Have you been told by your physician to reduce your salt consumption? The conventional wisdom that salt contributes to hypertension has been perpetuated for decades by the medical community, government bodies and AHA guidelines—without much compelling evidence to support it!
The United States and, to a lesser degree, other industrialized countries have been overwhelmed by the explosion of chronic disease over the last fifty plus years. Especially cardiovascular disease and diabetes have been rising to levels never before seen in human history. So it was convenient for society to find a scapegoat that could conveniently be blamed for this, and everyone would just have to fall in line to stop it. Unfortunately, the realities of human behavior and chronic disease are much more complicated and complex.
Salt won’t kill you, sugar may
There’s a growing body of solid clinical and epidemiological data that dispels the myth of salt consumption as the cause of hypertension and supports the view that salt is an essential nutrient we all need at larger amounts than recommended, while the true culprits of the epidemic are roaming free and largely unconstrained. Anyone with an interest in this fundamental conundrum would find Dr. James DiNicolantonio’s “The Salt Fix” informative and inspiring. If you don’t have the time or inclination to read his book, let me just lay out some of the salient points to bring you up to speed and provide actionable information. (You should still read the book, though.)
To begin with, the connection between salt consumption and hypertension has been tenuous at best, and we have been brainwashed to believe this myth for decades without solid supporting research evidence. In fact, a wide range of research inquiries have led to another crystal involved in causing the epidemic of chronic disease in Western societies, namely sugar.
Why we need salt
For evolutionary physiological reasons, humans and most other fauna require salt for a wide range of processes in our bodies to function optimally and survive. In contrast, we do not need sugar—especially added sugar—for our health and well-being.
Natural salt in its many forms consists primarily of sodium chloride (Na+Cl-) and a wide range of trace minerals. Some of the main functions of sodium are regulation of fluid metabolism in the body, proper nerve and muscle function, and stable blood pressure.
We lose salt through normal body functions, including urination, defecation and sweating. The amount of sweating, in particular, is hugely variable depending on your activity level, temperature and humidity of the environment, and the nature of your diet. So, while you may be drinking a lot of water during workout or on hot summer days, maybe you are not realizing how important it is to proactively replace the associated salt loss. During or after exercise, or after several days of hot temperatures, you may start feeling weaker and weaker, or even disoriented, experiencing elevated heart rate and low blood pressure because the availability of salt and other electrolytes in your body has been profoundly disturbed.
What salt does for you
A wide range of different scientific inquiries have revealed that salt restriction, essentially suppressing our physiological hunger for salt, increases our risk of many health disturbances, all the way to death. Empirical clinical observations have also shown, time and again, that patients with various health complaints and suspected hyponatremia (the lack of sufficient salt in our bodies) improve, sometimes rapidly, once they are encouraged to increase their salt consumption.
We should keep in mind that humans vary considerably in their physiological needs for many nutrients, within as well as across populations. This has to do with our genetics, our organ health, our body size and composition, our activity level, the environment we live in, our diet as well as certain medications we may be taking. Because salt is indispensable for life, our bodies have several complementary mechanisms to ensure we maintain a healthy level and availability of salt, including a desire to eat salt if we don’t get enough. A ballpark range based on various types of research inquiries, that works for the large majority of people, is approx. 3,000-6,000 mg of sodium per day. The American Heart Association continues to advocate for an upper limit of 2,300 mg per day.
Normalizing your salt consumption has many, many benefits. To mention just a few, food tastes better with salt. You will feel more inclined to eat healthy foods such as vegetables and find it easier to reduce sugary foods. You will be less inclined to overeat and may find it easier to lose weight, esp. around your organs. Low-salt diets also stress the body’s ability to produce and eliminate various hormones, so eating the right amount of salt takes the pressure off and allows your body to function better. Salty foods, such as sea vegetables, are also an important source of iodine, which, in the right amount, is indispensable for thyroid health.
Other functions that tend to improve with normalized salt consumption are heart function, mood, fertility and sexual performance. Salt also helps keep undesirable microbial contaminants in your food and infections in your body at bay.
How to get your salt fix
Before you drastically change your consumption of salt, you should consult with your physician to rule out rare kidney disease or other conditions that may interfere with your body’s ability to regulate salt metabolism.
Begin by paying more attention to your longing for salty foods. Often, feeling thirsty or even dehydrated is actually your body’s cry for more salt. Instead of processed salt that is usually stripped of other trace minerals and laced with chemicals to prevent it from sticking, purchase natural salt such as Celtic or Himalayan pink salt. A favorite choice domestically is Redmond Real Salt, from deep mines in Utah that are apparently lower in contaminants than sea salt.
As you are reducing sugary and processed foods in your diet, add more natural salt, soy sauce or salty foods such as olives, pickles or anchovies to your dishes. In the summer, as well as in connection with exercise, drink more spring or filtered water prepared with dissolved natural salt. You can add lemon or lime flavor or steep a tea bag such as hibiscus in your bottle. Miso soup and vegetable stocks can also be ways to provide your body with more salt and liquid. If you drink large amounts of caffeinated beverages, try to cut back to 1-2 cups per day to reduce their diuretic effect on your body.
Now observe how you feel as the days and weeks go by. Ultimately, the proof will be in the proverbial pudding. As you become more responsive to your body’s fluctuating need for salt, you may notice feeling more relaxed and energetic, your heart rate may normalize, and you may even shed some unwanted belly fat. Hopefully, you will be able to normalize your salt consumption based on your personal physiological needs before you develop any health issues from hyponatremia.
© 2019 Christiane Siebert