Ian Spohn, ND, is a staff naturopathic doctor for Energique who enjoys challenging the dogmas of both conventional and alternative medicine. He is a passionate supporter of the paleo diet and classical homeopathy.
Something interesting happened to me the other day. I was sitting down to a dinner of corned beef and cabbage, which is usually one of my favorite things to eat because it’s highly salted, but for some reason on this evening it tasted unusually insipid to me. The vegetables were almost shockingly bland and the corned beef was distinctly lacking the usual saltiness I crave, to the extent that I nearly thought to add some more salt to a dish of salt-cured meat that normally should not require it. The only thing that stopped me was the fear that this would most certainly be bad for me because corned beef is already highly salted to begin with and I eat quite a lot of salt as it is, much more already than what I am told is probably good for my health. Though I maintain an otherwise healthy diet, my sodium intake is, and in fact has always been, extremely high, mostly because I love eating salt and seem to crave it excessively. But because I care about my health, on this night I resisted the urge to add any additional salt to my food and, instead, stoically consumed mouthful after mouthful of something that did not suit my taste, leaving my unhealthy craving unfulfilled. The morning after this I awoke with a terrible pounding headache which lasted all day, which seemed a most cruel way for nature to reward me for my striving to be so dutifully health-conscious. But then I started wondering, could it be that my instinctive craving for additional salt that night had been right all along, while I and the U.S. dietary guidelines to minimize sodium consumption were wrong?
I plan to return to that question later, but because this May 10th-16th is women’s health week, for now I will talk about migraines. Although migraines are considered a neurological, not a gynecological, disorder, it is interesting that the majority of migraine sufferers happen to be women. Migraines are a curse upon many people, and there are not a lot of good treatment options available because their exact cause still remains a mystery. It is known that hormones and certain foods play a role, at least for most people, but the fact that they seem so strikingly to affect women must be considered an important clue in the search of their ultimate cause. Any theory to explain migraines must account for the fact that women, particularly when they are of childbearing age, are more susceptible to them. On the other hand, any theory to explain migraines must not depend exclusively on something unique to women, since men do get migraines as well, just not as commonly. The best theory of migraines that I have ever come across, which I found fascinating in light of my experience with avoiding salt as described above, is that they might be a response to sodium depletion in the brain, and despite all the drugs that are being promulgated for them, they might actually be cured with nothing more than a pinch of salt.
According to a brilliant study–which has not received much mainstream scientific recognition, possibly because it was conducted with the help of its participants on Facebook–migraines can be cured by simply eating less sugar and eating more salt, at least for 99.54 percent of the study’s 650 participants.[i] This study, conducted by an independent researcher named Angela Stanton in 2015, recruited migraine sufferers from a migraine support group on Facebook, administered questionnaires to them, and instructed them merely to make a few changes to their dietary habits. This involved eliminating sugar and sweeteners, drinking more water, progressively limiting carbohydrates, and gradually increasing their sodium intake. Each participant had to determine an individual carbohydrate tolerance, which was the point at which they developed intense thirst or sudden profuse urination, signs of electrolyte disturbance. The theory is that elevations in blood glucose cause a flux of sodium out of cells, which if sufficient to deplete sodium levels beyond a certain threshold in the brain will cause migraines. It has been shown that an increase in blood sugar of 100 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl) will cause a 1.4 millimolar (mM) decrease in intracellular sodium concentration.[ii] After six months of avoiding sweeteners, minimizing carbohydrates, and eating so as to balance their ratio of sodium to potassium intake, 647 of the study’s 650 participants had become migraine free. The study concluded that sugar and salt play a crucial role in causing and curing migraines respectively.
To quote the study: “In order to more fully evaluate the role of sugar in migraine onset and sodium in migraine cessation, we encouraged each recovering migraineur to enjoy a sugary candy or dessert after they were fully migraine free. This caused a migraine in every single participant without exception. The administration of a 1/8th teaspoon salt after consuming the sweets with only a sip of water stopped the migraine within 10 minutes.”[iii] It has been theorized that increased neuronal activity may lead to an increased rate of sodium loss in the body, given how important sodium is to conducting action potentials, and that some people by their constitutional nature are more “nervous” than others. People who might be described as high-strung or a bit overly refined, with acute senses and tense, highly coordinated, highly active nervous systems, which are precisely the type of people who stereotypically suffer from migraines, might simply tend to lose sodium more rapidly than others.
Incredibly, this theory also would explain why women of childbearing age seem more susceptible to migraines. It has previously been noted that female marathon runners are more susceptible than males to hyponatremia,[iv] and young women are 25 times more likely to suffer brain damage due to post-operative hyponatremia.[v] These curious facts may be explained by the fact that estrogen seems to have an inhibitory effect on the sodium/potassium pumps which regulate the water content of cells in the brain.[vi] This leads to water retention in cells, which compounds the degree of hyponatremia caused by a loss of sodium electrolytes. Something along these lines might also explain why many women experience bloating and water retention in association with the hormonal changes of the menstrual cycle. But in any case, sudden sodium deficiency as an explanation for migraines would be consistent with the fact that women are more susceptible to them, as well as explain why migraines are often related to the menstrual cycle.
It seems that the main objection to this theory is that if it were true and that if people who suffer from migraines are simply not getting enough salt, it would encourage many people to start eating more sodium. The study by Angela Stanton concluded that the ideal daily sodium intake for migraine prevention was, depending upon the individual concerned, 30 to 50 percent greater than the maximum daily sodium intake recommended by current U.S. dietary guidelines.[vii] It is almost heretical to claim that anyone should eat more sodium, since we have been told for years that high sodium diets lead to cardiovascular disease. The problem with the U.S. dietary guidelines is that they are a one-size-fits-all approach that neglects important constitutional differences in human physiology. A fact which lends strong support to the salt-migraine connection is the finding that people who experience migraines actually excrete (that is to say, lose) on average 50 percent more sodium through their urine than people who do not suffer from migraines.[viii] And yet all Americans should be limiting themselves to the same intake of salt? There is actually quite a lot of scientific controversy over the connection between dietary sodium and heart disease, mostly because despite the recommendations, reducing sodium intake does not seem to do much good for most people, nor does a high sodium intake seem to cause problems for most people. Even a drastic reduction in sodium intake, from eight grams a day to six grams, results in a paltry 5.5/2.8 mmHg reduction in blood pressure.[ix] And this is only a very slight reduction in a risk factor for heart disease, not even heart disease itself. According to a recent Cochrane review which analyzed the numerous studies available on salt and heart disease, “There is insufficient power to confirm clinically important effects of dietary advice and salt substitution on cardiovascular mortality.”[x]
The connection between salt and heart disease seems to be yet another case of something harmless or even necessary being vilified by mainstream dietary guidelines, to the extent that at least some people are making themselves sick in an effort to unreasonably avoid it, often despite very intense natural cravings for it. This is similar to the rise in obesity that has been noted since we all were given mainstream dietary advice to avoid foods high in saturated fat, something that humans instinctively crave and that relatively thin indigenous peoples who did not suffer from heart attacks have consumed across the world for thousands of years, in favor of the novel unsaturated vegetable oils and added sugars which many now believe are the true causes of obesity. Though like many myths, there might well be a grain of truth to the idea. It has been found that people with lower urinary sodium excretion, not necessarily higher sodium intake, are at greater risk of dying from a cardiovascular event.[xi] It might well be the case that some people are constitutional salt wasters and prone to suffer headaches and migraines unless they consume large quantities, whereas other people have trouble eliminating sodium and might indeed overburden their cardiovascular systems if they eat too much. Perhaps Western medicine and modern dietary guidelines should seek to reintegrate the constitutional approach so common to other systems of medicine. In ignoring individual constitutions, Western medicine is almost the exception to the rule among the medical systems of Hippocrates and Galen, Ayurveda, Homeopathy, Unani Tibb, and Chinese medicine, which all recognize the importance of the patient’s constitution in selecting the medicine. It is perhaps noteworthy that in homeopathy, possibly the most frequently indicated remedy for headaches of any type is Natrum Muriaticum, i.e., common salt.
[i] Stanton, Angela. Migraine cause and treatment. Mental Health in Family Medicine. 2015;11:69-72. Accessed 3/31/20 at https://www.academia.edu/18965298/Migraine_Cause_and_Treatment
[iv] Davis, D.P., J.S. Videen, A. Marino, G.M. Vilke, J.V. Dunford, S.P. Van Camp, and L.G. Maharam (2001). Exercise-associated hyponatremia in marathon runners: a two-year experience. J Emerg. Med. 21:47-57.
[v] Ayus, J.C., J.M. Wheeler, and A.I. Arieff (1992). Postoperative hyponatremic encephalopathy in menstruant women. Ann. Intern. Med. 117:891-897.
[vi] Stachenfeld N.S., Taylor H.S. Sex hormone effects on body fluid and sodium regulation in women with and without exercise-associated hyponatremia. J. Appl. Physiol. 2009;107:864–872. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.91211.2008.
[vii] Stanton 2015
[viii] Campbell DA, Tonks EM, Hay KM. An Investigation of the Salt and Water Balance in Migraine. British Medical Journal. 195; 1424-1429.
[ix] Graudal NA, Hubeck-Graudal T, Jürgens G. Effects of low-sodium diet vs. high-sodium diet on blood pressure, renin, aldosterone, catecholamines, cholesterol, and triglyceride (Cochrane Review). Am J Hypertens 2011;25:1–15.
[x] Adler AJ and others: Reduced dietary salt for the prevention of cardiovascular disease. Cochrane Database Syst Rev2014:12:CD0009217-CD009217.
[xi]12. Alderman MH, Madhavan S, Cohen H, Sealey JE, Laragh JH. Low urinary sodium is associated with greater risk of myocardial infarction among treated hypertensive men. Hypertension. 1995;25:1144–52.
Any homeopathic claims are based on traditional homeopathic practice, not accepted medical evidence. Not FDA evaluated.
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