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Historically salt has played many roles in our societies other than making our kettle chips taste great. Covenants of Salt were what sealed agreements in Biblical times. The word salary comes from the practice in Roman times of using salt as payment for the soldiers. You have probably heard the phrase “he’s not worth his salt”, which was used to determine the value of slaves in ancient Greece. The mystics believed that salt had powers to prevent illness, and the Latin saying: “Nil sole et utilius” (there is nothing more useful than sun and salt) supports that belief. In my house my mother, who was born in Europe, would toss a bit of salt over her shoulder to bring us good fortune and health. This seems to still be working for her, as she will be 89 on her next birthday. Since salt has been considered very valuable through the ages, it is hard to grasp our society’s vilification of this important nutrient. Unprocessed salt, or the natural amounts found in unprocessed foods, are an integral part of the nutrient dense diets we promote.
What is salt? Sodium and chloride ions combine to make up the chemical composition of salt. Sodium chloride is present in ocean water, and makes up 75% of the “salt” in seawater. In our bodies sodium chloride (salt) teams up with potassium which is our body’s primary intra-cellular mineral. Sodium is found mostly in extra-cellular tissues. When these nutrients are in balance we have the correct amount of fluids in all of our body’s cells. This also correlates with the balance of fluids making up our blood volume. If we have a high salt/low potassium diet we increase the blood volume and as a result our blood pressure may be elevated. Our kidneys are able to remove excess salt as part of our body’s balancing mechanism. The chlorides in salt assist the body to produce hydrochloric acid and activate enzymes needed to digest carbohydrates.
In an article citing various studies on salt use and its affect on blood pressure, Dr. Paul J. Rosch of the American Institute of Stress points out that the population that is affected by higher sodium diet is usually those considered to be obese. According to Dr. Rosch the statistics are often skewed when the participants of the studies are in various states of health and obesity. When he separated out the study participants with normal weight the increase in sodium intake did not necessarily increase blood pressure or hypertension. According to Rosch the researchers in the Intersalt study of 48 groups failed to include some key information. He noted that some of the groups studied had less stress, less obesity, and ate less processed foods. Those groups were healthier and their results were not included in the study findings.
Rosch suggests that the “mined” statistics are reminiscent of Ancel Keys Seven Country study. Keys used data from seven countries of the 15 studied to demonstrate the connection between cholesterol from animal fat and its link to coronary heart disease. If Keys had looked at the other eight countries studied the results would have been the opposite. A major criticism is that Ancel Keys had chosen to study only the countries where saturated fats and the incidence of heart disease where high. He ignored other countries that ate a similar diet but had low rates of heart disease.
In his book, Staying Healthy with Nutrition, Dr. Elson Haas, states that “Where natural foods are the only sources of sodium, there is almost no hypertension. These foods contain more potassium, which is found in high amounts in plant cells as well as in human cells”. In his section on salt he talks about the controversy around salt intake and its effect on blood pressure. Dr. Haas suggests that some researchers believe the key to controlling blood pressure and hypertension is controlling the potassium-to-sodium ratios. The processed foods most of us eat are generally higher in sodium, and lower in potassium.
Dr. Haas suggests limiting the following high salt foods: salt from the shaker (in cooking and at the table), smoked and salted meats, most Chinese restaurant foods (contain soy sauce and MSG), brine soaked foods (pickles, olives and sauerkraut), canned and instant soups, processed cheeses, and other processed foods. The salt used in most of these foods is usually refined and may contain harmful additives such as aluminum compounds to keep the salt dry. Haas suggests we regularly include sea vegetables in our diets. They are “constantly bathed in the mineral-rich ocean water” and are particularly rich in iodine, calcium, potassium and iron.
In Nourishing Traditions, Sally Fallon points out that, “sun dried sea salt contains traces of marine life that provide organic forms of iodine”. She refers to studies that show that this form of organic iodine remains in the body’s tissues longer than iodide salts. Fallon suggests we all use sea salt sun-dried in grey colored clay lined vats that is sold as Celtic Salt. The Celtic salt is rich in the trace minerals and electrolytes our bodies need. On hot sunny days, instead of drinking electrolyte drinks, I will add a pinch of good quality sea salt to my water bottle which helps to keep my electrolytes in balance.
As nutritional therapists we promote eating foods that are less processed and foods with fewer ingredients. One of those ingredients in our processed foods is the refined salt which can upset our sodium/potassium balance. On a simple diet of healthy fats, organic fruits/vegetables, free range meats, whole grains, and raw dairy our bodies will be able to have the correct balance of the important electrolytes sodium and potassium. As a general rule I suggest we do not eat foods that our grand-parents would not recognize. Add regular exercise, and plenty of pure water and the result is better health and vitality.
Yaakov Levine, NTP