A few years ago, I was here to tell you that your early morning breakfast was in fact, not the most important meal of the day. And now, I am here to tell you to quit fearing salt!
Salt has had a bad reputation for many years. Back in 1977 when the US Government came out with the dietary guidelines for Americans, it was suggested that Americans restrict their sodium intake due to the claims of it causing high blood pressure, heart disease, etc. Yet, at the time the surgeon general admitted that there was actually no sound scientific evidence for these guidelines.
Because of these recommendations, most Americans put down the salt shaker and started significantly restricting salt in their diets. What if I told you that low sodium diets do more harm than consuming too much salt? What if I told you that your salt restriction is making your cravings worse and even leading to diabetes and heart disease? Well, it’s true.
So where did these low sodium guidelines come from? Well, The American Hospital Association, or AHA, started recommending no more than a teaspoon of salt a day (which is around 2,300 milligrams of sodium, and ideally they would love to see people stay at/around 1,500mg of sodium per day). This recommendation was based on one “expert opinion” from one study with an extremely small sample size. That’s right. These recommendations are not based on 100s of studies proving that low sodium diets are beneficial for your health as you would think! The science is actually very limited and very weak! To date, there is no evidence that everyone would benefit from a low sodium diet as outlined above to prevent or treat hypertension.
So what do we know about salt intake? Scientists have found that when people do not limit their sodium intake, they tend to settle in at 3,000 to 4,000 mg of sodium per day. This amount accounts for people in all parts of the world and is considerably higher than the AHA’s recommendation.
We all have a Salt Set Point which is controlled by our body’s internal Salt Thermostat. Our Salt Set point is the sodium intake level that supports our optimum health and longevity, which as stated above is around 3,000-4,000mg per day- depending on how useful/wasteful your kidneys are with salt.
In general, we want to create what is known as “Sodium Balance” which is when the amount of sodium you excrete matches your sodium intake. We do not want to be consuming more of this and we do not want to be excreting more of this. For example, when you are exercising in the summer, you are losing more sodium. This is why it is important to replenish your sodium intake with electrolyte water vs. plain water to help maintain the Sodium Balance in your body!
It is a well-known fact that when we feel thirsty, we are already dehydrated. This principle can ring true for salt as well! When we are craving salt, our body is telling us that our sodium thermostat is too low and we are in a sodium deficit, not a sodium balance. When we do not listen to these signals from our sodium thermostat, then our bodies will begin to take action due to internal starvation.
It has been found that salt restriction causes a process called “Internal Starvation” in our bodies. Our kidneys cannot function without enough sodium. Therefore, with sodium depletion, our bodies begin to take special measures to balance the water/sodium in our bodies to maintain the proper function of our organs. With our bodies creating these extra functions, we see increased heart rates, insulin resistance, low blood volume, etc. which make us sicker in the long run. So consuming enough salt daily is vital to a healthy body!
It’s fairly known that when food companies took the fat out of our foods during the “low fat” fad, they had to make the foods taste better. Therefore, they put sugar in these items to make them more palatable. Now food companies are removing the salt in our food to promote low sodium diets, but they need to make the food products taste better. Therefore, it has less salt- this is when they begin adding in even more sugar, etc. Sugar is what we need to fear- not salt! The reduction of salt in our foods and increase of sugar is creating a domino effect of craving more sugar and depleting our bodies of more salt.
In the book, The Salt Fix by Dr. James Dicolantonio, he discusses a study from the 1950s where researchers looked at a patient who was already in a sodium balance but on a low sodium diet. They wanted to know what would happen if this individual were to experience a sodium deficit (losing sodium either through sweat, vomiting, diarrhea, or even a new medicine). To mimic this, an individual was given a diuretic to deplete sodium levels by 2,300mg. It was found that the patient’s3 body retained sodium and there was no sodium excretion until their body got that 2,300mg back to reach sodium balance again. If this patient had not been in a sodium deficit, they would have had less sodium retention and would have remained in a somewhat normal sodium balance.
So your body is either going to work really hard to maintain adequate levels (and put added stress on other systems) or just excrete what you don’t need, which is what it was built to do! Adequate quality salt in your diet helps to create a better sodium balance.
There are a few instances when you need more salt to remain in a sodium balance. This is included but not limited to:
Dehydration is caused by many factors including, but not limited to: not drinking enough water, exercising, and not consuming enough salt. The best way to measure dehydration is by looking at your blood sodium levels. If they are high, you are likely dehydrated. Sodium helps to move water in and out of our cells, so when we are dehydrated, our blood’s sodium levels increase because they are working to draw out water from cells and bring them into the bloodstream.
Consuming some salt prior to exercise may help your performance in the gym! Adding about 2,300mg per liter of water can help reduce the loss of total fluid when exercising. Many individuals will use a packet of LMNT prior to exercise in place of their typical coffee and they feel more invigorated during a workout than if they just had caffeine.
A low salt diet can decrease sex drive, the likelihood of getting pregnant, and infant weight. When pregnant, many women experience morning sickness and food aversions. This can create a bigger risk of salt depletion in their bodies, which can affect the fetus as well. When breastfeeding, your baby needs the nutrients from the mother’s breast milk and one of which is sodium! Lack of sodium as a fetus and infant may lead to longer-term side effects down the road as well for your child. Low salt diets in pregnancy also led to more muscle weakness (especially in the legs), and increased risks of issues such as preeclampsia, bleeding, and more.
Afternoon slump got you down? Consider adding in some more sodium! Adding in some electrolytes through Nuun Tabs, Ultima, or the use of an LMNT packet may help to increase your cognitive function and get you over that afternoon slump!
Salt restriction may also increase the likelihood of injuries during workouts, lead to weaker muscles and cause longer recovery periods, increase or worsen chronic fatigue syndrome, and decrease muscle gain. If you are working so hard in the gym, none of this sounds appealing! Add in some salt to your diet and consider adding in more electrolytes while you workout.
Did you know that high glucose levels in the blood actually deplete our bodies of sodium? There are roughly 22 different ways that sugar can deplete sodium in our bodies. But, the bottom line is that our bodies react very poorly to sugar, as we all know (We all feel it after the sugar craze from Halloween-Christmas!). Sugar leads to our bodies being more depleted of salt. So, consider focusing on less sugar, and more quality salt to see how you feel post-holidays!
People with hyperaldosteronism (an aldosterone disorder), Cushing’s disease (a disorder of the pituitary gland), and Liddle syndrome (an inherited form of high blood pressure) should monitor their sodium intake because they may be especially sensitive to the negative effects of sodium on their blood pressure. Most of us, by contrast, have many strong defense mechanisms that kick in if we start to retain too much salt in the body.
For the past 4 decades, we have been told that consuming too much salt increases blood pressure but in reality, there has never been sound scientific data to support this claim. This claim started with the 1977 guidelines yet the 1st systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of sodium restriction on blood pressure were not done until 1991! By then we had been telling people to restrict salt for nearly 15 years making it nearly impossible to retract. What we now know is that 80% of people with normal blood pressure are not sensitive to the blood pressure-raising effects of salt at all. Of those that have prehypertension nearly 75% are not sensitive at all. Even among those with full-blown hypertension, about 55% are immune to salts’ impact on blood pressure. Yet we still are telling all Americans to reduce their salt intake to prevent hypertension. We demonized salt before we had the evidence and our health has been paying the price ever since. Low salt intake actually magnifies our risk of heart disease due to increased heart rate, compromised kidney function, adrenal insufficiency; hypothyroidism, high triglycerides, cholesterol, and insulin levels. This ultimately leads to insulin resistance, obesity, and diabetes.
There is an optimal range of salt consumption but it will vary from person to person. Advocates of salt restriction do not consider how much sodium we need to THRIVE; they only focus on how much we need to survive! Healthy people do not need to worry about salt overload because the body is well equipped to take care of any excess. Scientific data suggest that the optimal range of sodium intake is 3-6 grams a day or about 1 ⅓ to 2 ⅔ teaspoons of salt per day not the 2,300 mg of sodium (less than a teaspoon) that is commonly advised.
Salt also helps us when we are limiting our carb intake. So, that carb-flu you feel in Prep Week and during your first Low Carb Days can be eased by implementing more salt (this is why we push electrolyte water!) How can you get more salt into your diet?
I hope this blog helps you to see that sodium is important for so many essential body functions, including fluid balance, nerve health, nutrient absorption, and muscle function. Sodium is part of the main electrolytes needed in our bodies and when overly restrict our salt intake more harm than good is done!
If you really want to dive into the science, research, and why behind this blog post I strongly encourage you to pick up “The Salt Fix” by Dr. James DiNicolantonio. In this easy-to-read, well-researched book, he lays out where salt got its bad reputation from, as well as the benefits of more salt, less sugar, and everything in between!
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