The salty taste is an important aspect of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and is associated with the kidneys. Some examples of salty kidney tonics in TCM include deer antler, gecko, placenta, sea horse, turtle shell, and tortoise shell, which are all derived from animal sources. In addition, actinolitum, a mineral, and cistanche, a root, are considered salty yang tonics. The frequently used sour fruits cornus and schizandra also have a salty taste and are used to nourish and astringe the essence in TCM.
Herbs with a salty taste are often used for resolving therapies in TCM, including dissolving masses, removing moisture and phlegm, and softening hardness. Some examples of herbs with these actions are laminaria, sargassum, oyster shell, pumice, turtle shell, arca shell, and cuttle bone. These materials are from the sea, but not all of the salty resolving agents come from this source. Land plants like lithospermum, scrophularia, and isatis also have a salty taste and are used for treating toxic swellings in TCM.
From a Western perspective, salt (sodium chloride) is often thought to be harmful to the kidneys and a cause of fluid retention. However, the primary activity of salty tasting herbs in TCM is usually not the result of adding large amounts of sodium to the body. According to the philosophy of the Nei Jing, herbs with a salty taste are directed to act upon and benefit the kidney, while excessive salt consumption can harm the kidneys.
Herbs with a salty taste in TCM are often cold in nature and should be used cautiously in individuals with cold syndromes, including yang-deficiency diarrhea. These herbs may also be detrimental if taken over a long period of time by individuals with weak stomach/spleen function. Salty kidney tonic herbs are predominantly warm in nature (with the exception of turtle and tortoise shell) and should be used cautiously in individuals with deficiency fire syndromes.