Salt May Be An Antidepressant - Which Would Also Explain Why It's Addictive
    By News Staff | March 11th 2009 12:00 AM | 28 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    Most people consume far too much salt, and a University of Iowa researcher has discovered one potential reason we crave it: it might put us in a better mood.

    UI psychologist Kim Johnson and colleagues found in their research that when rats are deficient in sodium chloride, common table salt, they shy away from activities they normally enjoy, like drinking a sugary substance or pressing a bar that stimulates a pleasant sensation in their brains.

    "Things that normally would be pleasurable for rats didn't elicit the same degree of relish, which leads us to believe that a salt deficit and the craving associated with it can induce one of the key symptoms associated with depression," Johnson said.

    The UI researchers can't say it is full-blown depression because several criteria factor into such a diagnosis, but a loss of pleasure in normally pleasing activities is one of the most important features of psychological depression. And, the idea that salt is a natural mood-elevating substance could help explain why we're so tempted to over-ingest it, even though it's known to contribute to high blood pressure, heart disease and other health problems.

    Past research has shown that the worldwide average for salt intake per individual is about 10 grams per day, which is greater than the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommended intake by about 4 grams, and may exceed what the body actually needs by more than 8 grams.

    Johnson, who holds appointments in psychology and integrative physiology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and in pharmacology in the Carver College of Medicine, published a review of these findings in the July issue of the journal Physiology&Behavior with Michael J. Morris and Elisa S. Na, UI graduate students. In addition to reporting their own findings, the authors reviewed others' research on the reasons behind salt appetite.

    High levels of salt are contained in everything from pancakes to pasta these days, but once upon a time, it was hard to come by. Salt consumption and its price skyrocketed around 2000 B.C. when it was discovered as a food preservative. Roman soldiers were paid in salt; the word salary is derived from the Latin for salt. Even when mechanical refrigeration lessened the need for salt in the 19th century, consumption continued in excess because people liked the taste and it had become fairly inexpensive. Today, 77 percent of our salt intake comes from processed and restaurant foods, like frozen dinners and fast food.

    Evolution might have played an important part in the human hankering for salt. Humans evolved from creatures that lived in salty ocean water. Once on land, the body continued to need sodium and chloride because minerals play key roles in allowing fluids to pass in and out of cells, and in helping nerve cells transfer information throughout the brain and body. But as man evolved in the hot climate of Africa, perspiration robbed the body of sodium. Salt was scarce because our early ancestors ate a veggie-rich diet and lived far from the ocean.

    "Most of our biological systems require sodium to function properly, but as a species that didn't have ready access to it, our kidneys evolved to become salt misers," Johnson said.

    Behavior also came to play a key role in making sure we have enough salt on board. Animals like us come equipped with a taste system designed to detect salt and a brain that remembers the location of salt sources -- like salt licks in a pasture. A pleasure mechanism in the brain is activated when salt is consumed.

    So the body needs salt and knows how to find it and how to conserve it. But today scientists are finding evidence that it's an abused, addictive substance -- almost like a drug.

    One sign of addiction is using a substance even when it's known to be harmful. Many people are told to reduce sodium due to health concerns, but they have trouble doing so because they like the taste and find low-sodium foods bland.

    Another strong aspect of addiction is the development of intense cravings when drugs are withheld. Experiments by Johnson and colleagues indicate similar changes in brain activity whether rats are exposed to drugs or salt deficiency.

    "This suggests that salt need and cravings may be linked to the same brain pathways as those related to drug addiction and abuse," Johnson said.


    I've never quite understood why salt is considered dangerous. Aren't normal fluctuations in water-weight to be expected? & if someone is overweight to begin with, then what's the value of being a bit less overweight and dehydrated? If the extra water weight is enough to truly push them over the edge, then shouldn't they focus on losing weight in more healthy ways. Furthermore it aids food absorption & works as a natural laxative.

    My perspective I admit is a bit skewed - I can't get enough salt, but I've had blood pressure problems (where it's too low) so it's doctor-recommended.

    Nev er trust doctors who give you orders. If somebody will tell me the optimum level of salt intake and the symptoms of taking too much and too little I'll listen, but if someone thinks he knows more about my diet than I do and orders me to adjust it he's obviously a fool. And that's especially true if he starts using trendy and tendentious terms such as "drug abuse"!

    I eat a 'natural salt' called 'celtic sea salt' that is dried naturally on clay tablets in the mediterranean. It hasn't been refined like store bought salt and contains many minerals that the body needs. I also eat 'kelp powder' which is high in iodine needed for proper thyroid function and also has ocean minerals naturally. I guess anything that is refined has all the goodness removed as in white sugar and white flour etc. The body needs to absorb vitamins and minerals from the bodies natural reserves just to digest these refined products which causes deficiencies if not replenished.

    Better eat foods from nature minimally processed or refined as possible. Fresh organic fruit or peeled/washed fruit and vege and foods containing natural sugars and salts.

    Eat and live healthy......

    Good information we should know as we take charge of our own good health.

    Interesting. As a medically trained naturopath, I have often heard of patients responding well to a homeopathic remedy called Natrum muriaticum. Yes, that is sodium chloride or common table salt. Many of my colleagues who are more into homeopathy swear by Natrum Muriaticum in potency for the treatment of depression. On my side, I'm still a little skeptical.

    As a medical anthropologist, I was familiar with homeopathy and was reading a homeopathic text when I saw a collection of symptoms for the Natrum Muriaticum remedy. The symptoms included depression and unresolved grief, with some very specific other indications that fit my long-time physical situation too. Over the next couple of years, I took the Nat Mur, and the depression I'd had for over 20 years gradually lifted. Since then, I've used homeopathy for many conditions (and for my family and my animal friends too!). For all but the most common first aid situations, though, I now consult a trained homeopath. And I haven't needed the Nat Mur in several years.

    So, yes, Greg, Nat Mur can treat depression, when properly indicated!

    Hi...Thankyou for your interest in my comment........I am not a trained naturopath myself although I did commence studies a few years ago towards becomming a naturopath, but, I have done a lot of reading myself and research into health and have been to a couple of health retreats and read books on taoist philosophy, raw food eating, macrobiotics, o blood group diets, vegetarianism etc and have come across quite a bit of health related and nutritional information. So, I am also a bit wary about the use of anything that isn't sourced from 'nature' as in the homeopathic remedies such as the one you described here. Not certain if it would be a temporary treatment for depression though ? I have read that St Johns Wort is a good herbal supplement for depression but mostly getting enough B vitamins, iron, antioxidants in the diet etc, exercise, sleep, sunshine, enough water, positive affirmations and a belief in the spiritual side of life. I guess a balance in the food groups and proper digestion.

    With getting enough salt in the diet, from this that is why I eat this natural 'unrefined' sea salt and the kelp and avoid table salt because it is just the same as refined white sugar. I am curious though with homeopathy being a branch of natural health care why they prescribe a refined substance like table salt ? As I understand it though, a small amount cures ? Not certain on this. I have tried homeopathy and I like how it works energetically on issues so this is perhaps where the use of sodium chloride is effective with the depression.

    Other than that I like eating more naturally and to be aware of/avoid or replace table salt or refined white sugars with natural products where possible.

    Seawater is pH 8.0, changed from 8.2 (25 years ago) due to carbon dioxide pollution. Salt makes seawater alkaline. The effects of pH changes in our diet deserves greater awareness.

    I'd like to know exactly how much salt should I cut out of my diet to avoid death? Or which "natural" foods are most guaranteed to help me avoid death. Basically, what is the best diet out there for avoiding death? Need to know...

    I'd like to know exactly how much salt should I cut out of my diet to avoid death?
    The mortality rate for humans is still holding strong at 100%.  

    Diets are personal and science converges on correct answers for demographics but can't solve them for individuals (yet).    MSG is bad for a few people, for example, but at ordinary levels in food is harmless to most yet the media latched on to MSG as a health worry in the 1990s.   Same with salt, eggs, etc., at some point in time.    Understanding what group you are in is more important than worrying about an optimum of a food.   If you have high blood pressure, more salt is bad.
    The mortality rate for humans is still holding strong at 100%.
    Yeah!  That's no wild guess.  It's actuarilly been proven.
    Come on fellas...

    I figured with a moniker like "Scientific Blogging" I wouldn't have to spoon-feed things to people. Surely you're familiar with the concept of "tongue in cheek", yeah? Oh well, I will go the extra mile here.

    My point, put simply, is that the obsessive focus in this culture on the minutiae of certain health concerns and the overstated benefits or detriments of all manner of cures and/or improvements is really a poorly veiled attempt by people to believe they can cheat death. We all have to die of something. What difference does it make if it's high blood pressure, AIDS, cancer, or a car crash?

    In my life, which I still have only because I miraculously escaped death on a D.C. sidewalk over 12 years ago, there isn't a lot of room for worry--about diet, politics, UFOs, TV, religion, terrorism, bad fruit, or anything else. Having come within inches and seconds of the real thing, my whole perspective on being here on this planet has changed drastically. For me it's all about taking in everything around me, all the time. Total awareness, or as close to it as I can get. My belief is that each of us is here to learn something, or many things, about our own personal truth. I mean, if salt is what does it for you, so be it.

    I think most of western "civilization" has lost perspective. We're hooked on our individual micro-models, never bothering to step away and see the macro of it all. Yes, I'm sure salt is intended to play a role, but really now, how much of one?

    I'm a huge fan of increasing knowledge, and to that end this research is at least interesting. But it should be taken with...

    Anyway, I'm not about to start gobbling salt by the pound for its anti-depressant properties any time soon. I've found Effexor to be completely sufficient for my own needs, at this time anyway. Plus the occasional joint. Keeps me relaxed, and I've found it to be one of the most effective of all pain-killers. Oh yeah, forgot to mention I'm also a chronic pain sufferer. I only survived the event, I didn't walk away scot free. Methadone and Fentanyl are my constant companions, with all kinds of other physician-prescribed goodies in and out of my bloodstream in somewhat arbitrary fashion.

    By all independent analysis I probably qualify as a physical wreck. But I'm still here. And I still love sunshine...and my dog. Do I worry about how the different things I put in my mouth might affect me 30 years hence? Erm...why?

    I figured with a moniker like "Scientific Blogging" I wouldn't have to spoon-feed things to people. Surely you're familiar with the concept of "tongue in cheek", yeah? Oh well, I will go the extra mile here.
    I'm a huge fan of increasing knowledge, and to that end this research is at least interesting. But it should be taken with...
    Nicely done.   

    Of course, tone is hard to get on the interwebs and my "the mortality rate is holding strong at 100%" response was pretty tongue-in-cheek too.      Because we have some 20,000 articles on any number of topics we get people with cancer asking about clinical trials and any number of important things as well so since we are unsure how serious someone is we try to err on the side of caution.
    By all independent analysis I probably qualify as a physical wreck. But I'm still here. And I still love sunshine...and my dog. Do I worry about how the different things I put in my mouth might affect me 30 years hence?
    Salt recommendations are speculation but I am reasonably sure you shouldn't put your dog in your mouth.
    Yeah, I know. They've got websites for that...

    Auntie Hosebag: To give yourself some relief and cut your dependence on those drugs...I suggest you find a good Chiropractor. As a practicing D.C. for 35 yrs and treating over 25,000 patients, I have seen literal miracles when victims of trauma expose themselves to a "good chiropractor." I'm currently writing a book about physical trauma. Although I don't know the kind of trauma you've experienced, if force was involved you may be a good candidate for care. All the best to you. J.B.

    Auntie Hosebag:

    I'm genuinely sorry about your health problems.  I have more than a bucketful myself.

    I really don't give a goshdarn to the power of googleplex about fads and fancies.  When I was a kid it was: "Put a lot of salt on your food, your body needs salt."  When I travelled in the desert, it was sound advice not to take salt without copious supplies of water being handy.  I have suffered excruciating leg cramps from over-exercise in desert heat- relieved within 2-5 minutes by salt.  Now, we are told that salt is harmful.  The British government insists that food packaging must show the salt content.  And now?  I don't see the research as saying "Eat more salt.", although you can bet that plenty of newspapers will refuse to let the truth get in the way of ...    But then, educated people will always take newspaper articles with ...    as I see you yourself do.  :)

    So today, grey is the new black.  In 30 years, pink will be the new shoe-lace for all I know - or care.
    Fads, fashions and fancies -

    "What - me worry?" - Alfred E Neuman

    Edit -  Hank
    I am reasonably sure you shouldn't put your dog in your mouth.
    I wish I'd thought of saying that.   :)
    The problem is not over consumption of salt but under utilization of salt like any other food addiction. Inactivity triggers survival cravings because brain thinks you are unable to move because of some injury or disease and directs cravings to eat as much as one can, especially critical basic nutrients like salt and sugar. Hence the sugar and salt "high". It thinks better to have salt and sugar in blood and fat respectively in case the person runs out being incapacitated till s/he gets out of survival mode at small risk of heart attack in such a short term.

    Solution is to either fight these strong cravings by dieting or eat whatever body craves while staying very active. Then survival mode cravings will not kick in at all and body will only crave for optimal salt and sugar as it is used.

    Why doesn't fda recommend higher physical activity instead giving cheap alternative of limiting essensial minerals?

    Oops. you lost me here. Can't figure out what you're trying to say. Plus, like Mr. L, I was struck by this sentence:

    Inactivity triggers survival cravings because brain thinks you are unable to move because of some injury or disease and directs cravings to eat as much as one can, especially critical basic nutrients like salt and sugar.

    I would be interested in seeing credible substantiation of these claims. As one of the most inactive people I know, I guess I'd better discover what my "survival cravings" are, because right now I haven't a clue. I AM unable to move, at least as much as I want to, but I certainly don't eat as much as I can, and since I eliminated sugar from my diet I lost 25 pounds--without exercise.

    Just curious about the source of your information.

    If you are asking if there has been any experiments to test cravings triggered by inactivity, I am not aware of it. My statement is a pure theory based on common sense and general knowledge. There is probably no easy way to test it, even on human subjects, given the subjective nature of cravings and rationalization brain can do to admit that it has cravings (!).

    The best evidence of just how complex the cravings can be seen in a discovery documentary ( There is even a section about a guy stuck in cave with NO food and just water which is pretty instructive. But here are few other observations which seem to support my theory quite simply without "blaming the genes". It is very common to see rapid development of a underdeveloped community results in unusual obesity/blood pressure problems even though none of their ancestors were obese/had heart attacks. Other more subjective evidence is that the cravings for food are so much MORE powerful for obese people after they become obese than when they were not. Finally people seem to eat more when they are "stress out" which could be manifestation of my theory as well.

    As I mentioned, there are TWO ways to fight this. (a combination is even better)
    1. Use our educated conscious mind to override the cravings to eat sugar and salt (which is very hard but not impossible. Also its harder for some people than other).
    2. Alternatively, realize that cravings, related highs and resulting obesity/high blood pressure can be avoided (AND REDUCED) by keeping physical activity levels higher than required by modern society but enough to be consistent with activity levels the body has evolved in over last 500,000 years.

    Acidosis can result in mental depression (see below link to animal model). Changing the pH by increasing alkalinity is the treatment. Perhaps this is a link to the reason that salt has a positive effect on depression (salt increases the pH; more alkaline).

    Inactivity triggers survival cravings because brain thinks you are unable to move because of some injury or disease and directs cravings to eat as much as one can
    Chameli: can you point out any studies on this?  It's a very intriguing concept.
    BTW, Hank, the eat your dog thing was astronomically funny. Thought I was gonna puke.

    Is there some way I'm supposed to "join" this shakedown? How is it youse guys got BOLD lettering and pictures an e'ythang?

    Upper right.

    Yes, that's what happens when you design your web page using your massively huge and expensive screen set to the highest resolution.

    Us poor people with moderately miniscule 800 x 600 monitors and or poor eyesight never get to see the right-hand edge of most websites.  It's not the browser.  It's people like me who are too darn idle to use the horizontal scroll bar.  Vertical scroll = easy-peasy (scrollwheel mouse.)  Horizontal scroll = ouch ooh aargh - my poor arthritis!   Moan, moan, gripe, whinge.  All such other words as are listed under 'complain' in a good thesaurus should be taken as read.  Recursively.

    I love satire.  Pity I'm so lousy at writing it.  :)
    The only problem with salt is the health risks. I've heard a lot of positive things about fish oil pills, with prescription oil being recommended to regulate mood and cholesterol among other things. Any thoughts on this?

    With fish oil I believe it is very much needed by the body because of its omega 3, 6 oil content but I think this can be obtained from vegetarian sources too like linseed oil and by eating the fish itself (not totally certain on this though)and olive oils, nuts seeds, avocado etc. I know it helps overall with well being and especially for psorisis a skin condition.

    Does anyone know what omega oil fish oil is ? And can this be obtained from other sources instead of the fish oil ?

    As meat loves salt... because it makes it taste better, it doesn't make it happier. Nice theory but I'm not buying it.

    I knew before that sugar is addictive but I never suspected that salt can be addictive as well. I don't suppose there are salt addiction rehab programs and even if they were I don't think there would be anyone interested in them. Salt may be addictive but it can't be compared with any of the addictive drugs we already know.