Salt: Friend or Foe?

Depending on your health, you may consider salt an enjoyable seasoning or a powerful detriment to your well-being. Salt at its most fundamental is a necessity for proper bodily function, but, like most things, too much can be very dangerous. If used in excess, salt can lead to health issues like high blood pressure, fluid retention and swelling of extremities.

On the other hand, however, too little salt in your diet can also be problematic. New studies reveal that ultra-low sodium diets could create health problems like insulin resistance and blood lipids. Although there is still some debate about this, it is generally recommended that healthy adults should consume between 1,500 and 2,300 milligrams of salt per day.

Why We Need Salt

The chemical makeup of table salt is sodium and chloride. You should know that sodium is essential for many physiological processes, most importantly in neural function, but it also plays important roles in muscle function and electrolyte balance. Chloride is less necessary, but it is important in maintaining the proper acidity in our stomachs.

Among the many ways that salt supports healthy processes are

  • Insulin resistance—some studies show that salt may be needed to maintain sensitivity to insulin. Insulin is a hormone that regulates blood glucose levels.
  • Natural antihistamine—salt may play a pivotal role in allergic reactions like an asthma attack.
  • Stress modulation—salt is suspected of suppressing stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline which is why it may improve sleep, another factor in stress management.
  • Healthy weight—salt supposedly lowers levels of cortisol in the blood. Excess cortisol can slow the metabolism and lead to weight gain.
  • Improves metabolic efficiency—by raising the number of solutes in the fluid outside of cells, salt raises the metabolic rate within cells.
  • Suppresses mineral loss—low sodium levels promote the synthesis of aldosterone, which inhibits sodium excretion. However, aldosterone substitutes the sodium that would have been lost with other minerals like potassium, calcium, and magnesium.

Although it is very unlikely that anyone eating a normal diet in the U.S. would suffer from salt deficiency, it is possible if you are on certain medications like diuretics, have a kidney disorder, or have cirrhosis. Some of the symptoms of eating too little sodium include

  • Fatigue
  • Confusion
  • Seizures
  • Muscle twitches
  • Coma

Extremely low levels of sodium may even produce death.

Is Too Much Salt Unhealthy?

Although salt is an essential, too much of it does have short and long term ill effects on the human body. If you consume a meal that is high in sodium, then you may notice that you are retaining water. This is because your kidneys will try to maintain the sodium-to-water ratio by retaining more fluid. This higher volume of water in your circulatory system means that there will be an increase in blood pressure, at least temporarily.

However, this may not be true for some people. There is evidence that some people are less sensitive to high amounts of salt, so they may not retain water and experience higher blood pressure. Although heredity and hormones may influence this, age and obesity may also exert a strong influence on salt sensitivity.

In the long term, eating a diet that is high in salt can produce some serious health problems. Foremost among these is, of course, high blood pressure. High blood pressure, which is more common among the elderly, can eventually burst or stop up blood vessels in the brain, causing a stroke. Without prompt medical care, a stroke may cause irreparable brain damage or, even, death.

Another elevated health risk among people who consume more than 3,000 mg of salt a day is stomach cancer. Studies suggest that people with high sodium diets have two times higher risk of developing stomach cancer than those with lower sodium levels.

There is some question about if there is a correlation between high sodium and heart disease, but some studies indicate that high sodium does harden blood vessels which in turn, causes an increased risk of heart disease and premature death.

However, there are contradicting studies that conclude that salt consumption does not affect heart health. Experts point out there are a multitude of factors like weight, salt sensitivity and coexisting health conditions that could account for the discrepancies.

It is possible to fatally overdose on salt, but the amount necessary to prompt a fatal reaction in a healthy person would have to be 0.2 to 0.5 grams of salt per pound of body weight. People with chronic conditions like late-stage heart disease, liver disease or kidney disease need much less salt than this to produce a fatal response.

How to Lower Your Salt Intake

The average American consumes about 1.5 teaspoons of salt every day, about 50 percent more than is recommended. Most of this salt comes from processed or restaurant-prepared foods, so it can be difficult to accurately gauge how much salt you are consuming and lower your intake.

Here are some helpful suggestions:

  1. Fresh ingredients—do your best to cook as many of your meals as possible and use fresh vegetables and meats. This way you can control how much sodium goes into each meal.
  2. Remove salt from the dining table—if you make salt a chore to apply, you will train yourself and your kids to eat food that isn’t quite as salty.s
  3. Limit portion size—if you insist that the food you eat have a certain amount of saltiness, you may be able to limit how much of that salty food you get. You may want to increase portions of foods that have less salt if you are not on a strict diet.
  4. Salt alternatives—you can still enjoy flavorful meals if you cut their sodium content. You can try other seasonings like garlic, dill or paprika in various quantities to spice up your meals. If you are still craving a mineral like salt, then you might want to try potassium—but check with your physician first.

Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care

M.D. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of Robert Moghim, M.D. and do not necessarily represent and are not intended to represent the views of the company or its employees.  The information contained in this article does not constitute medical advice, nor does reading or accessing this information create a patient-provider relationship.  Comments that you post will be shared with all visitors to this page. The comment feature is not governed by HIPAA, and you should not post any of your private health information.