Headaches & sodium

In my experience the vast majority of headaches are caused by a deficiency of potassium, which in turn is caused by an excess of sodium.

It works like this: Potassium is held primarily in the cells, whereas sodium is held primarily in the bloodstream. Both of these minerals attract water ions. In a sense, you could say that they're "competing" for water.

When we eat diets that are too high in sodium, which is incredibly easy in modern society, the bloodstream contains more sodium ions and thus more water is attracted to the bloodstream. This same water leaves the cells, causing the cells to become somewhat dehydrated.

When the cells in the brain become dehydrated, we call this a "headache." We can take aspirin or whatever until the cows come home, but it's not fundamentally getting at the cause of the problem. The problem is that the cells need more water.

But we can't solve the problem simply by drinking more water, because the cells don't have enough potassium to retain it. The short-term solution would be to have a banana or two, which contain 500mg of potassium each, but the long-term solution involves the sodium in the diet.

Think about it. Virtually every food that is processed in a factory or kitchen contains extra sodium. Whether we're talking about sliced bologna or canned soup or restaurant pizza, there's extra sodium added. There's sodium in the cheese, there's sodium in the tomato sauce.

There's extra sodium in the bottled salad dressing. Sodium is added to frozen dinners, to soda, to baked beans, to pre-prepared "healthy" meals, and so on. Check the labels; you'll be astonished. And those families that threw the salt shaker out the front door brought it in the back door with the soy sauce, which is 20% salt. Sodium is everywhere.

But our bodies weren't built to take this onslaught of sodium. In fact, our bodies were constructed to conserve sodium (by the kidneys), because when we lived in the jungle and lived primarily on raw fruits, we took in 30 or 40 times more potassium than sodium in our diet and so sodium was rather scarce.

Now the situation is reversed. The healthiest societies in the world (the Hunzas, Vilcambambans, etc.) have potassium-to-sodium ratios in their diets of more than 20 to 1, whereas our diet averages about 0.4 to 1.

If you think back to your last serious headache episode, chances are you ate a lot of salty foods for the few days preceding it. In your mind, take a look now if you wish to.

The long-term solution involves drastically reducing the salt in our diet. Since animal foods all contain a lot of sodium, this means moving more toward the plant kingdom in our diet. It means becoming more aware of the sodium on food labels. It means letting go of the soy sauce and the pickles and the cheese and so on. But if we do this, chances are that our headaches miraculously disappear.

Bear in mind that the cause of a headache can also be something much different, such as a tumor. So if reducing the sodium in your diet doesn't work, by all means consult a physician who can be familiar with your personal situation.

ójim sloman, summer 2000 for Dec 12

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