Chinese medicine recognizes six flavors, or tastes (“wei”) – sour, bitter, sweet, acrid, salty, and level (neutral). These flavors correspond, respectively, with the Liver, Heart, Spleen, Lungs, and Kidneys (the level flavor does not correspond with one specific organ). These flavors contribute to the actions of foods and medicinal herbs. In fact, it is fair to say that the taste of something is its medicine. This is why it is important not to alter the flavor of medicinal teas, generally attempting to make them sweet. A general principle of flavor is that a little tonifies and a lot sedates. That is, a small amount of a given taste will support a given organ, while a large amount will weaken it.
Regarding the salty flavor, it is said to drain and is Yin (this may be summarized as moves downward and affects the interior of the body). Saltiness softens hardness, and in excess dries the Blood. Salty foods and herbs are used in Chinese medicine to treat accumulations in the interior of the body, either dispersing them or purging them.
The term salt refers chemically to a compound composed of positively and negatively charged ions. Without salts, nothing happens in the body. The charged ions which make up stable salts create movement in their progression towards stable states. Life ceases when stable states are reached; homeostasis is a dynamic state, not a static one. Oppositely charged ions tend to attract, so the body possesses biochemical mechanisms to keep them apart. Positively and negatively charged elements intermingle, but do not remain unified until death. Similarly in Chinese physiology, life is the process of Yin and Yang intermingling, fueled by Qi (see A Brief Introduction to Yin and Yang). Salts are the raw materials of the body’s metabolic reactors. Salt metabolism is regulated by the Kidneys, and this is why Chinese medicine places so much emphasis on the functioning of the Kidneys in the basic metabolism of the body.
In the West, we think of salt as being unhealthy. If we clarify that salt in the West means refined sodium chloride (table salt), and lots of it, than this is correct. Table salt can aggravate retention of water and hypertension. However, appropriate use of salty foods and unrefined salts is essential for maintaining balanced body chemistry. Unrefined salts, including sea salts such as Celtic salts, are composed of many other minerals and salts besides sodium chloride. The compounds are necessary for the proper functioning of every system in the body, including the neurological and cardiovascular systems (for which table salt is very damaging). Proper salt intake moistens the skin and bowels, reduces edema, and actually helps to regulate blood pressure.