The Truth About Salt

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Angela A Stanton,Ph.D.
When we salt our food, we rarely think of salt as a crucial aspect of our physiology. In particular, we think it has absolutely nothing to do with anything other than taste and we certainly do not think of hormones. In this short post, I would like to clarify a few myths about salt and salt types and hint at their importance and hormonal connection.

The Myths of Designer Salts

Myth #1 sea salt versus table salt. There are hundreds of posts on the Internet about the benefits of sea salt over table salt. I would like everyone to know that there is only one salt on planet earth: sea salt. The fact that it may be called table salt simply suggests that some time ago it was clearly understood by all that all salt came from the sea. There was no need to place the word “sea” in front of salt; we all knew what it was. Somehow we have forgotten that salt comes from the sea. Now many designer salts have showed up with the word “sea” in front of the word salt and sell for much more than table salt. Don’t be fooled: all salts come from the sea! Preferences, of course, may mean you pick a designer salt over table salt, but I would like to make sure you know that in terms of salt, they are the same for the body.

You may ask: how can they be the same for the body if one contains all kinds of other elements as well as pure salt itself. The answer is very simple. In the body, salt molecules (NaCl) break down into ions (Na+ and Cl-) and only these two ions participate in what is called voltage activated sodium pumps (Nav1.1-1.9) where 1.1 to 1.9 indicates that there are 9 such pumps and Nav stands for voltage activated sodium pump. Thus, for the body only ions matter. Na+ is inside the cell and is positively charged. Cl- is outside the cell and is negatively charged. The two create the voltage necessary for the cell to function. Some of these pumps also have additional functions—such as sending pain message when a pump opens and does not close properly. The influx of Na+ and Cl- can cause the signal of pain to go off causing chronic pain. Much is yet to be understood by the function of salt but the one thing we already know: salt is NaCl and no additional organic matter matters.

Myth #2 refers to rock salt that comes from mountains like the Himalayas in various colors. They make beautiful lamps but in reality they are sea salts that have fossilized as the tectonic plates have shifted and lifted the Himalayans out from under the sea. Why are they pink or orange and very colorful in general? Because as the mountains were lifted, pressure increased on the salt deposits and the weight of the mountain pressing heat and metals through the salt created fossilized salt with various metals trapped in the salt itself. There is nothing wrong with eating fossilized rock salt except that by the nature of the fossilization process of high heat, pressure, and the many metals, a large percentage of these “minerals” entrapped in the salt are actually radioactive metals. Again, it is a taste question whether you prefer Himalayan or other salt but know what you are getting.

Myth #3 is Celtic and similar sea salts of various colors that are collected from clay pools and evaporated such that each sea salt crystal has little cavities of entrapped water with “minerals.” I see many lists of minerals for various sea salts but few of us actually consider where those minerals come from. I know we all love to eat sea food, fish, shellfish, and sea weeds as well. The mineral deposits in designer sea salts come from the debris of these sea animals, including their excrement and dead bodies. There is nothing wrong with eating fish poo and dead fish as long as you know that your choice of salt contains it. Some of these salts are proud to also include a bit of clay, and hence, the moisture must be kept else you will need a hammer and chisel to break the salt up. So, much of the charm about designer salts is trickery and harmless misinformation that takes advantage of those who are not aware.

The truth: salt, by chemical composition Sodium-Chloride (Na+, Cl-) is only these two elements combined, as discussed above. Our bodies use these chemicals only in ionic form. Salt is part of the baby’s amniotic fluid in our bodies (not Himalayan salt, and not various colored sea salts; just simple Na+ Cl-). This standard chemical element constitutes a very large part of the over 70% saline brine of our bodies. We are made of salt water. When we visit the emergency room with any illness, the most often used first step – the needle with a clear liquid dripped into our vein – is also saline water electrolyte. Electrolytes contain other elements to complete the full list of micro and macro nutrients of the 70% brine.

Other Minerals in Salt

What about the so called “minerals” that are in the designer salts? Do we need them?

  • Magnesium is a very important element that provides a key such that the cells can open at all given the proper electrical environment. Magnesium also provides crucial nutrient for the mitochondria (little bacteria in every single cell of our body that converts the food we eat to energy packets our cells can use). You get more magnesium out of a bite of food (just about any food) than from an entire box of designer salt.
  • Calcium is needed for high voltage channels where the neurotransmitters are released.
  • Potassium is needed to keep the balance of hydration in the cell and outside of the cell to ensure that the cell is not overly hydrated (potassium is a diuretic).
  • Phosphates. We also need phosphates and other elements and of course a ton of water, but the elements in designer salt sold as essential mineral are minuscule and meaningless.
  • Iodine. Another important factor is iodine. Designer salts do not contain iodine. In the US, the government has gone through great trouble placing iodine into our salt to eradicate goiter, a disease of the thyroid. Without adequate iodine our thyroid is not able to produce the right amount of hormone to keep our brain healthy. Recall also, in Japan after the nuclear plant released all that radiation, the first item sold out throughout the country was iodine. Iodine acts like a sponge, soaking up many toxins from our body to be able to eliminate them. Radioactivity is one of those things iodine can help clear from our bodies.

Salt and Hormones

So the question then is: what does salt have to do with our hormones? Does it matter? Indeed, it does. Those who have read the migraine series 3-part posts know that the most critical element in preventing and treating migraines is salt. Every single neuron in our brain has several voltage-gated sodium pumps (sodium-potassium pumps) to generate voltage. Without such voltage the neurons are not able to manufacture and release their neurotransmitters-hormones in the body. Thus, restricting salt in your diet retards the hormone manufacturing of your body. In previous articles, I showed how studies show that low salt diets are harmful even for those with preexisting heart conditions and hypertension. Salt does not increase blood pressure, provided that salt is consumed with sufficient amount of water, along with potassium and the other minerals and nutrients, I listed above.

Sodium retains water thereby hydrating the cells. Sodium chloride maintains the polarity differences between the inside and the outside of the cell membrane to control the electrical activity, which then open the pumps. Having enough salt in your brain makes the difference between having a headache/migraine or not. What if it also helps prevent other diseases of the brain? There are suggestions that fibromyalgia and neuropathy may be connected to one of the Nav pumps. I wonder if other conditions such as bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, and even depression could be, at least partly, caused by an inappropriate level of sodium in the brain?

Possible Role for Sodium – Potassium Pumps in Disease

Let’s investigate one of the voltage activated sodium pumps. The one we seem to know most about so far: Nav1.7.  According to recent research, this particular pump has a critical role in chronic pain dampening. Experiments on various poisonous animals—including the Chinese red-headed centipede and the snake black mamba—show that their venom seems to selectively choose this particular pump to dampen the pain associated with some types of chronic pain. The pain signals need not be located in any one particular location of the body, but are relayed by the brain as hormones release for the pain message. People with neuropathy, such as Type 2 Diabetes or those who have been been floxed (suffered an adverse reaction to a fluoroquinolone antibiotics) are very familiar with this pain. Nothing seems to help with this type of pain except a very few types of strong drugs of the brain, some (like Gabapentin) inhibit nearly all activities in the body in near-full-force. The drugs of the brain are systemic whereas the venom is capable of acting on only one sodium-potassium pump, the Nav1.7.  Perhaps, in the future, this finding can be applied to reduce neuropathic pain without global nervous system dampening.

My Two Cents

I suspect most ailments of the central nervous system that include a hyper-sensitivity for pain will become a subject of sodium pump malfunction research. There are also indications that there is a switch in the connection of the peripheral nervous system to the spine, and thereby the central nervous system, where there should be a relay station to either inhibit or amplify the pain. Apparently, at this relay station the switch is flipped backwards and what should be inhibiting actually amplifies. Pain experienced from these crossed wires is called allodyna. I suspect we will be hearing much about this term in the future and how it connects to various sodium pump malfunctions that today we do not yet understand.

Sources:

Pain Scientific American December 2014; p:62-67

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14 Comments

  1. Hi Angela,

    I suffer from migraine with aura and was thinking it may be due to an electrolyte imbalance. I want to try some DIY electrolyte drinks using salt, citrus fruits and water. I have a question though. I have no thyroid becuase it was removed for cancer and I currently take a thyroid hormone daily. Will there be any issue with me using iodized salt in these electrolyte drinks?

    hank you for your time,
    Brian

  2. Hi Angelia, Glad I found your site! I use kosher salt from Morton just because it “pinches” better, but it is not iodized. If I mix some regular iodized with it, will I get enough iodine? I am 78 years old. Thank you for all of your helpful information, Ma’am!

    1. Hi Jack,

      Not sure if you will since as I understand iodine also evaporates. I think it may be better (and easier) if you add an iodine supplement. The smallest dose in tablets is 225 mcg that I so far found. If you break one in half and just take that a day you should be fine. 🙂

      Angela

  3. It is my understanding and not clearly stated in your great post about salt that Himilayan Salt contains no iodine. Thus it isn’t the best designer salt for primary salt consumption. Correct?

    1. Christiane,

      I did not suggest that Himalayan salt does not contain iodine; it contains not enough because it is in trace amounts. Here is a link for you to see (as is in the comment below) what is in Himalayan salt and also a table at the bottom of the article of how much iodine a person needs. Iodine need is different for age groups and gender. Also note that if someone has Hashimoto’s disease or Grave’s disease, iodine is not recommended so talk to your doctor.

      Himalayan salt is not recommended at all let alone for primary salt consumption not only because it has not enough iodine–that is a side issue since one can supplement iodine. The biggest problem is that it contains lead, mercury and other heavy metals, most of which are radioactive and that can hurt you for life. I hope this helps.

      Angela

      1. The Himalayan mountains began formation 50 million years ago. Given the relatively short half lives of the radioactive isotopes of mercury and lead I doubt those metals are still radioactive, although it does contain radium and uranium so you aren’t wrong in saying the salt itself is the tiniest bit radioactive. The biggest risk is that your body does not eliminate heavy metals such as mercury and lead and they can cause nerve damage, the same reason people have (or should have especially if they are pregnant) started eating low mercury fishes. My mother was nearly diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis shortly before having 12 or so mercury containing fillings replaced with newer safer fillings.

        1. Dear Ashley,

          I am very glad to hear your mom had all her mercury replaced in her fillings; this tells me that you and your mom have a good gut instinct of what may be driving what. It is very scary what mercury can do–and mercury and also lead to some degree evaporate as well, so in Himalayan lamps that is a major concern to me.

          Lead and mercury are not noted in my article above as radioactive (specifically because of their half-lives) only the 50 other metals that are in the Himalayan salt (and salt lamps) are:

          Scandium, Titanium, Vanadium, Gallium, Germanium, Rubidium, Strontium, Ytterbium, Zirconium, Niobium, Molybdenum, Technetium, Ruthenium, Rhodium, Palladium, Cadmium, Indium, Tellurium, Cesium, Barium, Lanthanum, Cerium, Praseodymium, Neodymium, Promethium, Samarium, Europium, Gadolinium, Terbium, Dysprosium, Holmium, Erbium, Thulium, Ytterbium, Lutetium, Hafnium, Tantalum, Rhenium, Osmium, Iridium, Thallium, Polonium, Francium, Radium, Actinium, Thorium, Protactinium, Uranium, Neptunium, Plutonium.

          Some of these radioactive elements are unstable isotopes (bad news since they are continually releasing radiation). These “minerals” are listed on the package of Himalayan salts in addition to lead and mercury. Basically just about every heavy metal possible that was created by the heat and pressure of the mountain as it lifted out of the sea via tectonic movements is in this salt. I am not sure why people want to use this salt for anything.

          PS on the funny side: someone pointed out to me a packet of Himalayan salt with an expiration date on it. 🙂 I found that rather funny considering that it is millions of years old but perhaps by tomorrow it will expire.

          I wish you a happy holiday season,
          Angela

  4. I think this subject would be better if it simply discussed refined vs unrefined salt. I knew all salt was sea salt. Does the refining process remove trace minerals? What about anti-caking agents and their possible effect on health?

    1. Greetings Steve,

      Thank you for your comment and for giving me an opportunity to provide an answer to this hotly debated subject. First let me explain how salt behaves in the body so you can understand the remainder of the answer clearly.

      In the body only NaCl (sodium chloride or pure salt) matters and NOTHING else. That is because every single human (and mammalian) cell has dozens of sodium channels (voltage gated) and also sodium potassium pumps (also voltage gated). Because these are voltage gated and the cell works based on voltage by creating action and resting potential as part of its breathing mechanism (by breathing for the cell mean mineral and nutrient intake and toxin output), voltage differentials are needed to be created and maintained. These voltage gated pumps and channels are used for the exchange of ions necessary to create voltage. In the body salt (NaCl) breaks up into ions of Na+ and Cl- and, in fact, greatly participate and influence the ability of the cell to create action and resting potential. Without NaCl, there is neither action potential nor resting potential only dormant cells that do not operate. So with this you see that in the body, everything changes to ionic (some to molecular) level and “impurities” that some consider important “minerals” do not actually participate in the job of what salt has to do.

      Salt is a critical part of our electrolyte as are other minerals. But given that salt can ONLY become part of our electrolyte as an ionic substance of sodium Na+ and chloride and Cl-, all other “minerals” that are attached to salt when we eat it “fall off” and separate. As a result, it really does not matter if we eat salt with anything on it since it separates anyway.

      Now a couple of questions remain: 1) what happens to the minerals that were attached to the salt when you ate unpurified salt and 2) is the purification processes of salt a problem?

      Let me answer:

      1) When the minerals separate from the salt, those minerals that the body can use it will use as if it were “food” meaning it goes through the metabolic process of the stomach acid, the cleansing process by the liver, etc. If the mineral is useful, the body will use it. In natural salts these minerals are trace so if the body uses them, fine and if it does not, it eliminates them by the next elimination, be it urine or a bowel movement. In the case of some salt types, such as Himalayan salt, spectral analysis (http://themeadow.com/pages/minerals-in-himalayan-pink-salt-spectral-analysis) shows that over half of the “minerals” in Himalayan salt are actually radioactive. It also contains lead and mercury. As you know, in the US at least, we went through quite a war to remove lead paint from our walls as a result of the harm they may cause just by being near them. So why would you want to eat it? (We are currently having a city struggling with major diseases because there is lead in the water!). Mercury used to be in our cavity filling materials and in our body thermometers and we went to war to remove them because mercury is toxic to be near (it evaporates causing harm) so why would we want to eat any of these?

      Designer sea salts (there are many kinds so no brand or name is important) that are not purified contain organic materials on them that used to be alive or part of a live organism at some point. But since nothing can survive in/on salt, all of those are no longer alive but as you know, bacteria can form various clever methods of dormancy that may awaken in moist environment with saline water (such as the human body).

      Thus as you see there are some dangers that salt of any kind that is not purified may harm you. There is also the issue of iodine. Individuals who are not iodine sensitive, meaning except those with Hashimoto disease and Grave’s disease patients, also need to supplement iodine daily. The amount is gender and age specific but an average adult needs 150 mcg a day (see table on the bottom of the article: http://cluelessdoctors.com/2014/08/18/what-salt-are-you-eating/). In unpurified salts of any kind iodine is only a trace element. Iodine has a very large role in helping the thyroid create thyroid hormone. In Japan, after the radioactivity became clear following the tsunami, the first things that sold off Tokyo’s shelves were iodine. Iodine can clean the body from radioactivity. This component is missing in both types of unpurified salts so you need to supplement.

      2) Let’s look to see if the purification process of salt is harmful. There is bleaching to remove the bacteria similarly how we may bleach clothing to make it white or bleach our kitchen sick to remove bacterial odor or bleach hospital gown and floors to kill bacteria—we even bleach flour for white bread. Bleach is extremely alkaline so it is harmful for living tissue as long as it is “active” meaning it is moist and the bleaching element has not evaporated. You can test this yourself. Place a little glass of bleach somewhere open where no one can touch it—say high in a cabinet that no kid or pet can get to. Before you put it up there, put your finger in it for a second and quickly pull it out. It will feel slimy and slippery. Wash it off and all is well. Now leave the little container there uncovered for say a week. No put your finger in it and see if you feel the same sliminess. Better yet, pour a fresh one right next to one standing open for a week, place them side by side and put one finger in each and pull them out equally quickly and see if the week old bleach is still bleach of the same strength! Much of it evaporates—not the water though that too will evaporate since what you get is not 100% bleach but a mix with water. But the strength of the bleach will no longer be the same. This is easier measured with tools that you may or may not have.

      Thus when the bleached salt is dried, the bleach is also gone. When you taste purified table salt you do not taste bleach. It has no more bleach on it. In fact salt is pH7; perfect neutrality. It is “not active” and definitely has nothing alkaline on it. Now we can also see on the label that some salt come with anti-caking material. It is to prevent the salt from becoming rock because salt is amazingly good in taking moisture out of things (when you buy shoes or a purse, the little packet in it is actually filled with a highly absorbent salt). Thus anti-caking is in there so you can shake salt if you use a shaker but if you purchase coarser salt, it is not in the salt. It is only in the finest grain of salts to retain its fine powdery form. You also see in some salts (again, not all) that there is dextrose is in it. Dextrose is glucose, which is sugar. Sugar is also a water attractant just like salt. The little packets in the shoes I noted above could very well be filled with sugar (salt is cheaper). Sugar attracts moisture just as well. So dextrose is also helping salt to stay stable in the fine powder if that is what you purchase. You can avoid both of these by buying coarser salts or kosher salt.

      Thus to conclude, salt is NaCl and nothing else. If you prefer the flavor of unpurified salt of any other kind, by all means enjoy. It is not going to add any minerals to your body since the minerals are trace; you get more of the same minerals from a bite of steak with a few pieces of vegetables. You do need to supplement iodine if you use unpurified salt. If you use Himalayan salt, there is a chance that you may end up sick in your later years. Heavy metals do not leave the body and radioactive materials remain radioactive often for Centuries.

      I hope I answered your question.

      Great question!
      Angela

  5. Hi Kathryn,

    Glad you connected your lack of salty taste in your sweat with needing salt. I have seen many people with water toxicity (meaning too much water washes nutrients out of the cells). In fact it was one of the famous Dr.X shows on TV where they said “clear color urine is the best” or something like that, which is totally wrong! Your urine has a function! Its function is to carry toxins from your body so it must enter the cells and grab toxins. If your cells have nothing in them, there are n o toxins either.. so nothing to wash out but the toxins do build up! Your urine should be light yellow like a lemonade and not milky but see-through clear only light yellow.

    In terms of what to do: 1) do not get Gatorade or other sport drinks or smart water or vitamin water because they either have sugar, sugar substitutes, or vitamins and not enough electrolyte nutrients in them. The best thing to do when you work out ion any way or it is too hot and you sweat is what you did in your childhood: salt pill. Use a water calculator to learn how much water you need a day (many online!) and do not drink more than your max (set all answer choices to yes for a max). Keep a balance of 2 parts potassium to 1 part sodium in your diet –learn how in my book “Fighting the Migraine Epidemic” (digital and paperback: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_c_0_21?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=fighting+the+migraine+epidemic&sprefix=fighting+the+migraine%2Caps%2C203 or anywhere else if you prefer). Do have salty snack with protein and fiber and water. Do not drink more than 8 oz water at once and make sure you are always optimally balanced with potassium and salt!

    Hope this helps! 🙂
    Angela

  6. Thank you for your very informative posts. I have had migraines for as long as I can remember and have gone to many doctors and tried many ‘cures’ to no avail. I suspected food allergies, pollen allergies, stress, weather, etc. etc. but there was never a clear cut pattern. Doctors gave me pain relievers that worked sometimes. But what they didn’t do was go for the cause.
    One problem I have had is that I am “hydrophobic” in that I don’t like to drink so of course dehydration was high on the list of causes I suspected, but sometimes I would drink and drink and they would get worse! Last week I was painting in a hot room and sweating in the heat until I was dripping. So…I started drinking water, as much as I could stand. Later I got a headache that lasted all night. I decided to do something that to me was counter intuitive and take a sauna. I thought maybe I was full of toxins. The sauna felt good and of course I drank lots of water in there, but when I came out I still had a headache. A little bell went off in my head however. My sweat, while painting and in the sauna, didn’t taste salty. Isn’t sweat supposed to be salty? My sweat could pass for bottled water. So after the sauna I went into the kitchen and poured salt in my hand and licked it off…lots of it. And in a while I started to feel better. The headache went away! I remembered as a child at summer camp if it was hot we all had to eat salt tabs, but as an adult I have avoided salt. This is when I googled and found your articles. I am not sure where to go from here. Gatorade? More salt licking? Salty snacks?

    At any rate, I feel I am on to something.

    Kathryn Paul

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