To finish up the flavors for the year, we have one left – salty. Most herbs that are salty are subtly so. Yet salty can include herbs with mineral salts, such as nettles. Here I want to discuss a true salty herb: seaweed. Seaweed is not unknown as a medicinal herb. Irish moss and bladderwrack are also seaweeds used as herbs. China, Korea, and Japan have long used seaweed as food and medicine.
Most people don’t think of seaweed as an herb but rather as a food. Seaweed is widely used in macrobiotics for its health benefits and mineral/vitamin content. As well, seaweed is a staple of sushi. We include seaweed with every pot of beans we cook because it neutralizes the gas-forming phytic acid contained in beans. My son relished strips of roasted nori and I snack on these myself today. Seaweeds are also used as binding agents in such commercial products as toothpaste and fruit jelly, and a softener (emollient) in organic cosmetics and skin-care products.
Sea vegetables come from the ocean, or from farming in tanks or sea beds. It is a macroalgae, which are thousands of species of marine algae growing not only in the ocean but also other water bodies. Some seaweeds are microscopic, such as phytoplankton, a major food source for ocean life. Others live suspended in the water columns while still more are enormous, like the giant kelp that grow in underwater “forests” or towers. Most macroalgae are medium-sized coming in red, green, brown, and black colors. All provide the base for most marine food chains.
Seaweed is loaded with minerals as well as vitamins, fiber, and antioxidants, and makes a great snack. Many people today are actually mineral deficient, leading to a slew of symptoms such as mouth ulcers or cracks in the corners of mouth, dry and brittle hair and nails, bleeding gums, poor night vision, white growths on the eyes, scaly patches, dandruff, hair loss, red or white bumps on the skin, and restless leg syndrome (linked to low blood iron). Children who eat dirt or have growing pains might benefit from seaweed snacks to provide the minerals they may well lack, causing such symptoms.
Seaweeds in general provide protection against environmental toxins and radioactivity. They bind with radiation and heavy metals, rendering them inert. Many types of seaweed contain alginate, which prevents about 78 percent of radioactive products from being absorbed by bones and teeth. Seaweed also contains iodine, which takes up residence in the thyroid, which helps maintain thyroid function, plus keeps any radioactive iodine around from settling there to cause cancer. Supposedly dulse is especially high in iodine as well as contains all trace elements needed in the human body.
But like the potassium iodide tablets that flew off the shelves after Japan’s disaster, seaweed won’t protect you from radiation burns, sickness or cancer elsewhere in your body. Plus, eating large amounts of iodine-laden seaweed everyday when you’re in no radiation danger has a downside: It actually can slow or halt healthy thyroid activity.
The salty flavor
The salty flavor is not really a plant taste but a mineral taste. Examples are Epsom salts, Irish moss, kelp, seaweeds, and rock and sea salts. The salty taste in herbs can be increased by adding salt to herbal preparations.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the salty flavor is cooling, has a downward direction in the body, softens hardness, lubricates, and moistens. Small amounts tonify the kidney-adrenals while large quantities sedate them. It can also lead the actions of an herbal formula to this organ and gland. Salty substances are good for softening hard lumps, tumors and nodules, as well as treating tight muscles and dry constipation because most salts are hydroscopic (attract and retain fluid).
Salt’s hygroscopic action, the technical term for salt’s action on fluids, is soothing and cleansing as salt helps to loosen denser materials that tend to impact and clog the body’s vital organs and ducts. The salty flavor may be used medicinally to lubricate dryness, cause vomiting, clear heat in the blood, treat abdominal swelling and pain, soften difficult bowel movements, and treat dysuria, pyorrhea, sore throat, toothache, corneal opacity, skin eruptions, bleeding from the gums, and cataracts.
The salty flavor brings out flavor in food and yet in excess, it can trigger water retention and subsequent edema, raising blood pressure, and drying the blood, causing symptoms such as dizziness, blurry vision, and spots in the visual field. As well, excess salt is purgative and emetic. Ideally, use unrefined sea or earth salts because they are high in minerals.
In Traditional Ayurvedic Medicine (TAM), the salty flavor combines the fire and water elements, causing secretions in the gastrointestinal tract. TAM considers salt to be heavy, hot, unctuous, and pungent. Its sharpness stimulates the appetite, changes the consistency of saliva, and softens food.
It promotes digestion, moistens, sedates, acts as a laxative, alleviates Vata, relieves stiffness and contractions, softens accumulations (like cysts) and softens all the bodily organs. In small doses, salt stimulates hydrochloric acid and thus promotes digestion. In moderate amounts it is laxative, while in larger doses it is emetic (causes vomiting).
In excess, salt aggravates Pitta, stagnates blood, increases thirst, causes burning sensations, aggravates skin infections, decreases virility, causes teeth to fall out, creates skin wrinkling and gray hair, and promotes hyperacidity and bleeding diseases.
Is Salt Warm or Cool in Energy?
While TCM describes and uses salt as an inert cooling mineral, in Ayurveda, salt is used as a warming and stimulating substance. This represents only one of a few irresolvable contradictions between the two systems. A question to ponder is whether one substance, depending on its use, can have two opposing properties.
Medicinal Use of Seaweeds
Medicinally, seaweeds have been used for thousands of years, especially in Asia. According to the National Ocean Service, the ancient Romans used seaweed to treat wounds, burns, and rashes, whereas today it is known to contain powerful cancer-fighting agents. While in the past the low cancer rate in Japan was attributed to soy, now it is credited to dietary seaweed.
Many know of the usefulness of seaweeds for their high content of iodine and tyrosine, supporting thyroid function, which is in charge of controlling growth, energy production, reproduction, and repair of damaged cells. Because of their nutritious cooling and moistening nature, seaweeds are useful for moderate detoxification.
The Chinese specifically use seaweed to soften hardness and reduce Phlegm nodules, especially in the neck, such as goiter and scrofula. It also treats swollen sores, nodules, and abdominal masses. As well, it’s used for hernia, swelling and pain of the scrotum and testicles, reduces edema, and promotes urination.
Cooking with Seaweed
There are many types of seaweeds, the most commonly used being nori, hijiki, arame, dulse, kombu, and wakame. Kombu is great in soups and soup stocks or else pickled in vinegar. Hijiki and arame taste best with vegetables or fish, or in stir-fries and seaweed salads. Wakame is typically found in miso soup or seaweed salads, while nori is most often dried, even roasted, and used for sushi rolls, rice balls (onigiri), condiments, and as snacks. Dulse is used in soups or a condiment either powdered or in flakes. Kelp powder can be sprinkled on as a seasoning or taken in tablet form.
Sea Vegetable Supplementation
The regular intake of sea vegetables for their abundance of trace minerals is recommended. Our soil lacks minerals, which through countless years of erosion, have leached into the ocean (even organically grown plants may not contain the full amount of minerals our bodies need). Taking kelp or dulse tablets (4 to 6 daily) or sprinkling the granules on food may be used for this purpose. An even better method of supplementation is to regularly add a piece of fresh seaweed, thoroughly rinsed of its sea salt, to soup stock, stews, or beans.
Kelp is cold and salty, enters the stomach and spleen and is used to clear heat, moisten dryness, tonify yin, soften hardness, treating scrofula, goiter, lumps, edema, leukorrhea, orchitis; avoid with stomach and spleen yang def and/or dampness.
Nori is cold, sweet and salty and enters the lung. It clears heat, tonifies yin, and softens hardness, acting as a diuretic and treating goiter, beriberi, edema, dysuria and hypertension.
The Chinese specifically use sargassum (Sargassum fusiforme, S. pallidum Hai zao) medicinally. It has a slightly cold energy, bitter and salty flavor and enters the Stomach, Kidney, Liver, and Lung Organs and meridians. It is used as an expectorant and diuretic and is considered to transform Phlegm-Heat, dissipate nodules, clear Damp-Heat, and drain Dampness. Typically it is included as a food, although 6-9 g may be decocted and a cup taken up to three times a day.
 National Ocean Service: https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/seaweed.html