Salts of the Earth: The Mineral Kingdom
by Gary Gran, CYT DAy.
In Part One of this article, we established that saltiness is one of the six tastes recognized by Ayurveda. Salty taste is said to increase fire and water which means it is warming and moistening. Therefore, an excess of salt could create too much heat or too much water which is called an aggravation of pitta (heat symptoms) or kapha (damp symptoms), or both. For example, we could observe a skin rash, redness, puffiness or swelling of the skin after an overly salty meal.
We also expanded the notion of salt to include not just table salt, but all mineral salts and minerals themselves. In this article, we will take a closer look at the role minerals play in our diet and some ayurvedic techniques to improve mineral nutrition.
Traditional Ayurveda classifies minerals according to their source: from the ground, from plants and their ashes, or from animal parts. Modern Ayurvedic practitioners divide minerals into the major minerals (needed in relatively large quantities), the trace minerals (needed in relatively small quantities) and the heavy metals (toxic in small quantities). The most important major minerals are calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium, phosphorous, sulfur and chlorine. Some important trace minerals are iron, zinc, selenium, chromium, manganese, molybdenum, silicon and iodine. Some toxic heavy metals are lead, arsenic, mercury, aluminum and cadmium. There is a special place in traditional Ayurvedic lore for the alchemical minerals mercury, salt, sulfur, gold, silver, copper, iron, tin and lead.
Ayurveda tells us that salts (minerals) increase fire and that fire represents the principle of transformation. In the body, transformation means the metabolism or digestion and assimilation of our food. In modern terms, minerals are needed to support all enzyme activities which govern metabolism. Therefore, a mineral deficiency or imbalance can disrupt enzyme activity and metabolism. For example, the trace mineral chromium is involved in sugar metabolism and the utilization of insulin. A problem can occur two ways. There could be a deficiency of chromium in the diet, or there could be an excess of highly refined carbohydrates in the diet which deplete whatever chromium is available. Not surprisingly, both of these scenarios tend to reinforce each other.
Ayurveda tells us that salts increase water. Two minerals in particular, sodium and potassium regulate water in the body. Ayurveda suggests that sodium has an undifferentiated primitive oceanic quality as sodium is found primarily in the ocean. It tends to build up in the extra-cellular fluids of the body and causes that characteristic puffiness when in excess. Potassium is considered to have a more intelligent, organizing, upward-moving quality as it is found primarily in plants. Potassium tends to build up within the cells.
An excess of sodium (salt is sodium chloride) drives out potassium from the cells and gradually wears down the body tissues. It is as though the body is returning to a primitive non-differentiated oceanic state. Potassium on the other hand balances excess sodium, and lends it’s organizing qualities to water metabolism. The lesson here is that sodium and potassium need to be balanced in the diet. For most people that means reducing the amount of salt in the diet and increasing the amount of vegetables in the diet.
Ayurveda also tells us that the potential post-digestive or long-term effect of salty taste is sweet. Sweet is defined as a combination of earth and water. Translation: Whereas an excess of common salt can break down body tissues, minerals in general provide the building blocks for all the tissues of the body. Think of the big picture. Minerals start out either dissolved in the ocean or formed as the very structure of the earth. Running streams and rivers break down the rocks and water our fields. Natural soil which is rich in humic acids further break down the minerals which are absorbed into plants which are eaten by animals and humans. The minerals are then transformed into living tissues. The water and earth of the outer world have become the fluids and tissues of our physical bodies.
The main problems in this process are mineral imbalances (such as sodium-potassium discussed above), mineral deficiencies (primarily from poor soil and/or poor food choices), pollution (from heavy metals which tend to build up in animal tissues), and poor assimilation (from a lack of digestive ability which itself can be caused by mineral deficiencies).
Now let’s take a fresh look at the various food groups and see how ayurveda addresses these issues.
Important Foods, Herbs, Supplements & Techniques
General: The main point is that the nutritional profile of all the food groups is dependent upon the soil. To insure a healthy balanced intake of major and trace minerals eat a varied diet of quality organically grown foods. In addition, observe the following food preparation tips to maximize mineral absorption.
Grains: In general, whole grains are higher in minerals than refined grains, but they can be hard to digest. Therefore, in ayurveda, grains are typically processed in the following ways. The very roughest portions of the grain husks are removed to improve digestibility and keep the rough fiber from blocking mineral absorption. Grains can also be fermented to improve mineral availability. This can be thought of as sour taste helping the salt taste. Also, grains can be stone-ground. It is possible that minute portions of the grinding stone find their way into the flour. Commercial flours and grain products are often enriched with vitamins and minerals but what is the point of stripping a food of it’s nutrition only to add it back in piecemeal? Grains can also be sprouted to make them easier to digest. For example, wheat grass and barley grass are high in easily digestible calcium and magnesium.
Beans: Beans are handled as follows. Sometimes the husk is removed and the bean is split in half before cooking. All beans are typically soaked before cooking. The soak water is thrown out. They are then boiled with spices. Fresh spices themselves contain an impressive array of trace minerals which is one of the best reasons for including them in the diet. Another technique is to add a piece of kombu sea vegetable to the bean pot which also adds trace minerals and aids digestibility.
Traditional soy foods are excellent for their mineral content. Traditional tofu is processed with nigari which is rich in trace minerals or with a calcium salt which adds a significant amount of easily digestible calcium.
Vegetables: Vegetables are judged by their appearance and their flavor. For example, yellowed leaves may indicate a mineral deficiency. In general plants help breakdown minerals into minute particles suspended in water. These are termed colloidial minerals which are easier for humans to absorb.
Green leafy vegetables are especially prized by ayurveda for their high mineral content, especially calcium, magnesium and iron. However, various plant compounds such as phytates and oxalates can block their absorption. For example, oxalic acid in spinach and chard blocks the absorption of iron. Other vegetables that contain oxalic acic are beets, beet greens, and to a lesser extent, kale, celery and parsley.
For this reason, ayurveda does not recommend raw spinach or chard. Instead, all green leafy vegetables are typically blanched or boiled and the cooking water is discarded to remove some of the undesirable compounds. The blanched greens are then cooked down in ghee or vegetable oil with spices and perhaps other vegetables. This is often done in an iron skillet. As the vegetables cook the minerals are chelated or bound into more digestible compounds. Also, a small amount of iron from the skillet may be absorbed into the food. This is why aluminum cookware is not recommended as minute particles of aluminum may be chelated into the food, especially if cooked with anything acidic like tomatoes. After boiling and sauteeing the leafy veges, a large quantity of leaves is cooked down to an easily digestible portion full of condensed nutrition. They can be served with lemon juice which further increases the mineral absorption.
Vegetables can also be juiced to remove all the fiber or pulped to help break down the fiber.
Salad greens can be lightly salted. In fact, the term ‘salad’ actually means ‘salted.” If a natural salt such as sea salt or rock salt is used this can add important trace minerals. Adding a good quality oil and vinegar dressing helps in their digestion and assimilation.
Sea vegetables are a great source of trace minerals. However, sea vegetables do not mix well with dairy products in everyday cuisine. Therefore, they can be served at different times or one can be excluded in favor of the other. They are both excellent sources of calcium and magnesium.
Fruits: Organic fruits are rich in easily digestible colloidial minerals. Some fruits can be peeled to remove the indigestible portion or juiced. Dried fruits can be soaked or cooked into cereal. Dried fruits such as raisens and apricots are often high in iron. Some fruit is salted such as salt plums or olives which adds to their mineral profile and alkalinizing effect. A mildly acidic fruit juice can be sipped about half an hour after a meal to increase mineral absorption of the meal. Organic apple juice is a good choice.
Proteins: Some ayurvedic practitioners list amino acids and meats as including the salty taste. Certainly many meats are preserved with salt, tenderized with sodium based meat tenderizers, or cooked with salt. Therefore, a high meat diet is often sodium excessive. Excessive sodium intake competes with calcium. In addition, a high meat diet tends to be high in phosphorous which also competes with calcium. Therefore, a better choice for supplemental protein is dairy which is low sodium/ low phosphorous and high calcium. Fermented dairy (sour taste aiding salt taste) such as yogurt ranks near the top for easily absorbed calcium.
Fish and poultry can be rich in minerals. But depending on what they themselves have eaten, they are often high in toxic metals as well. For example, almost all fresh water fish is contaminated with mercury. Smaller fish like sardines are less likely to be contaminated and when eaten with the bones are high in calcium. Whatever supplemental protein you choose, whether it be meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy or soy foods, make sure it is of the highest quality.
Nuts, Seeds & Oils: Nuts and seeds can also be processed to reduce their indigestible portions and maximize their nutritional components. For example, almonds, which are high in calcium and magnesium are typically soaked overnight. This wakes up the life force which mobilizes the nutritional benefits and enables us to slip off the husk which is indigestible and can block mineral absorption. Sesame seeds, also rich in calcium and magnesium, are often roasted and ground. They can be made into a paste called tahini, or combined with a natural salt to be sprinkled on food. Cold-pressed oils remove all the fiber for easy digestion of the oil. Oil can help assimilate minerals, but don’t overdo it. A good rule to follow is to limit your added oil to three spoons a day.
Condiments: World cuisine offers many salty condiments besides table salt. Pickles, chutneys, pastes and sauces are often very salty. Soy sauce, tamari, miso, gomashio, fish sauce, brown sauce, Worcestershire sauce and liquid amino condiments are highly salty and often high in glutamates.
Glutamates: A special mention needs to made for glutamates. Since 1908, glutamates have been recognized as an additional taste. This followed the discovery of dedicated taste buds on the tongue. The taste is now referred to as umami or savory taste. Ayurveda simply includes this group under the salty taste.
The strongest glutamate is mono-sodium-glutamate, the notorious MSG which is used as a flavor enhancer and often causes headaches or allergic type reactions. It turns out that many world cuisines have used glutamates for centuries to enhance flavor. For example, Parmesan cheese is nearly as high in glutamates as MSG. Roquefort and blue cheeses are also very high, and most aged cheeses have glutamates. Meats are high in glutamates since glutamic acid is one of the amino acid proteins. Hydrolized vegetable protein is high in glutamates. Soy sauce, miso and fish sauce contain glutamates. Sea vegetables, mushrooms, milk, anchovies, bacon, bouillion, Worcestershire sauce, steak sauce, brown sauce and even tomatoes and grapes contain glutamates.
There is often a craving for these foods when someone is transitioning from a meat-based diet to a vegetarian diet. One cooking technique that Ayuveda offers is to brown some high quality mushrooms along with other vegetables in a mixture of ghee and spices. When the vegetable dish is nearly ready, a small amount of milk is cooked into the dish which creates a savory gravy.
Supplements: Ayurveda normally recommends obtaining minerals from a well-balanced diet rather than from supplements. Minerals often compete with one another, so taking a single supplement of one mineral may throw off the availability of another mineral. There are a few minerals that may require supplementation however. The most common mineral deficiencies are calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc.
Calcium and magnesium are usually found together in foods and should be combined if taken as a supplement. As they are hard to digest they need to be taken in small doses spread throughout the day. Some people do very well with liquid calcium/magnesium supplements which are herb based. Others benefit from including the biochemic cell salts calcium flouride and magnesium phosphate in their daily regimes. These are taken in pellets under the tongue away from meals for long periods of time. They have the power to restore proper mineral metabolism at the cellular level.
Iron absorption can be maximized using the food preparation tips described above. In addition, vitamin C or vitamin C rich foods like lemon or tomato can boost iron absorption. If meat is not included in the diet, good sources of iron are beans, spinach, kale, collards, raisens, apricots, molasses, whole grains and burdock root. Many people do well on a liquid iron supplement which is herb based. Some herbs which are high in iron are alfalfa, dandelion, mullein, nettles, rosemary, sarsaparilla, scullcap and yellow dock. The cell salt ferrum phosphate can be used to maximise iron absorption and utilization on the cellular level.
Vegetarians are often deficient in zinc. The most reliable sources of zinc are animal foods and sea foods. The zinc present in plant foods is often blocked by various plant fibers or absent due to zinc-deficient soils. One of the signs of zinc deficiency is difficulty tasting your food. This can lead to a craving for extra table salt which can mask the underlying deficiency. Other signs of zinc deficiency are an impaired ability to smell, poor appetite, underweight, poor resistance to infections, skin and nail problems, reproductive problems, slow wound healing, poor memory and even depression. Fortunately, zinc supplements are easily available and relatively easy to absorb.
A special substance used in ayurveda as a rejuvenative and adaptogen is known as shilajit. It is also referred to as bitumin or mineral pitch. It is a natural exudate of humic acid which is collected from the faces of the Himalayan mountains and then purified. It is often combined with dried fruits or herbs and taken in small doses. This remarkable substance contains antimony, calcium, cobalt, copper, iron, lithium, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, phosphorous, silica, sodium, strontium and zinc along with various acids, gums and oils.
Herbs & Spices: Herbs and spices contain an impressive array of trace minerals and since trace minerals are needed in small amounts this constitutes a powerful argument for their inclusion in a healthy diet. In fact, ayurveda has several recipes for combining herbs and spices into ferments, pastes, powders, soups or pills to be used as medicines, restoratives, and rejuvenatives. One famous rejuvenative paste is called Chavyan Prash which typically includes up to 40 or more herbs and fruits which are rich in trace minerals. It can be considered like a daily multi-vitamin-mineral supplement. In fact, it is often recommended when a person is suffering from food cravings. The idea is that a craving indicates an underlying deficiency and that Chavyan Prash is so rich in nutrients it can provide the missing micro-nutrient and the craving goes away. Or to put it another way, when our diet is limited to only one, two or three of the six tastes, Chavyan Prash will provide all the tastes needed to fully satisfy the palate.
For another example of how the ayurvedic system of the six tastes works consider someone who is pre-diabetic. They may be eating a diet which is too rich in sweet taste. Ayurveda would recommend decreasing the quantity and quality of the sweet taste and adding the pungent taste. The theory is that sweet taste is cold, wet and heavy in quality and that pungent taste has the opposite qualities of hot, dry and light. So good additions to the diet would be black pepper or thyme. It so happens that good quality black pepper and thyme are high in chromium, the very trace mineral needed to help process sugars.
A special note needs to made for the inclusion of roots in the diet. Roots interact directly with the soil and are often the richest in trace minerals. Alfalfa root is particularly noted for its wide array of trace minerals and can be considered like a single source multi-mineral supplement.
Tea also deserves a special mention. Although high in certain trace minerals, the tannins in the tea can block absorption of other trace minerals such as iron. For this reason it is not recommended to drink tea with meals.
On another note, one way to protect oneself from a build-up of toxic metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium, aluminum and arsenic is to include a full array of trace minerals in the diet. Selenium may be particularly helpful in this regard. The healthy trace minerals may act to block the absorption of the toxic heavy metals. Also, cilantro and chlorella may be helpful in removing toxic metals already present in the tissues.
Unfortunately, we must also note that poor quality herbal medicines from India and China have been found to be contaminated with heavy metals. Although I believe it is possible to make herbal-mineral preparations with potentially toxic ingredients in a safe way, these special alchemical preparations are not finding their way to the marketplace. The lesson is to know your sources and to buy from reliable suppliers with good reputations for testing their products, or learn to grow and make your own medicines.
To summarize the main points of the article, we have considered how: 1) minerals from the earth form the building blocks of all the tissues of our body, 2) refined foods grown on poor soil are mineral deficient unless there is an attempt to fortify the food with added minerals, 3) even then important trace minerals are left out, 4) the best strategy is to eat a diet rich in a wide variety of organically grown grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices including a small amount of natural salt and the highest quality supplemental proteins, 5) grains, beans, vegetables and fruits can be prepared and combined in certain ways to render the minerals easier to digest, and 6) there may be times when mineral supplementation is helpful or necessary.
Salt has a long history that stretches back to the dawn of time. Perhaps more than any other substance salt symbolizes our common bond with the planet earth. So to conclude our study of salt and minerals consider the journey of the traditional salt men of Tibet.
In Tibet, it has been traditional for centuries for traders to make an annual pilgrimage to one of the twelve great frozen salt lakes to collect salt for local use and to trade for barley. The traditional pilgrimage, as documented in the film “The Saltmen of Tibet”, shows a humble respect for the earth, the seasons of the year, cultural traditions and the relationship between our actions and our circumstances. In the documentary the salt men undertake a 32 day journey over rough terrain to visit the Lake of Tears, so-called because it was formed from the tears of Tara, the goddess of compassion. The fragility of this tradition becomes apparent in the documentary when we see trucks taking salt from the same lake for commercial purposes. The question arises, are we abandoning traditional values because they are superstitious and primitive or are we abandoning our reciprocal relationship with the earth which sustains us?
References for further study: “Diet & Nutrition”, “Transition to Vegetarianism”, & “Radical Healing” by R. Ballentine; “The Saltmen of Tibet” by U. Koch; “The Quintessence Tantras of Tibetan Medicine” tr. B. Clark