Herbert Ling and the Sodium Pump Myth

Don Benjamin

The following is a summary of a 12 page article in the Gerson Therapy Practitioner Training Manual 1.4 published by the Gerson Institute.

Our cells live in an ocean of salt water (serum) which is very high in sodium and very low in potassium. This salt water passes through each cell at the rate of nearly 100 times the volume of the cell each second. Yet the cells themselves contain a sodium concentration of only 7% of the serum and a potassium concentration 32 times greater than the serum.

To explain this discrepancy in the 1940s researchers invented the idea of the “sodium pump” which they suggested might continually pump excess sodium out of the cell and perhaps carry potassium in.

Gilbert Ling discovered that the sodium pump was never a theory or even a hypothesis but merely a rephrasing of observations that became accepted as fact, without any concrete facts to support its existence.

According to the explanation for the pump the energy needed to force the sodium out of and the potassium into the cell against the opposite concentration of the surrounding serum is supplied by the enzyme adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is known as the energy currency, or energy storage battery. 99% of all carbohydrates used by the body go to the manufacture of ATP, so ATP is plentiful. It was therefore assumed that it also provided the energy for the sodium pump.

In the early 1950s Ling tested the “theory” he inactivated all energy systems in the cells, including ATP, by poisoning them, yet cells maintained high levels of potassium for many hours with ions of sodium and potassium passing freely in and out of the cells. He calculated that a pump operating under these conditions, even a 100% efficient pump, would require from 15 to 30 times the energy available.

He proposed an alternative explanation – the Association – Induction (A-I) Hypothesis.

According to this hypothesis:

  • each cell wall is structured;
  • cell cations (the positively-charged ions) are associated mostly with macromolecules (the large molecules)
  • potassium in cells gathers at negatively charged association sites along the macromolecules of proteins and lipids ( fat or fat-like substances)
  • once the potassium ions are in place a force of attraction causes water molecules to line up their oxygen atoms facing one direction and their hydrogen atoms facing the other (around the protein/lipid macromolecules. This produces a layer of structured water. This means the water molecules are no longer free or random but exhibit an orderly arrangement as in ice crystals – although cellular structured water is much less solid than ice;
  • around the initial layer of highly structured water molecules is a second layer, which is less structured because it is farther from the attractive force. The third layer is less structured than the second and so on.
  • Water molecules most distant from the macromolecules are most random though probably somewhat structured;
  • The protein/lipid macromolecules are interwoven in a latticework that extends throughout the cell to form a skeleton-like structure resembling a sponge. This skeleton itself controls ion concentrations by choosing potassium inn preference to other ions and by structuring water;
  • Water that is structured will not readily accept ions or foreign materials.
  • Although much sodium-laden extracellular serum diffuses through the cell and ions are exchanged between the cell and serum no energy is required in the form of ATP to maintain high cellular levels of potassium and other ions. In theory the cell could hold these high concentrations forever without using energy. Only when cells are damaged by trauma or poison do they require energy from ATP.

After Ling published a book (A Physical Theory of the Living State, the Association-Induction Hypothesis) with details of his hypothesis in 1962 other researchers including Freeman Cope and Raymond Damadian used Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) measurements to confirm that the cell water is not free liquid but structured, like the ion exchange resins of a water softener.

The Introduction to Ling’s book was written by a colleague Chen Ning Yang, who later became Einstein Professor of Physics and Director of the Institute of Theoretical Physics of the State University of New York at Stony Brook. The Ling Model forms the basis of modern physics theory of phase transitions.

Freeman Cope combined his training in medicine and physics and applied the Ling Model to medicine. Later he investigated the work of Max Gerson. He predicted that large amounts of potassium could be added to a low sodium diet to benefit the patients suffering from many diseases. (Gerson had applied this thinking to cancer and other diseases; Sodi-Palares had applied it to heart disease.) Cope was unaware of their work at the time of his prediction.

Tissue Damage Syndrome

In many degenerative processes cells are swollen with water and sodium. They have lost potassium and no longer function normally. Healthy cells maintain a high level of potassium (K+) as long as they suffer no chemical or physical damage and have sufficient ATP. ATP is used to keep the cell protein in its normal configuration and is part of that normal configuration. With a high concentration of K+ the cell’s water is structured. This enables the cell to refuse sodium, which cannot dissolve in structured water.

In the damaged configurational state the production of ATP by mitochondria is reduced, lowering its concentration. This reduces the cation association and water structuring which further impairs mitochondrion ATP production and so on, in a cycle of destruction. The cell proteins then lose their preference for association with K+ rather than Na+ and the water content of the cell increases.

In the extreme the damage to the cell will be irreversible because of damage to the mitochondria, but in the short run medical treatment may partly or completely correct the tissue damage syndrome if it has not existed for too long.

In 1976 Cope predicted that Potassium could be given in addition to a low Sodium diet to correct the tissue damage syndrome. If the concentration of K+ is increased compared to the Sodium+ in the environment around the cell, the association sites are forced to accept more K+ and less Na+ because of the cooperative interactions between association sites. This tends to restore the normal configuration of the proteins.

Gerson did not add supplementary Potassium to his low Sodium diet until he became involved with the treatment of cancer.

An apparent inconsistency in the high measured levels of Potassium in circulating serum in cancer cases was later explained by the fact that the serum is only a passage channel for support and exchange. Low K-figures may show best healing because the depleted tissues reabsorb K while high figures may be found in failures because the tissues lose K.

Other researchers have found that the high Sodium levels in unhealthy cells affect the regulation of cell mitosis, encouraging them to continually divide.

The same diet used for cancer is also effective for people with coronary heart disease.

These researchers also found that diuretics, digitalis and anti-arrhythmics produced undesirable effects with patients with angina, hypertension and heart failure because these medications have a depolarising effect on the cell of the heart, whereas the low-sodium diet was beneficial.

The above is a summary of a long article that is based on two papers that appeared in Physiology Chemistry and Physics 1978; 10 (5): 449-464 and 465-8:

  • Gerson M. The cure of advanced cancer by diet therapy: a summary of 30 years of clinical experimentation. Op cit pages 449-464.
  • Cope FW. A medical application of the Ling association-induction hypothesis: the high potassium, low sodium diet of the Gerson cancer therapy. Op cit pages 465-468.


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