Salt: Villain or Super Hero?
Why Your Body Needs Salt: Unrefined natural salt provides two elements – sodium and chloride – that are essential for life. Your body cannot make these elements on its own; you must get them from your diet. Some of the many biological processes for which salt is crucial include:
* Being a major component of your blood plasma, lymphatic fluid, extracellular fluid, and even amniotic fluid
* Carrying nutrients into and out of your cells
* Maintaining and regulating blood pressure
* Supporting healthy glial cell populations in your brain, which are essential for forming the protective coating known as myelin that surrounds the portion of the neuron that conducts electrical impulses, as well as other vital neurological functions
* Helping your brain communicate with your muscles, so that you can move on demand via sodium-potassium ion exchange
Sodium plays a critical role in body physiology. It controls the volume of fluid in the body and helps maintain the acid-base level. About 40 percent of the body’s sodium is contained in bone, some is found within other organs and cells, and the remaining 55 percent is in blood plasma and extracellular fluids. Sodium is important in proper nerve conduction, in aiding the passage of various nutrients into cells, and in the maintenance of blood pressure.
Sodium-dependent enzymes are required for carbohydrate digestion, to break down complex carbohydrates and sugars into monosaccharides such as glucose, fructose and galactose; sodium is also involved in transporting these monosaccharides across the intestinal wall. Although salt is the most common dietary source for these essential elements, sodium is also available from various foods that contain sodium naturally. Chloride ions also help maintain proper blood volume, blood pressure, and pH of body fluids. Chloride is the major extracellular anion and contributes to many body functions including the maintenance of blood pressure, acid-base balance, muscular activity, and the movement of water between fluid compartments. Chloride is the major component of hydrochloric acid, which is needed for protein digestion. Symptoms of hypochlorhydria (low hydrochloric acid) include bloating, acne, iron deficiency, belching, indigestion, diarrhea and multiple food allergies. Chloride is available in very few foods, and adequate chloride must be obtained from salt.”
Did Salt Get the Blame When Fructose Was Really at Fault? Many of you have likely heard of the DASH diet, which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, and which is very low in salt, consisting largely of fresh vegetables and fruits, lean protein, whole grains, and low-fat dairy. This is the diet used in the DASH-sodium study – the ONE study that was conducted to determine whether or not a low-salt diet would control hypertension. People on DASH diets did show reduced hypertension, but researchers were so eager and personally invested in proving their salt theory that they completely overlooked other factors – like the fact that the DASH diet is also very low in sugar, including fructose.
Hypertension is actually promoted far more by excess fructose than excess salt, and the amount of salt Americans eat pales in comparison to the amount of fructose they consume on a daily basis. I’m convinced that sugar/fructose – rather than salt – is the major driving force behind our skyrocketing hypertension rates. (If you’re struggling with hypertension, you can read my full recommendations for normalizing your blood pressure ). Blood pressure drops as much in low-sugar studies as it did in the DASH-sodium study, but this fact has been conveniently ignored.
Is Salt Really Linked to Heart Disease? Last year a meta-analysis of seven studies involving more than 6,000 people found no strong evidence that cutting salt intake reduces the risk for heart attacks, strokes or deathiv. In fact, it was salt restriction that actually increased the risk of death in those with heart failure. Furthermore, research in the Journal of the American Medical Association revealed that the less sodium excreted in the urine (a marker of salt consumption), the greater the risk of dying from heart diseasev. The study followed 3,681 middle-aged healthy Europeans for eight years. The participants were divided into three groups: low salt, moderate salt, and high salt consumption. Researchers tracked mortality rates for the three groups, with the following results:
1. Low-salt group: 50 people died
2. Moderate salt group: 24 people died
3. High-salt group: 10 people died
The risk for heart disease was 56 percent higher for the low-salt group than for the group who ate the most salt!
Dangers of a Low-Salt Diet: The simple truth is, there are very real risks from eating too little salt, and population-wide recommendations to restrict salt intake to very low levels could in fact increase rates of a wide range of diseases. WAPF explains, as reported by Globe Newswire: “Recent studies show a correlation of salt restriction with increased heart failure and with insulin resistance leading to diabetes. Studies show that even modest reductions in salt cause an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Higher incidence of inflammatory markers and altered lipoproteins are also found by researchers evaluating those on salt-reduced diets. These factors are precursors to metabolic syndrome, which predicts heart problems and diabetes.”
In one study by Harvard researchers, a low-salt diet lead to an increase in insulin resistance, which is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes – and the change occurred in just seven days! Other research has found salt restriction may play a role in:
* Increased death rates among people with type 1 or type 2 diabetes
* Increased falls and broken hips, and decreased cognitive abilities, among the elderly
* Giving birth to babies of low birth weight
* Poor neurodevelopmental function in infants
There is also a condition in which you have too little sodium. This is known as hyponatremia, where your body’s fluid levels rise and your cells begin to swell. This swelling can cause a number of health problems, from mild to severe. At its worst, hyponatremia can be life threatening, leading to brain swelling, coma and death. But mild to moderate hyponatremia has more subtle effects that you or your health care provider may not even connect with a sodium-deficiency problem, including: Nausea, vomiting, and changes in appetite, headache, confusion, hallucinations, loss of energy, fatigue, urinary incontinence, nervousness, restlessness and irritability, and other mood changes, muscle weakness, spasms or cramps, seizures, unconsciousness, coma.
There are other dangers to salt restriction, too, which WAPF outlined in their report — dangers that many are apt to overlook:
* Chemical salt alternatives: As food manufacturers seek to lower salt levels in their foods, salt substitutes like Senomyx are on the rise. Along with potential dangers from Senomyx itself (which does not require extensive testing and, as WAPF states, “would seem to be nothing more or less than a neurotrophic drug”), it’s possible that eating foods that taste salty but actually do not satisfy our sodium requirements may trigger us to keep eating more and more until these requirements are met … a recipe for obesity in the making.
* A loss of nutrient-dense foods: Certain nutritious foods, such as raw milk cheese and lacto-fermented vegetables, depend on high levels of salt for production. If salt becomes increasingly restricted, it could harm the production of these nutrient-dense foods.
Some Types of Salt Are More Dangerous: When you add salt to your diet, the type matters greatly. Today’s table salt has practically nothing in common with natural salt. One is health damaging, and the other is healing. Natural salt is 84 percent sodium chloride, and processed salt is 98 percent. So, what comprises the rest? The remaining 16 percent of natural salt consists of other naturally occurring minerals, including trace minerals like silicon, phosphorous and vanadium. But the remaining two percent of processed salt is comprised of man-made chemicals, such as moisture absorbents, and a little added iodine.
You might be tempted to think “salt is salt,” but even the structure of processed salt has been radically altered in the refining process. Refined salt is dried above 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit, and this excessive heat alone alters the natural chemical structure of the salt. What remains after ordinary table salt is chemically “cleaned” is sodium chloride. The processed salt is not pure sodium chloride but is only 97.5 percent sodium chloride and anticaking and flow agents are added to compromise about 2.5 percent. These are dangerous chemicals like ferrocyanide and aluminosilicate. Some European countries, where water fluoridation is not practiced, also add fluoride to table salt. In France, 35 percent of table salt sold contains either sodium fluoride or potassium fluoride and use of fluoridated salt is widespread in South America.
More than 80 percent of the salt most people consume is from processed foods. Indeed, there is far too much sodium in processed foods. But you shouldn’t be eating those foods anyway – sodium is just one of MANY ingredients in packaged foods that will adversely affect your health. The salt added to these convenience foods is bleached out, trace mineral deficient and mostly sodium – as opposed to natural salt, which is much lower in sodium. The more you can move toward a diet of whole organic foods in their natural state, the healthier you’ll be – whether it’s veggies, meat, dairy products, or salt.
Given that salt is absolutely essential to good health, I recommend limiting processed foods (most of which are high in processed salt) and processed salt and switching to a pure, unrefined salt. My favorite is an ancient, all-natural sea salt from the Himalayas. So, generally speaking, it is perfectly fine to salt your food to taste, provided the salt you’re using is natural and unrefined.