason that we can’t drink salt water is, of course, this inherent toxicity of salt to the body. There are very few organisms on Earth that can survive when salt is in direct contact with its live cells.
But the human body is capable of filtering out a large amount of salt eaten in preserved foods. And this flexibility has allowed the development of human society that I mentioned above. This generosity of the body has allowed for expansion of society. But what is happening now? The need to preserve foods with salt has been diminishing tremendously over the past one hundred years but salt intake has not been reduced. In fact, it has increased! We have refrigeration now and that does the job of food preservation better than salt. But instead of going back to the salt-free diet of our healthy pre-historic ancestors or our salt-free aboriginal brothers we have kept on taking salt and taking salt and taking salt. Are we not over-abusing the generosity of our human bodies? Did not our bodies willingly sacrifice themselves in order for us to develop socially? And now we continue to take beyond the need, to our own detriment.
To talk negatively about modern salt intake is highly unpopular, I know. Almost everybody likes salt. Some excessively and some moderately but almost everyone balks at going without salt. People actually break out in a panic-laden sweat over the thought of it. With a salt addiction, all food is almost tasteless without it. It is amazing to me that there is almost no public information about the strength of this addiction. Some people have reported that life didn’t seem worth living when they went off salt. I can testify to this experience personally. This type of response is rare even for smokers. Is salt a stronger addiction than tobacco? We might not see a study that answers this any time soon because there is almost no awareness of the real harm of table salt.
The average internet search on the use of salt will yield a lot of cautionary advice but not much more. We are told by most “experts” on the internet that we should keep our salt intake moderate because high intake of salt is known to cause high blood pressure, etc. Some sites even say that this level of caution on salt is over blown. The kidney’s are known to be able to excrete up to 25 grams excess table salt in a single day, they say. Because of this, only those experiencing blood pressure or kidney problems need to keep a cap on salt intake, many sites report. And many people disregard even these minimal cautions as well. Salt is felt to be too vital to the “enjoyment” of life to cut back too much, even for those who know it is harmful because of an already present disease.
The truth that I have uncovered and have experienced directly myself is that even the stronger cautions around salt given by the government and other official health agencies are misleading. They avoid the hard science as I have researched it and certainly have done very few studies to learn anything more.
The official word from the World Health and FDA warns humans not to eat more than 5 to 6 grams of salt per day. The way this is worded keeps us thankfully free of the real facts involved. Saying that we should not eat more than a certain amount a day effectively avoids having to answer the question as to whether it should be eaten at all. Most warnings are combined with a very minimum of information stating that the body needs salt but too much is no good, etc. What I learned when I looked deeper into the matter myself made the public warnings appear to be a cover-up of important information.
According to the textbooks on molecular biology that I studied sodium is a very important element in the body. Sodium, along with potassium, is used to get things into and out of otherwise impermeable cell walls. Almost every type of cell, including neurons, use sodium for this purpose. That’s an important and wide-ranging function. Chlorine is also used to create the acid that our stomachs use to break down food. That’s also an important function. But when I read on I learned something that I had never heard before. Apparently our body is able to recycle a very high amount of the sodium it uses. In other words, sodium is used by the cells and then normally gets recycled by the kidneys. This happens all the time without the intake of table salt. If we eat table salt then the excess amount of sodium also gets sent to the kidneys. The kidneys excrete this excess salt into the urine. But the kidneys can just as easily recycle the sodium that comes to them if there is a need in the body. What I learned from these molecular biology textbooks was that we need to eat very little sodium compared to the amount that our body uses everyday because our body can re-use sodium over and over again. This, of course, is lessened if we sweat a lot but even then the amount that we need to take in through food is small.
Almost all foods contain some sodium as well. So a “tablesalt”-free diet still takes in a lot of sodium.
I kept studying and then found out that the body handled potassium very differently than sodium. Remember that the body’s cells need sodium and potassium equally to bring things into and out of the cell walls. But the body cannot recycle potassium as well as sodium so the requirements for potassium intake in daily food is much more important. It is strange to me that popular health sites emphasize the fact that excessive potassium in the blood can be dangerous and rarely harp on how important proper amount of potassium intake is.
Many websites give the impression that the kidneys can filter out any excess salt without any harmful effects but that’s clearly not true. Salt intake may be managed by the kidneys but there is a time lag. Salt intake leaves an excess of sodium in the blood almost always in advance of the kidney’s abilities to clear it. That salt has some proven effects: hypertension and edema. It doesn’t take too much thought to realize that these are very general descriptions of the effect of excess sodium. Blood goes to every cell in the body. If it has a continual out-of-balance condition of anything we would guess that might have widespread health effects. But the warnings only talk about hypertension. It’s like saying that the result of jumping overboard on a trans-oceanic ship is that you get wet. Yes, you get wet but there are a lot more problems behind and connected with that.
The fact is that very little scientific study has been done to investigate exactly what are the effects of excess sodium. The fact that sodium needs to be in constant balance with potassium for the healthy function of every single cell in the body tells us that the effects could be wide-ranging. In the simplest terms, if sodium/potassium levels are out of balance then the cells have more difficulty taking things they need in and more difficulty getting things they don’t need out. If sodium plays as an important role as has been reported in the function of brain cells there might be serious implications in the ability to think clearly due to excess sodium.
Some may say that I am exaggerating an issue that science has covered well and deemed not to be so great a concern. But the reason I don’t trust this “science” is that I have personally had experiences that contradict it. Despite what this “science” says is healthy and even possible I have gone completely without salt for two different durations in my life. During both of my salt “fasts” I not only didn’t collapse from lack of salt but experienced a revitalization in my physical and mental health.
The first salt “fast” I undertook was part of a larger program of detoxification called the Gerson Therapy (www.Gerson.org). As part of this therapy I abstained from even the smallest micron of salt for a year and a half. This means that I never ate any food that had sodium chloride (“salt”) in its list of ingredients, in addition to never adding salt in any form to any food that I ate. Zero salt. Of course, I ate healthy organic vegetables that gave me plenty of naturally occurring sodium but no table salt or any additive that had salt in it. As I said, I never felt healthier than I did through the duration of and at the end of this salt-free Therapy.
The second fast was only one month but it showed me how strong the salt addiction really is. I undertook the second fast during a time I already felt healthy (I did the Gerson Therapy when I was sick in order to regain my health). As a healthy person, de-toxifying from salt, I was shocked to witness the strength and psychological component of my withdrawal cravings. During those first two weeks my emotions plummeted and I lost some level of interest in life itself. If it hadn’t been for a level of discipline I had gained from years of spiritual practice I would have caved in and ate some salt. I felt I was dying for something salty. By the end of the month my urges had diminished about 70% but I watched them come back to full strength with my first serving of salty tortilla chips after my fast.
What is going on, I wondered, witnessing such a desperate need for a non-essential food item that is supposedly only a condiment? Is the entire world fooling itself? Have I been completely unaware of how dearly I need salt in my food to feel good about eating, about life? How have I not seen this huge monkey on my back? What is the price for this worldwide salt habit? Is it having a deeper effect on our quality of lives than we ever thought possible? Could it be connected with a deep-seated unhappiness, an angst, that modern humans almost universally suffer with? Could it have something to do with a level of frustration and discontent that modern humans carry and that distinguishes us from the aboriginal tribes who added no salt to their foods?