There are lots of different kinds of salt: pink, iodized, kosher, sea, etc. They come from either salt mines in the ground, or from evaporating the water out of salt water. What they all have in common is that infamous mineral that I’m going to talk about below: sodium.
Sodium itself is not that bad! In fact, it’s an essential mineral and an important electrolyte in the body. It helps with fluid balance, and proper nerve and muscle function.
But too much sodium is not great either! Regularly getting too much sodium can increase your risk of high blood pressure, stroke, heart attack, stomach cancer, and kidney stones.
Would you be surprised to know that 75% of our sodium intake comes not from the salt shaker? Indeed, it comes from processed foods. Snacks like chips, pretzels and salted nuts are included here. But so are canned foods, pickled foods, boxed foods, deli meats, restaurant food, and fast food.
Here we talk about how your salt habit can impact your health.
Salt vs. Sodium
In food, salt is used for both flavour, and as a preservative. Salt helps to preserve food by drawing out the water that bacteria and mold need to grow. Hence, preserving the food from spoiling as quickly.
Salt is actually "sodium chloride." It's about 40% sodium and 60% chloride; this means that one teaspoon of salt (5,000 mg) contains about 2,000 mg of sodium.
One teaspoon with about 2,000 mg of sodium is about your entire day worth of sodium. People who eat a lot of pre-made, packaged foods tend to eat sodium in excess of a healthy normal amount. In fact, 90% of American adults consume more than 2,300 mg per day, the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA). The average intake is closer to 3,400 mg of sodium per day!
If you're at high risk for those conditions, then you should probably keep your total daily intake below 2,000 mg of sodium.
Sodium and high blood pressure
How does salt increase blood pressure? And what does that have to do with it making you thirsty?
There is a mechanism called "salt-sensitive high blood pressure". Here's how it works:
Sodium levels in the blood is monitored by the hormone angiotensin whose presence in the blood promotes aldosterone secretion. Aldosterone is a hormone produced in the adrenal glands that influences the reabsorption of sodium and excretion of potassium by the kidneys, thereby indirectly influencing water retention or loss, blood pressure and blood volume. When sodium increases angiotensin inhibits the release of aldosterone, which leads to more sodium to be eliminated through urine, along with water since water follows sodium.
More water in the blood means more fluid your heart needs to pump and more fluid pushing against the walls of your vessels, hence a higher-than-normal blood pressure. It also sends more blood to the kidneys so the sodium can be filtered out into the urine. This is how too much sodium increases your blood pressure.
Chronically elevated sodium levels leads to hypertension. Increased blood pressure also puts a strain on your kidneys and other sensitive vessels, including critical vessels in your brain and heart.
You can counteract this effect by reducing the amount of salt you eat (from both processed foods and the salt shaker). In fact, limiting salt intake has been shown to slightly reduce blood pressure. You can also reduce high blood pressure by eating more whole foods, and more mineral-rich plant foods.
Too low is not better!
Although too much sodium in the diet is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, too low of an intake from foods and beverages has also health consequences!
Sodium is an electrolyte mostly found in the blood; potassium is the main electrolyte inside cells and in the intracellular fluid, while calcium and magnesium play secondary roles in the fluid balance. These electrolytes work to maintain a tight balance of water content and movement between the blood, the inside of cells and in between them, i.e. intracellular fluid. Proper blood pressure is necessary for the circulation of important nutrients to all the cells of your body, and cells need a certain level of water for normal functioning.
Signs of low sodium levels are lethargy, concentration difficulties, muscles cramps and spasms, and can lead to hyponatremia, a dangerous condition that can results in loss of consciousness and even death.
For people who seldom eat out and cook most of their foods from whole foods, I recommend sprinkling sea salt to vegetables and considering adding Himalayan of Celtic sea salt to a glass of water with the juice of half a lemon for an electrolyte tonic, or using electrolyte tablets.
Salt cravings and underlying conditions
Aldosterone synthesis is also stimulated by the adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). Individuals that have an impaired adrenal function due to chronic stress, referred as adrenal fatigue, will have an increased ACTH activity. However, aldosterone sensitivity gets impaired after 24 hours of increased ACTH activity. That is, after 24 hours, aldosterone stops responding to the increased ACTH level even though the sodium content of the blood could be within normal range.
When aldosterone release is decreased, it stimulates the excretion of sodium and water in urine, while it blocks the excretion of potassium. Your body therefore crave salty foods to replenish that lost sodium, and you also experience moments of lethargy and decreased mental cognition because of the dehydration and poor electrolytes balance. You reach for salty foods like potatoes chips, french fries, of salted nuts and struggle to focus or stay alert.
In the case of adrenal fatigue, it is important to stay hydrated as well as keeping a normal intake of sodium. Adding an electrolyte tablet to a water bottle and drink it throughout the day helps to normalize aldosterone activity and reduce the salt cravings.
If you are healthy and eat mostly whole, unprocessed foods, then you probably don’t need to worry about your salt intake. Feel free to add a bit of salt during cooking or at the table for flavour.
If your doctor has told you to reduce your salt or sodium intake, then you can do this by reducing your intake of processed foods, adding less salt to the food you make, and eating more plant-based foods.
If you are dealing with adrenal issues, then make sure to monitor your sodium intake and avoid any electrolyte deficiency.