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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

6: Salt of the Earth

When I was in my early twenties, I ran with a bunch of ski-bums who in the summer turned their interests to hang-gliding. I remember a particularly hot day that some of the guys were going to hike up the back side of a 2,000-foot cliff with their kites to take a spectacular flight over the outskirts of Kamloops, BC. Before the guys headed up, I saw them popping some pills, and I asked what they were. “Salt tablets,” came the answer. They went on to explain that especially in this heat, and exerting themselves as they would on this arduous hike with a heavy load, they would lose a lot of water and sodium through perspiration and they needed to replace it.

The memory of this incident has returned to me time and again. We understand, especially athletes do, the need to re-hydrate under such conditions. But we rarely think of our need for salt, especially in this era when salt has become a dirty word in most health circles. Yet I have often thought, if overweight people are told to cut back on salt because it’s causing them to retain water, what of the converse? What happens when you don’t have enough salt? Does this mean you can’t retain enough water? Personal experience and research has borne this out.

Sometimes during a sizzling hot spell, I find myself feeling faint and weak, especially when I exert myself outside. And thinking I must need more water, I guzzle it down. Yet at times like this it feels strangely unsatisfying. My body doesn’t seem to feel any benefit and the water runs right through me. Then I remember that day back in my twenties, and I add some salt to a tall glass of orange juice, and, man oh man, that does the trick. I feel like my whole body is saying, “Yes!” and my energy comes flooding back.

“In extracellular fluid, sodium is the major electrolyte. ... Hyponatremia results when blood levels of sodium become too low usually caused by excessive sweating, diarrhea, or vomiting. Symptoms are dizziness, confusion, weakness, low blood pressure, and shock.”

Last summer my then-92-year-old mother-in-law was hospitalized for several weeks. She was very, very low and reached a point where she hardly had the energy to open her eyes. The whole family came in and said their goodbyes. Then the medical staff checked her electrolytes and immediately thereafter started running saline into her veins. Her turnaround was so dramatic, it was virtually life back from the dead. A year later she is more chipper and “with it” than ever. Certainly other factors have contributed, but it was the saline that pulled her back from the brink.

I wonder how much of heat stroke is simply low sodium and the resulting electrolyte imbalance and dehydration. Next time you’re feeling weak and woozy in the summertime, try 8 oz. of fruit juice with a half teaspoon of salt stirred in. But not just any salt. It needs to be a good quality Celtic sea salt. Regular table salt is definitely not good for us (although in a crisis, it will do the job). Refined at high temperatures and stripped of 82 of its 84 naturally occurring minerals (which are then sold into other profitable industries), the remaining sodium and chloride are no longer presented as nature intended. Yet salt was certainly originally designed to be good for us. Otherwise, how would it be that the wisest Man who ever walked called His followers “the salt of the earth”? In this day, given the bad press on salt, such a title would be perceived as an insult!

During the years that our kids were involved in high school sports, I used to cringe as I watched the teams guzzle sports drinks by the case. These products are glorified Kool-Aid: in most cases simply water, sugar, artificial colours and flavours—plus table salt. How I’ve wanted to suggest that they instead buy bottled orange juice and add some sea salt. So healthy, so tasty, and, I have a hunch, just the right complement of the major minerals we need, plus a host of trace elements that we don’t get anywhere else.

A number of sources state that sea water is almost identical in composition to the amniotic fluid in which we are sustained before we’re born: a mineral bath of the very essence of life. Surely the nutrients that nurtured us then will nourish us now. I’m all for following a doctor’s orders. But the next time your physician tells you to cut back on sodium as an arbitrary directive, take it with a grain of salt.

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