That a connection may exist between salt, cocaine and heroin sounds very strange. After all, we eat salt everyday and need it to survive while illegal drugs are highly addictive and destructive. New research suggests a link that is surprising.A new study has shown that the addictive powers of cocaine and heroin may be due in part to our appetite for salt. During an extensive study of mice, researchers found that patterns of gene regulation stimulated by drug addiction were the same as those for salt cravings. It all sounds a little complicated and it’s hard to see the connection, but our need for salt - experts say - is millions of years old. Indeed, the root of the desire lies in the salty seas where life on earth started.
Land dwellers cannot ingest sodium without seeking it out first, but many species will actually risk their lives to acquire it. Mountain goats, for example, will dangerously cling to sheer cliffs just to access a salt lick.
Why? Because salt makes us happier. Again by analysing mice, researchers have found that animals are less interested in activity when their sodium intake is decreased. When they are given a little salt water to drink, they quickly became active again. Indeed, in a further study involving sufferers of chronic fatigue syndrome, patients were found to have a markedly reduced salt intake. By increasing the amount of sodium they ingested, the patients’ symptoms were alleviated.
There is one catch, however. Our brains aren’t capable of telling us when we’re satisfied with our salt intake, hence the connection to drug addiction. Like all cravings - whether we eat too much, drink excessively or take drugs - when we ingest salt, we always want more.
Researchers say that because cocaine and heroin are derived from plants, they also exploit our brain paths into telling us we are easing our salt appetite. This research could lead to new means of treating drug addiction and even alleviating the desperate cravings associated with such abuse.
But it’s no reason to start increasing your salt intake. The neural drivers of drug addiction are still unknown. While this is a great leap forward in understanding the nature of addiction, it must still be reconciled with what we know about the links between salt and heart disease.