Stress, salt and hypertension

Soc Sci Med. 1988;26(3):293-302. doi: 10.1016/0277-9536(88)90393-0.


Reasons are given why calcium, obesity and genetics cannot be considered primary factors in the etiology of essential hypertension. This leaves the major protagonists as salt and neuroendocrine responses to the emotions aroused by the social environment. Most essential hypertension is renin dependent and associated with the physiological changes induced by arousal of the defence response. The psychosocial stimulation associated with this arousal induces an increase in salt appetite. This makes the salt consumption of society a measure of the social stress to which it is exposed. Primitive people whose blood pressure remains normal throughout their lives may lack modern societies' physically protective achievements but their religiously prescribed social solidarity may protect them from psychosocial stress. Our chronic suppression of awareness of emotional arousal together with loss of the ritualized support of affiliative behavior may result in repressed emotional responses which find somatic expression in diseases such as essential hypertension. Hypertensiologist George Pickering proposed that the primitive's ritual and taboo (the equivalent in our society might be the Alcoholic's Anonymous belief in a 'Higher Power') protect them from much anger and despair. He gave this precedence over salt as the primary factor in essential hypertension. New evidence supports this. Despite a high salt diet the blood pressure of socially adjusted rodents remains normal throughout their lifespan. On the other hand, the hypertension that develops when they are psychosocially stimulated is not abated by a low salt diet. In humans, the blood pressure of cloistered, secluded Italian nuns on a high salt diet has remained normal for 20 years while that of nearby village women has risen at a startling 2 mmHg/annum during the same period. On the other hand, in rapidly changing Malawi mature adult, rural and urban blood pressures are rising fast despite a low salt intake. Thus the evidence today argues that the most important factor in the etiology of essential hypertension is not salt but psychosocial stimulation.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Hypertension / psychology*
  • Risk Factors
  • Sodium, Dietary / adverse effects*
  • Stress, Psychological / complications*


  • Sodium, Dietary