Salt licks and strokes

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

October 2006

Medically speaking, our ability to regulate the proper balance of salt within the body is a life-and-death matter. It is the sodium component that is the most important nutritional variable but the terms sodium and salt are used interchangeably, as I will use them here, except when we need scientific precision.

Now that it is one of the least expensive food items, it's hard to imagine that salt was a contributing cause of revolution in France and India, that it helped to bring down the empires of Holland and Spain and that it was used in place of money in ancient Greece and Rome. Our word salary refers to the fact that at times Rome paid its soldiers in salt. "Not worth his salt" was applied to the underperforming Greek slave.

Grazing animals such as deer or cattle occasionally develop a deficiency of salt and may wander great distances in search of a salt lick, which is a natural accumulation of this mineral. The earliest humans ate enough insects and animals to satisfy their need for sodium and never had to seek out salt. Like modern hunter-gatherers, our Stone Age ancestors got along quite well on 500 to 1000 milligrams of sodium a day. To put that in perspective, that is now considered a very low or low sodium diet. The average American takes in about 3,000 milligrams of sodium daily. One cheeseburger-and-fries meal at McDonald's supplies about that much. How did we arrive there, and why does it matter?

Humans and animals have a natural liking for salt that is unrelated to their need for it. When man began to domesticate animals and plants and didn't have to hunt and gather on almost a daily basis, he found it necessary to preserve the food he raised. Salting was an ideal method but it led to a preference for salted foods that has spread throughout the civilized world. Grain and dairy products provide sustenance for about 80 percent of modern humans. These are monotonous diets and salt adds a great deal to their flavor and enjoyment.

Modern processed foods contain high levels of sodium in order to enhance taste and to prolong shelf life. Food manufactures bow to the preferences of health-conscious customers by reducing the content of fat and sugar but no one would buy their products if salt were not added to bring back the flavor.

Heart disease and stroke account for most deaths in the United States and hypertension (high blood pressure) is the single most important factor in both. High blood pressure is virtually nonexistent in those cultures where salt intake is the lowest. On the other hand, some areas of Japan where salt intake is very high have the highest rates of stroke death in the world.

A good first step if you'd like to lower your salt intake is to keep the saltshaker in the cupboard, not on the table. In place of salt, use herbs and spices to bring out the flavor of your favorite recipes. Cut back on pretzels, potato chips, pickles and other salted foods. Eventually you'll lose the taste for salty dishes and your chances for a longer, healthier life will improve.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.