Salt is bad for you and not part of a healthy diet, according to conventional wisdom. But considering the fact that salt has been consumed by people all over the world throughout history, is that really true?
For decades, we have heard experts claim that we should limit our salt intake because it could lead to high blood pressure, kidney disease, heart disease, and a host of other ailments.
However, there are emerging reports which state that cutting back on salt intake may actually be harmful to the body. According to these reports, the body can experience harm if it doesn’t get enough salt.
So, which is which? Is salt good for you, or is it the enemy of good health?
Why is salt considered unhealthy in the first place?
Salt has held a significant place in human life for as long as there have been humans on this planet.
More than as seasoning for food, salt has been used as medicine, as a ceremonial ingredient in religious and pagan rituals, and even as currency. The importance of salt in human life has been outlined by journalist and author Mark Kurlansky in his New York Times bestseller Salt: A World History.
But if salt was considered essential in the past, to the point that it was used as currency, then why does it have such a bad reputation in these contemporary times?
That issue lies at the door of Dr. Lewis Kitchener Dahl, a pioneer researcher in the field of hypertension. In the 1960s, Dr. Dahl discovered the relationship between salt and hypertension in rats. He found in a study that rats fed with high amounts of salt suffered and later died from hypertension.
Since the publication of Dr. Dahl’s seminal findings on hypertension, his work has served as a bible for formulating guidelines on salt consumption.
It’s not just Dr. Dahl who has thrown shade on the importance of salt. Many health experts and fitness gurus have also denounced salt as a trigger for various conditions, including weight gain, obesity, gastro-intestinal ailments, and others.
Followers of Dr. Loren Cordain’s The Paleo Diet, in particular, believe that salt does not have a place in a healthy diet.
Is salt really bad for you?
Dr. Dahl’s views on the connection between salt and hypertension were seen as revolutionary when it first came out. However, time and the development of new medical technologies testing the link between salt and hypertension have begun to prove him wrong.
A commentary in the International Journal of Epidemiology published in 2005 has cast some doubt on Dr. Dahl’s methodology. This commentary stated that there were no known medical treatments for hypertension yet when Dr. Dahl published his findings.
Modern research has found more efficient ways to treating hypertension than salt reduction. There are now also more effective methods of measuring sodium levels in the body.
Aside from new methods of dealing with hypertension, a number of studies came out in the 2000s that cast further doubt into the solidity of Dr. Dahl’s findings.
For instance, a paper published in the American Journal of Hypertension in 2011 did not find any strong evidence that reducing salt intake decreases the likelihood of people with high blood pressure to suffer from stroke or heart attack.
In short, salt may not be the big bad villain we first thought it is after all.
Why exactly does the body need salt?
Whether you choose to believe Dr. Dahl or the new findings regarding salt intake, you have to recognize that the body does need salt for the following reasons:
1. Salt balances the body’s fluid levels.
Salt contains sodium. Sodium is an electrolyte used by the body to help regulate the presence of water within and around individual cells. As long as the levels of water and the levels of salt in the body keep each other in check, your individual cells will remain in good shape.
2. Salt keeps the body hydrated.
You sweat when the weather is hot or when you have to do something strenuous, like running outdoors or workout out at the gym. Excessive sweating puts you at risk of dehydration.
But if you keep your salt intake at a healthy level and you consume something with salt in it before a strenuous activity, you can stay hydrated even as you sweat. That’s because the sodium in salt helps your body hold on to water.
It’s also the reason why sports drinks such as Gatorade, which are formulated to help you rehydrate during physical activity, have significant amounts of sodium.
3. Salt facilitates neural communications.
The brain controls and communicates with the rest of the body by transmitting signals through the nerves. As an electrolyte, the sodium in salt keeps this super-network working smoothly.
4. Salt helps with digestion.
Aside from sodium, salt also contains chloride ions. Chloride ions are synthesized by the body to produce hydrochloric acid or HCL. The digestive system uses HCL to break down completely the food you have consumed. HCL also destroys harmful pathogens that you may have ingested with your food.
5. Salt maintains the body’s insulin sensitivity.
The presence of salt in your blood stream helps maintain your body’s insulin levels. Without insulin, your body can’t metabolize glucose properly. This leaves the body without fuel for its vital functions. It can also lead to the development of diabetes.
What happens when you don’t get enough salt?
Even though new studies are disproving the links between salt intake and hypertension, excessive salt intake can still leave a few negative effects on your body. These negative effects can include damage to the inner lining of the blood vessels, thickening of the heart muscle, and impaired kidney function.
Too much salt in your diet can also kick your fight-or-flight instinct into high gear. The stress of it increases the cortisol levels in your blood stream and can lead to various ailments.
But what happens when you don’t get enough salt? If your salt intake is too low, you can put yourself at risk for:
Hyponatremia happens when the sodium in your body drops to abnormally low levels. Since sodium keeps water in check, the lack of sodium can cause the water levels in the body to rise. This leads to swelling of individual cells.
Mild cases of hyponatremia results in nausea or diarrhea. However, severe cases can be fatal, as it may involve swelling of the brain or multiple organ failure.
2. Heart disease
Excessive sodium intake may be seen as a cause of hypertension. But lack of sodium intake can impair your cardiovascular system as well. A restricted salt intake can increase your bad cholesterol, as well as damage your heart.
3. Type-2 diabetes.
As mentioned earlier, the lack of sodium can cause your body to become less sensitive to insulin. If you don’t have enough insulin, you won’t be able to metabolize the glucose available in your blood. Your body’s decreased sensitivity to insulin forces your pancreas to work overtime just to stabilize your blood sugar levels.
If your pancreas keeps working too hard, that organ may fail to function altogether. Moreover, the elevated and unregulated blood sugar levels in your body can cause type-2 diabetes.
While a lack of sodium can contribute to sickness, the opposite also holds true. A healthy intake of salt can actually help you alleviate certain conditions and ailments.
Here’s a great video with more on the healing benefits of salt:
Strive for a healthy salt intake!
Too much salt in your diet can damage your health, but so does too little. The question now is this: How do you make sure that you’re consuming a healthy amount of salt? Here are a few tips.
1. Know how much salt you’re supposed to consume.
Studies have found that the safe amount of sodium you can eat in a day ranges between 3,000 to 6,000 milligrams. That’s around 1.5 to 3.5 teaspoons of salt daily. However, the ideal salt intake still varies from person to person.
Your ideal salt intake may still depend on your age, gender, current health conditions, medical history, and whether you lead an active lifestyle. If you have a family history of increased sensitivity to salt, then maybe you should stick to the lower range of healthy salt intake. But if you’re active and athletic, you may want to adhere to the upper range.
2. Include natural sources of sodium in your diet.
Instead of relying on your salt shaker for your sodium intake, you should include foods that are naturally rich in sodium in your diet. Such foods include carrots, beets, turnips, celery, spinach, and eggs.
Adding these foods to your meals not only balances your sodium intake the healthy way. They also provide you a full complement of nutrients as well. Moreover, your meals will be more interesting and flavorful if you expose yourself to more varieties of food.
3. Use natural salts instead of refined table salt.
Natural salt like sea salt tastes saltier. A little of it goes a long way. Moreover, natural salts contain high levels of trace minerals like magnesium, potassium, calcium, and iron. These trace minerals can also contribute to the body’s nutrition and health.
Regular table salt, on the other hand, doesn’t do anything except make your food taste saltier. And even that, you may have to put in a lot of it to sense any difference in the taste and flavor of your food. Table salt is so highly refined that it doesn’t contain a lot of the minerals that makes salt so valuable.
We’ve treated salt like it’s the super-villain in the story of good health for the last few decades. But maybe salt isn’t that bad after all. Whether salt is good or bad, what’s important is you find out how much salt you’re supposed to take and to use salt wisely.