In 2008, when Thomas and I were packing for our first visit to Clinica Buteyko in Moscow, I started thinking about a present for Ludmila Buteyko. Offering a little present as a symbol of goodwill is a part of the Russian culture; nevertheless, I had never met Ludmila and had no clue what she was fond of.
In a local health food store, I spotted a pretty container of Himalayan salt, which was still a novelty in the US. Thomas and I tried this salt and enjoyed its delightful taste. Still doubting my choice, I grabbed the container.
During our first day at Clinica Buteyko, I presented it to our mentor. Ludmila looked at this vessel of crumbly pink powder and raised her eyebrows.
My voice faltered. "Salt... ancient, pure and rich of minerals.
Ludmila looked straight into my eyes. She did not speak, but her expression indicated that she placed some significance on my gift—as if I had accidently mentioned a secret code which opened a door to Shangri-La.
I did not know at the time that salt was a signature element in Dr. Buteyko's work.
Later, Ludmila conveyed to us that Dr. Buteyko grew up with respect for good salt. Somewhere in his area was a mine producing salt well known for its healing qualities. Its price was comparative to gold, and it was often referred to as "white gold."
Historically, in many cultures salt was valued highly and was considered a necessity. First settlements often were formed in the areas with favorable climate, fertile soil and a source of salt. During Middle Ages in Europe, salt possessed unshakeable trade value and equaled money. In Ancient Rome, warriors were paid by salt, because this currency was accepted in any place. In some countries, even coins were made out of salt. If there is no food to buy, at least one can survive by licking the money! Makes sense!
Without a so-called table salt, which is sodium chloride (NaCl), the life of fauna on our planet is improbable. Scientists conducted an experiment: they poured out all the blood from a live frog, which made it die; then, they filled its blood vessels with saline solution, which is salt dissolved in water, and the frog came back to life—its heart began beating, muscles started responding, and breathing resumed.
If an animal or human gets deprived of sodium chloride, it would expire in agony, regardless of other nutrients it receives. In fact, the more food it receives, the sooner it dies. This happens because salt is essential for metabolism: digestion requires sodium and chlorine. If these minerals are absent, the body will extract them from its own tissues, making itself increasingly weaker.
Hunters are aware that wildlife cannot resist salt hunger. In Siberia, for example, they use salt to lure wild animals; in other countries, hunters set up traps near an access to saltwater or salt deposits.
The need for salt in herbivorous animals (plant consuming) compared to carnivorous animals (flesh consuming) is elevated, because most plants don't contain adequate sodium chloride. This is why farmers offer cows, horses, and goats blocks of salt, which these animals and wild game love to lick. In some cultures—for example in Western Africa—priests who were strictly vegan had to drink fresh blood of animals, which compensated for deficiency of sodium chloride in their diet. Blood is very salty; flesh also contains salt, but less compared to blood.
For many years, salt had been demonized as a major cause of heart disease and heart attacks. However, recent studies have shown that this is not the case. It is scientifically proven that good salt supports healthy metabolism, improves hydration, strengthens bones, helps balance blood sugar and hormones, and is detoxifying. And this list of health benefits is far from being complete.
Dr. Buteyko believed that salt is an essential nutrient and should be a part of a daily diet. I've learned that he considered the level of salts in the body a component more important than the level of oxygen. He recommended eating salt to anyone, but first of all, to people suffering from kidney and blood pressure problems.
I know, this contradicts with conventional recommendations! In fact, I know it well from my own experience.
Kidney problems run in my family. I watched my father suffering on dialysis for months before he passed away. When I was around forty, I also developed a kidney issue. At the time I discovered Buteyko, my kidneys were functioning poorly, and I had dark circles under my eyes—which Chinese medicine attributes to weakness of kidneys. Of course, I tried various supplements, but nothing was able to stop the dull kidney pain that accompanied me daily. This pain continued on and off for a couple of years. My physician recommended that I stay on a salt-free diet. I tried to follow his instruction, but my cravings for salty food forced me to sneaking in something briny.
I later heard Ludmila quoting Dr. Buteyko: "Kidneys like salt!" She recommended that I eat salt without any limitations. I wanted to trust her and yet, I thought if her advice was wrong, it would kill me. I did not know what to do, but observing Thomas' asthma retreating from following the Buteyko Normalization Method, taught at Clinica Buteyko in Moscow, I decided to play Russian roulette.
I remember anxiously waiting in my kitchen in Woodstock, New York for my toast to pop up from the toaster. After spreading on vegetable butter, I would thickly sprinkle it with Himalayan salt. Apprehensively, I would take a bite. Ooh, manna from Heaven! I enjoyed this divine experience so much that it became my regular practice.
Soon, my pain subsided; over time, my kidneys regained strength and their functioning improved. Of course, I don't attribute this to salt alone, but also to the breathing and lifestyle improvement. However, I believe that salt played a crucial role in my recovery. I still continue eating Himalayan salt daily.
During these initial stages of my Buteyko training, I also noticed a significant upturn regarding my blood pressure problem. In Woodstock, where the sky was often covered by clouds, my blood pressure would frequently go down and I would feel weak, headachy and in need of coffee. These symptoms improved when I started eating salt. In addition, I observed that sometimes a crystal of Himalayan salt could substitute for a cup of coffee, making me feel more energetic.
Incidentally, Dr. Buteyko considered low blood pressure being a precondition for the development of a high blood pressure problem and did not designate these two as separate issues. Any person undergoing blood pressure problems, he discovered, experiences salt imbalance. In Dr. Buteyko's mind, the increase in blood pressure and the work of kidneys and salt levels were correlated. If the body is lacking salt, kidneys will start producing an enzyme called renin, which increases the blood pressure in order to help kidneys function better in a situation of salt deficiency. Dr. Buteyko believed that restoring salt balance could help overcome both kidney and blood pressure problems. I believe that I am a living proof that it works.
There is another interesting aspect of this story about over-breathing in regards to salt.
In 2015, when I was interviewing Dr. Packman about ramifications of hyperventilation, he explained that over-breathing creates mineral deficiency. Hyperventilation, he said, decreases the level of CO2 in blood causing the pH to go up and become more alkaline. To counteract this problem, kidneys start excreting more bicarbonate (a combination of CO2 and water). To do so, the kidneys have to lose molecules of magnesium, phosphorus, calcium, potassium and sodium. So, these vital minerals leave the body through the urine, when normally the body should keep and use them. The kidneys will do it as a part of homeostasis: to correct the pH is a priority, and to achieve it, the body will sacrifice elements which are less important for the survival. As a result, a person becomes chronically depleted of magnesium, phosphorus, calcium, potassium and sodium.
These minerals (particularly magnesium, phosphorus and calcium) are essential for many basic functions of the body, for example, the contraction of muscles and the propagation of nerve impulses. Their deficiency negatively affects how the nerves and muscles work, making a person feel dull and weak.
On top of it, the loss of phosphorus and magnesium from the kidneys affects our energy level. Phosphorus is needed to create ATP (Adenosine triphosphate), which is a molecule that stores energy. A lack of phosphorus and magnesium depletes our energy stores and prevents the body from producing more energy. This affects every single action: anything that the body needs energy for is not going to work well. This includes the immune system—which will lack energy to create antibodies to fight infections—the liver, the gastrointestinal tract, the kidneys, etc. Muscles and nerves are also affected. When you exercise, your muscles are using up energy. At the same time, energy is created inside the muscles by using ATP. If you don't have much ATP stored, your muscles will fatigue quickly.
Of course, the best way to restore mineral deficiency created by hyperventilation is by stopping hyperventilating, but for many people it is a work in progress. Is there anything else which could help? Yes! Dr. Packman agreed with Dr. Buteyko that eating good salt helps.
How to choose the right salt? Once I asked Dr. Novozhilov this question and his answer was "choose local." I am in agreement with this advice yet aware that for most people it is not an option.
Dr. Buteyko recommended eating unrefined rock salt and to avoid eating commercial table salt, bleached and stripped of minerals. Ludmila emphasized caution regarding sea salt. "All water on the surface of our planet is polluted, and therefore, salt, which comes from oceans, can be toxic."
I recommend using Himalayan salt because it combines all desirable qualities of health-conducive salt. This rock salt is mined from ancient seabeds and is untainted by modern environmental pollutants that pervade other forms of ocean salt. It contains the same 84 natural minerals and elements found in the human body. Its minerals exist in a colloidal form, meaning that they are tiny enough for our cells to easily absorb. It is unrefined and comes in crystals of several sizes. And last but not least, it is delicious.
Some people are unaware that common table salt, found in most homes, restaurants, and processed foods, contains chemicals—and even sugar! It is void of nutritional value, lacking beneficial minerals. Common salt is dried at more than 1,200° Fahrenheit, a process which zaps many of the natural chemical structures. A human body perceives this unnatural salt as a toxic invader! Consuming this salt can lead to irritation of the tissues, water retention, cellulite, rheumatism, arthritis, gout, and other health problems. To avoid "White Death," it is important to eat good salt.
My clients often ask, "How much salt should I eat?" The human body contains many salts, of which sodium chloride is the major one, making up around 0.4 % of the body's weight. For a person whose weight is 220 lb., this would be around 80 teaspoons of salt. The body needs a lot of salt! Since we lose salt whenever we sweat or cry and through urination—especially due to hyperventilation—salt has to be continually replaced. Dr. Buteyko recommended eating salt as much as the body desires.
Many people who over-breathe have strong cravings for salt, which subside when breathing improves. I remember a five-year old boy who I was helping to overcome mouth breathing. I gifted him a container full of salt crystals and let him put one on his tongue. He loved it and during our session kept asking me if it was okay to dissolve another crystal. I did not mind—obviously the child experienced salt deficiency. After he left, I found his salt container trapped in a corner of a couch. A few minutes later his mother came back—her son was crying his heart out, assuming his salt supply was irretrievable.
Dr. Buteyko recommended that parents put a small saltcellar in every room of the house to make salt always accessible to children. Some of my clients chose to put salt in small metal containers attached to their key fobs. This allowed them to use salt anytime they needed it, including the occasions when they were low on energy or simply did not feel well.
In a family situation, I recommend using salt in accordance with the wants of each family member. It is always better to cook food without any salt, and let every person at the table sprinkle raw salt on his or her individual meal.
Many people find it beneficial to drink a cup of warm water with salt dissolved in it. To enhance this "Buteyko Tea," add a bit of honey and lemon juice. This beverage eases respiratory symptoms—especially mucus related—and boosts energy.
Never forget that our blood contains eighty-five percent of salt. Dr. Buteyko stressed that salt should be treated with respect and considered a product essential for human survival. People should maintain strategic reserves of salt instead of wasting it melting ice on roads.
Written by Sasha Yakovleva @Breathing Center