Is human life without salt imaginable? Probably not. Salt symbolizes life itself.
Basic physiological functions depend on a balance between salts and liquids in the body. When the balance is upset, the disease may occur.
Salt has been an essential, virtually omnipresent, part of medicine for thousands of years.
It has been used as a remedy, a support treatment, and a preventive measure. It has been taken internally or applied topically and been administered in an exceedingly wide variety of forms.
We shall take a journey through the history of the use of salt in medicine and discover that empirical knowledge of the benefits – and sometimes drawbacks of it – has been a hallmark of many civilizations.
When Lot’s wife looked back to catch the last glimpse at the burning city of Sodom, she turned into a pillar of salt. Roman priests scattered salt where the city of Carthage once stood to prevent any return of life.
These allegories contradict what we know about it today. Dissolved common salt (sodium chloride) is present in all the human body and plays crucial physiological roles in life-sustaining processes. Life cannot exist without it.
But when did sodium chloride become associated with healing powers? And what are its healing powers?
Our journey through the history of medicine will illustrate how the properties of sodium chloride have been viewed over time.
In Egyptian medicine
It is mentioned as an essential ingredient in medical science in some of the oldest medical scripts.
The ancient Egyptian papyrus Smith, which is thought to refer to the famous master-builder and doctor Imhotep of the third pre-Christian millennium, recommends sodium chloride for the treatment of an infected chest wound. The belief was that it would dry out and disinfect the wound.
The Papyrus Ebers (1600 B.C.) describes many salt recipes especially for making laxatives and anti-infectives. They were dispensed in either liquid, suppository or ointment form.
For instance, there was a suppository containing honey, vegetable seeds and ocean salt that was used as a laxative and one with incense, vegetable seeds, fat, oil and ocean salt against anal infections.
Salt-based remedies were also prescribed for callous skin, epidemic diseases, to check to bleed, as an eye ointment, and to accelerate childbirth (a vaginal suppository).
In Greek medicine
Both sea and rock salt were well known to the ancient Greeks who noted that eating salty food affected basic body functions such as digestion and excretion (urine and stools).
This led to it being used medically. The healing methods of Hippocrates (460 BC) especially made frequent use of it. Salt-based remedies were thought to have expectorant powers.
A mixture of water, salt, and vinegar were employed as an emetic. Drinking a mixture of two-thirds cow’s milk and one-third salt-water, in the mornings, on an empty stomach was recommended as a cure for diseases of the spleen.
A mixture of salt and honey was applied topically to clean bad ulcers and salt-water was used externally against skin diseases and freckles.
Hippocrates also mentions inhalation of steam from salt-water. We know today that the anti-inflammatory effects of inhaled salt provide relief from respiratory symptoms.
Thus, 2000 years ago, Greek medicine had already discovered the topical use of it for skin lesions, drinking salty or mineralized waters for digestive troubles and inhaling sodium chloride for respiratory diseases!
Roman salt-containing recipes
The Roman military doctor Dioskurides (100 A. D) is regarded as one of the most important medical authors of Antiquity.
His work Materia Medica summarises the botanical and pharmacological know-how of his time. Dioskurides considered “honey-rain-ocean water” to be an excellent emetic.
Salty vinegar was helpful against “binging and rotting callosities” and bites (dogs and poisonous animals), to check bleeding after surgery, as a gargle to kill leeches and to get rid of “scab and crust“. Salt added to wine and water was a laxative.
Both sea and rock salt were used in remedies but rock salt was considered to be the strongest. It was generally mixed with other ingredients (e.g. vinegar, honey, fat, flour, pitch, resin) and could be dispensed in several forms (drink, suppository, clyster ‘enema’, ointment, oil).
The main recommended indications were skin diseases, dropsy, infections, callosities, ear-ache, mycosis, digestive upsets, sciatica.
The inheritance of Classical Antiquity
The Greek doctor Galen from Pergamon (129–200 A.D.), physician-in-ordinary to the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, summarised the medical concepts of antiquity and left his mark on western medicine for over 1000 years.
His medical system also made use of sodium chloride (sea salt, rock salt, salt foam) in recipes against many diseases: infectious wounds, skin diseases, callosities, digestive troubles.
His list of salt-containing remedies also included emetics and laxatives.
In the Arab world
Eight hundred years later, the medical precepts of the well-known Arab doctor and scientist Avicenna (Ibn Sina, 980–1037 A.D.) laid the foundations of modern scientific medicine.
His recipes also used salt. He emphasized the presence of iodine and iron in coastal sea salt. The Jewish doctor Maimonides (1135–1204 A.D.), physician-in-ordinary to the caliph in Persia, wrote in his Dianetic for soul and body that only bread with enough salt was healthy food.
In medicines of the Middle Ages
The School of Salerno (11th -13th Century A.D.) founded western European academic medicine in the Middle Ages.
It is seen as the first European university to bring together medical knowledge of the Greek and Arab origin and transcribe it in Latin.
Its writings reveal an awareness of the use of a mixture of sodium chloride, oil, and vinegar as an emetic and of suppositories of salt and honey as an effective remedy against constipation.
Powdered and roasted salt was said to have a pain-killing effect and rock salt was considered to be a good remedy against fever.
The School published a book on The Art of Staying Healthy which was a collection of sayings and poems providing Crusaders with life regimens they could understand.
It was, in fact, one of the first popular medical manuals for people versed in Latin and for academically trained physicians. The book explicitly recommended salted bread and food. It’s not only made food tasty but drove off toxins.
However, it also warned against too much salt:
“Too salty food diminishes semen and eyesight – salt burns, makes one fretful, shabby, scabby and wrinkly.”
Salt in Renaissance medicine
The doctor and alchemist Paracelsus (1493–1541 A.D.) introduced an entirely new medical concept.
He believed that external factors create disease and conceived a chemically oriented medical system which contrasted with the prevalent herbal medicine. Only salted food could be digested properly:
“The human being must have salt, he cannot be without salt. Where there is no salt, nothing will remain, but everything will tend to rot.”
He recommended salt water for the treatment of wounds and for use against intestinal worms. A hip-bath in salt water was a superb remedy for skin diseases and itching:
“This brine – he said – is better than all the health spas arising out of nature.”
He described the diuretic effect of salt consumption and prescribed salt preparations with different strengths that were used for instance against constipation.
In 16th-19th-century pharmacies
The pharmacies of the 16th century continued to relate the various uses of sodium chloride to its external aspect (rock salt, sea salt, refined salt and roasted salt).
Respect for it was as deep as prices were high. Until the 18th century, the preferred and most common pharmacy salt was rock salt which, in Germany, came chiefly from the Carpathian Mountains, Transylvania, the Tyrol, and Poland.
Rock and sea salt were still listed separately in the 1833 chemical-pharmaceutical handbook but, as from 1850, the origin of the sodium chloride was no longer specified.
The pharmacists of the 19th century recommended internal use of it against digestive upsets, goiter, glandular diseases, intestinal worms, dysentery, dropsy, epilepsy, and syphilis.
Externally applied salt (e.g. cold or warm hip-baths) was said to be locally stimulating but acerbic to skin and mucous membranes at high doses.
The external application was advised in cases of rash and swelling and, in ophthalmology, to drive off stains and stain-obscurations of the cornea. A cluster (enema) of salt was even supposed to work for patients who were “seemingly dead and apoplectical“.
In encyclopedias and popular medicine in the 18th and 19th centuries
The encyclopedias of the 18th century published extensive treatises on sodium chloride, in particular, rock and sea salt, and referred to current knowledge on the healing powers of it.
A particularly infamous book was the Dirty Pharmacy by Paulini (1734) which held a collection of the nastiest imaginable mixtures for diseases of all kinds. It was a frequent ingredient.
For instance, red watering eyes could be treated by covering them with a mush of fresh manure from a black cow, beer-vinegar, and half a knife’s tip of salt.
Medical practitioners of the 19th century paid particular attention to the effects of natural salt. In 1860, in eastern Bavaria, a sodium chloride solution was used as a compress against inflammation.
Further west, inflammations of the belly button of children were washed with salt-water. Warts were removed by spreading the juice of a snail that had been sprinkled with it.
Hot foot-baths containing salt and ashes were used to alleviate headaches. Burns were treated with brandy, vinegar or salt-water.
In 20th-century medicine
As indicated above, sodium chloride was an important ingredient of remedies in Europe, on a par with natural products such as herbs, until the late Middle Ages.
From then onwards, it became an item in the medicine chest of popular rather than academic medicine. It was not until spa therapy gained popularity in the 19th century that its healing powers gradually began to be investigated scientifically and not until the 1950s that its effects were studied in any detail.
Today, sodium chloride is a natural healing principle used in the form of inhalations, salt-water baths and in drinking-therapy. An important discovery of 20th-century medicine is that salty water – in the form of an isotonic sodium chloride (saline) solution – has the same fluid quality as blood plasma.
This has led to the use of sodium chloride solutions as intravenous infusions. However, salt solutions are also used subcutaneously, intramuscularly, as an enema or externally.
In 1832, the English doctors R. Lewins and T. Latta used a sodium chloride infusion successfully against cholera for the first time. Nowadays, isotonic sodium chloride solution (saline) has many uses:
- as a “replacement fluid” in emergencies. Saline can temporarily replace large amounts of lost blood and thus often saves the lives of accident victims. It can palliate prolonged loss of gastric juices.
- as a “tool and washing liquid“. Chilled saline is used to determine cardiac output per minute, for medically founded forced drainage, to wash red blood cells for blood transfusions, and, at body temperature, to irrigate organs (e.g. gastrointestinal tract, bladder).
- as a “carrier” solution for drugs.
From applying salt to bathing in it
Our journey through history has revealed that the antiseptic action of it on the skin and mucous membranes has been known for a very long time.
Scientific studies have now confirmed the effectiveness of salt therapy in several indications. The antiseptic and bactericidal qualities of dental salt help remove plaque which is a cause of gingivitis and caries.
It is being increasingly used as support treatment for skin diseases. Chronically inflamed skin is treated with medical bath salt from the Dead Sea or table salt.
The salt peels off dandruff reduce inflammation, itching, and pain, and helps regenerate the skin. Salt-baths are frequently used to treat psoriasis, atopic dermatitis, chronic eczema as well as arthritis.
Sometimes (as in psoriasis), this therapy is followed by ultraviolet light radiotherapy under strict medical control so that the combination of salt-water and UV light does not expose patients to an increased risk of skin cancer.
The ancient Greeks had already recommended seaside health resorts to cure skin diseases and Paracelsus mentioned the effectiveness of “salt brine“.
Sea-water baths later led to salt-water baths in regions closely linked with the extraction of salt (salt mines, springs, and works) but it was not until 1800 that doctors from the German town of Bad Nauheim introduced a methodical salt-bath therapy.
They tried to obtain scientific evidence for claims regarding the healing effects of the waters. Current medical indications for salt-bath therapy rest, as a matter of principle, on the empirical traditions of centuries.
They include support treatment for skin diseases due to the anti-inflammatory action of it. Patients suffering from rheumatic conditions often experience relief from joint pain when moving about in a salt bath.
Finally, common or Dead Sea salt can be used as an additive especially in body care products (ointments, shampoos, gels, washes and body lotions).
Steam from salt water is inhaled in chronic diseases of the upper and lower respiratory tract (pharynx, paranasal sinuses, and bronchial tree) or to ease the discomfort of a common cold.
Let’s not forget that Hippocrates had already recommended this treatment! The age-old method is to heat a salt solution to obtain steam but modern ultrasound atomizing can now transport minute salt particles directly into tiny bronchia.
The main effects of sodium chloride on the bronchial system are to stimulate secretion, loosen and help eliminate viscous secretions, inhibit inflammation, reduce irritation causing cough, clean the mucous membrane of the kinocilium, and contract (bronchoconstriction) or extend (dilatation) the respiratory ducts.
Salt-water when drunk has an expectorant effect in the stomach and increases gastric juice secretion.
It raises the level of stomach acid, hastens its production, impedes or stimulates stomach motricity and emptying-rate (depending upon the concentration), increases the secretion of the pancreas, and at higher sodium chloride concentrations stimulates the formation of bile acids.
As a vector
Rock salt is of higher purity than sea-salt which can be contaminated with many minerals and other substances. Some of these contaminants, such as iodine, can be beneficial to health. Iodine deficiency is a major health risk.
It gives rise to a thyroid gland disease characterized by hormonal disturbances causing cretinism and by a goiter which can be so large that it may blocs airflow through the throat or reach externally right down to the collarbone.
Goitre used to be endemic in regions far from the sea such as the Alps but was rarely encountered in countries of southern Europe bordering the Mediterranean. Nowadays, Germany is the only industrial nation where goiter due to a lack of iodine is still common.
This is because, despite the known health risk, part of the German food industry still uses the cheaper iodine-free salt for economic reasons. No legal measure makes the use of iodized sodium chloride compulsory in Germany.
The health authorities must rely on public information campaigns promoting the benefits of sodium chloride with iodine.
N. H. Schüßler (1821–1898), a German doctor, developed a special “biochemical” therapy based on 12 mineral salts which he considered crucial for cell function.
This therapy is still used today. For Schüßler, health resulted from a balance among these salts, disease from a disequilibrium. Sodium chloride was one of his 12 salts.
He administered the salts in homeopathic doses in an extremely wide range of indications (anaemia, loss of appetite, loss of weight, common cold, stomach and intestinal disorders, watery diarrhoea, constipation, haemorrhoids, rashes, rheumatic troubles, headaches, fatigue) and externally against lip blisters, acne, comedo, skin fungus and sores.
*This article was originally published at www.tribunes.com By Eberhard J. Wormer.