by Gary Gran CYT, DAy.
If we were to call a person salty, what would we be saying about that person? We might say “he’s the salt of the earth” meaning he’s the common man, a man of experience, a real pillar of the community. Or we could say “oh, he’s just an old salt, a real salty dog,” meaning he’s a worldly soul given in to his cravings. Of course, we could say that a person is worth her salt, meaning that she is well seasoned and does a good job, that she earns her ‘salary’, her reward.
Salt is also associated with wounds. To “throw salt in one’s wounds” means to rub it in, just like “to lick one’s wounds”, means to remove the sting. Perhaps the common man, the salt of the earth is one who bears his wounds with dignity, while the salty dog is trying to forget his wounds through indulgence. Salt could be our desire to do a good job, be accepted, and taste life itself. Salt can also be where our fervor lies, where we go to excess, or where we become rigid.
Ayurveda classifies salt as one of the six rasas, or tastes of life. Each taste is associated with different foods and herbs but also with different emotions or experiences of life. The general rule is that a salty substance has the attributes (guna) of hot, moist, heavy and contracted and implies the corresponding effects of heat, dampness, heaviness and contraction when ingested. Therefore, if a person is suffering from too much coldness, dryness, lightness or expansiveness, the salty taste may help.
In terms of the three doshas, or constitutional tendencies, salt is best suited to the vata or air-type person who is naturally cold, dry, light, expansive and perhaps nutritionally deficient in some way. However, the individual qualities of salt can help all people in specific ways if used judiciously. Salt is not very heating, but it can be appetizing and help stimulate the digestive secretions. Salt is very good at retaining moisture. A pinch of salt in a glass of water can help the water absorb into the body instead of running clear through. As a counter-indication, it is well known that too much salt can lead to excessive water retention, bloating and puffiness. The heaviness of salt can help ground a person who is too flighty. It also has a slight laxative or downward-moving effect. A pinch of salt can be added to hot water, honey and lemon juice for a cleansing morning drink. The contraction of salt helps to focus the mind and can counteract the expansive, spacey, empty-calory effect of too much sugar. Perhaps the main benefit of salt however is to counteract nutritional deficiencies.
Salt and salty taste is not limited to table salt which is overused by many people. Salt can be taken to include all mineral salts and even individual minerals. Our physical nutrition comes from the mineral, vegetable and animal kingdoms, but it all starts with the health of the soil. The mineral content of the soil feeds the plants which feed the animals. We can receive our minerals through mineral supplements, through plants and through animals. However, each method has its disadvantages.
Mineral supplements can be hard to digest. Plants convert minerals from the soil into smaller water soluble particles called colloidal minerals which are easier to assimilate. However, if the soil is deficient, the plants will also be deficient and certain plant compounds like phytates, tannins and oxalic acid can block the absorption of minerals. These short-comings can be overcome with proper food preparation, cooking, and food combining techniques. Animal foods being higher on the food chain may themselves be deficient of minerals, or worse, contaminated with heavy metals.
Therefore, ayurveda recommends a well-rounded, diverse diet rich in organic fruits and vegetables, whole grains and beans, supplemented with fresh nuts, seeds, oils and the highest quality animal foods. To these are added small amounts of natural salts, herbs and spices which all contain significant amounts of trace minerals. Let me emphasize here the importance of organic foods. Organic farming is dedicated to preserving and building the quality of our soil. Traditionally, the best farm-land has been along river banks where the soil is renewed each year with minerals from upstream. In ayurveda, the run-off from high mountain glaciers is known as glacial milk which is high in mineral content. Food that has been irrigated with glacial milk is more nutritious, and, this is very interesting, more tasty!
Table salt is used to enhance the taste of our food. If the food has no taste, or not enough taste, we add more salt. This could be an indication that the food itself is lacking minerals. In the end, salt is said to overpower all the other tastes. We stop noticing the true quality (or lack of quality) of our food. This is why it is recommended to do a salt fast for ten days every spring to refresh our taste buds.
However, the bigger issue here is the nutritional value of our food supply. Tests have shown that nutrients vary widely from soil in different regions and even different fields within a region. Two plants of the same type grown in the same field may even have different amounts of nutrients. From a practical point of view, what is left to us is our sense of taste to distinguish the true quality of the foods we eat.
Moreover, a craving for table salt may indicate our own mineral deficiency. In fact, an undue craving for any food may indicate an underlying mineral deficiency. For example, a person who craves chocolate may be deficient in the mineral magnesium. It can be helpful to explore our cravings in this way for clues on how to improve our food selection.
Ayurvedic texts recognize many different sources of the salty taste. The three main categories are natural salts, processed salts and mineral salts:
1) Natural Salts: Natural salts are highly favored for everyday use as they are rich in trace minerals. They include rock salt, lake salt and sea salt. Modern practitioners include sea vegetables in this category.
2) Processed Salts: Processed salts include table salt (refined sodium chloride), potassium chloride (a common salt substitute) and enriched salts such as black salt and iodized salt. Refined table salt without additives is recommended for special purposes such as the neti wash, but not for everyday dietary use. Potassium chloride is helpful for those on a reduced sodium diet. Black salt comes in different grades and is noted for the addition of sodium sulphate which gives it it’s characteristic egg smell. These days, vegans like to use black salt as a flavor substitute in recipes calling for eggs. Iodized salt is important as many soils lack iodine which is needed for proper thyroid function. For example, a lack of iodine can cause goiters. However, many commercial salts containing iodine also contain additives such as anti-caking agents which are not recommended for regular use. Sea vegetables such as kelp are often recommended for their high iodine content.
3) Mineral Salts: Mineral salts include compounds such as potassium carbonate, sal ammoniac, sodium carbonate, calcium carbonate, salt petre, borax, calcium sulphate, sodium bicarbonate, etc. Some of these are naturally formed mineral outcroppings. Others such as potash are formed from the ashes of plant materials. Others can be derived from animal parts.
Some processed salts and mineral salts are used in baking. They include table salt, baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), cream of Tartar, calcium phosphate, calcium aluminum phosphate, calcium citrate, potassium bicarbonate, monocalcium phosphate, sodium aluminum sulfate, sodium aluminum phosphate and sodium acid phosphate. Some people prefer to avoid the ones containing aluminum as aluminum itself is toxic. Others say that the aluminum is bound in the salt and therefore non-toxic. There are non-aluminum baking powders available commercially.
Various salts can be combined in complex formulas with various metals, gemstones and medicinal plants, powdered, cooked, burnt, buried, cooked again, purified and potentized. These alchemical preparations are accompanied by prayers and astrological observances and are called bhasmas or precious pills. These are rarely if ever available in the west. Inauthentic versions are often contaminated with heavy metals or even pharmaceutical drugs so it is buyer beware. A modern and safe alternative favored by many ayurvedic practitioners is the system of cell salts or tissue salts called biochemic medicine along with related homeopathic remedies.
The powdered wood ashes from sacred fire ceremonies are sometimes available and used for spiritual healing. The blessed ashes are known as vibhuti. Perhaps some of their healing potency comes from their trace mineral content.
To summarize, ordinary salt is considered appetizing, flavor enhancing, alkalinizing and digestive. It stimulates the secretion of saliva, helps maintain water electrolyte balance, enhances absorption of nutrients, is slightly laxative, and can help remove impurities from the body.
The early signs of too much salt in the diet are excessive thirst, dark urine, skin irritation and puffiness (especially under the eyes). The signs progress to include bloodshot eyes, clenched teeth, hair loss, angry outbursts, primitive urges, cravings and a certain rigidity of mind bordering on intense fervor. Think of an overly intense workaholic or crusader.
A prolonged excess of salt can contribute to high blood pressure, arteriosclerosis, bleeding disorders, ulcers, water retention, edema, kidney damage, and calcium deficiency.
Or as stated in the Quintessence Tantra of Tibetan Ayurveda: “Salty taste toughens the body and removes whorls of wind (vata) and blockages (of the channels)...increases digestive heat and improves the appetite. Partaking of salty things in excess causes falling hair and greying of the hair, increases wrinkles, decreases strength and produces thirst, skin disorders, blood disorders and bile disorders.”