You love salt. You crave salt. Salt, more specifically sodium, is a vital human nutrient. We’ve depended on salt for the very survival of our species and as a foundation of civilization. Why do we now think of salt as harmful?
History of salt
Anthropologists believe the use of salt originated long before its recorded history, dating back to around 2700 B.C. Many historians think that salt was the first form of money. The word “salary” is derived from the word “salt.” If you have heard the expression “not worth his salt,” it stems from the trade of slaves for salt in ancient Greece. Many religious practices use salt as a form of purity. The Bible refers to salt more than 30 times, and it’s where we get the phrase “salt of the earth.”
Wars have been won and lost over salt. Salt deficiency was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Napoleon’s soldiers as they retreated from Moscow. It was so important during the civil war that Jefferson Davis waived military service for the men attending to the coastal salt kettles supplying the Confederate army.
Today, we think of salt as a flavoring, but its most important historical role has been in preserving food. For centuries, our ancestors used salt for tanning, dyeing, and bleaching, and the production of pottery, soap, and chlorine. Today, the chemical industry uses salt as an ingredient in thousands of household products.
Your physiology and salt
When you think of salt, it’s most commonly a reference to table salt, sodium chloride. Sodium is necessary for your body to maintain cellular water balance, blood volume, and pH. It’s vital in the function of supporting the transport of nerve impulses from your brain to your muscles, causing them to contract. Sports drinks and pickle juice contain sodium, and that’s why they reduce cramping.
Sodium pulls water into the blood allowing your circulatory system to retain the optimal fluid to function properly. Your kidneys regulate the elements and electrolytes in salt, and any excess gets eliminated through urination. With healthy kidneys, you can easily pass any excess salt, and thus it’s tough to ingest too much salt.
Did we get it wrong?
According to Ken Berry, M.D., in his book “Lies My Doctor Told Me, Medical Myths That Can Harm Your Health,” here is “The Lie.”
“Eating salt will increase your risk of having high blood pressure, and therefore, increase your risk for heart attack and stroke. You should eat a low salt diet as much as possible for heart disease prevention.”
The evil of salt is a medical myth that almost everyone, including most doctors, believes true. If true, then shouldn’t we be able to find all kinds of research supporting it. Many studies on both sides of the argument exist, but the largest is the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) conducted by the Center for Disease Control (CDC).
NHANES reported results from three large-scale studies. All three were conducted by relying on dietary recall as the measurement of sodium intake. The results are as follows:
- NHANES I reported a decrease in cardiovascular death with increased salt consumption.
- NHANES II reported similarly to NHANES I in finding that increased salt consumption led to decreased cardiovascular disease mortality. The highest risk individuals limited their sodium to less than 2300mg per day.
- NHANES III reported similar results to I and II but showed a non-significant increase in death rates with lower sodium consumption.
Another study published in The American Journal of Medicine entitled “Salt and Hypertension: Is Salt Dietary Reduction Worth the Effort?” attempts to define the role of salt in hypertension (high blood pressure).
Although hypertension and age-related increases in blood pressure are virtually absent in populations in whom individual consumption of sodium is less than 50 mmol per day, sodium intake throughout the world exceeds 100 mmol per day in most people, yet many remain normotensive. Therefore, sodium intake that exceeds 50 to 100 mmol per day is necessary but not sufficient for the development of hypertension.
While salt restriction remains a topic of debate, the data does show that salt intake may result in increased blood pressure, but severe salt reduction increases the risk of death.
Where do we go from here?
Research shows that sodium consumption does not increase health risks for the vast majority of individuals except those who eat more than five grams a day, the equivalent of 2.5 teaspoons of salt. Fewer than five percent of individuals in developed countries exceed that level.
As in all aspects of life, moderation is the key. We get into trouble by how we determine moderation. Most of our thoughts about the evils of salt come from the high blood pressure correlation. It would be incorrect to find our moderation level based on advice given to the sick.
If you are healthy, excess salt should not be much of a concern. If you are an active person, you may actually be suffering from a salt deficit. Sweating causes fluid and sodium loss.
Replenishing the fluids further dilutes your salt imbalance and, over the long-term, could result in serious health consequences. Active people need more salt in their diet.
You love salt, and you crave salt because your body needs salt. Your body requires certain elements to survive. Salt is just as vital as water and oxygen. When thirsty, you drink. If you can’t breathe, you gasp for air. When you crave salt, you should eat it!
Take care, even down there.
The above information is not medical advice. Do not discontinue any medications or change your diet without consulting a licensed medical practitioner.
Please do your own research. Be an informed patient and, most importantly, be your own health advocate.
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