Do you follow the dietary guideline about drinking lots of water? Do you follow the advice to reduce your salt intake? If you do both of these things you are probably risking your health and reducing your strength and fitness. We are constantly told to reduce salt and we see ‘low salt’ foods advertised everywhere. Why do they do this; what is wrong with salt?
Experiments conducted in the 1950s suggested that an excess of salt caused high blood pressure and high blood pressure is a risk factor for heart disease. When the National Dietary Guidelines were put together in the 1970s heart diseases was everybody’s greatest fear. A low salt diet only reduces blood pressure by a fairly insignificant three or four points and it does so by reducing blood volume, which is not a particularly good thing. But the fear of heart disease was so great at the time that this research was accepted and recommendations to eat a maximum of 6 grams of salt per day were introduced. Like so many things in the dietary guidelines, there had been no trials to test the recommendation being made. They just thought they should go for the opposite of what they thought was bad. This is the same mistake they made when they demonised fat and had no alternative other than to recommend carbohydrate instead. The world-wide obesity epidemic is the result of that mistake.
Salt (sodium chloride) is an essential micronutrient. We have to eat it or we die. Recent research is showing that far too many people have inadequate levels and they are suffering from a deficiency. We lose salt in our sweat and in our urine. The more water and caffeine we drink the more urine we produce and the more salt (and other minerals) we excrete. An athlete who sweats a lot and is constantly drinking water to replace it will be salt deficient if they follow the official low salt diet.
What does a lack of salt do?
- Low salt increases insulin production and insulin resistance, which leads to poor energy levels, weight gain and, eventually, type 2 diabetes.
- Natural salt contains other essential minerals including iodine. A lack of iodine leads to hypothyroidism which makes you feel tired all the time. Some athletes have ‘therapeutic use exemptions’ for thyroid hormones. Their problems might disappear if they took more iodised salt.
- Low levels of sodium trigger the over production of adrenal hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. These stress hormones are valuable when you are just about to run or fight but they have very negative effects when you are producing them over long periods of time. They will increase your levels of anxiety, sleep disturbance, digestive problems, headaches and heart problems. They will reduce your memory and concentration. Cortisol in particular breaks down muscle tissues, which is the last thing you want.
- A lack of salt slows down your metabolism. It increases the release of lactic acid rather than carbon dioxide during the production of energy. Perhaps, the second to last thing you want.
- Sodium is anti-microbial. The more sodium you have stored in your skin, the better you are at preventing cuts from becoming infected.
- A lack of salt and drinking too much water can cause hyponatraemia; a condition in which the sodium levels of the blood are too diluted. Mild symptoms include a decreased ability to think, headaches, nausea, and poor balance. Severe symptoms include confusion, seizures, and coma, which occasionally leads to death. Oh no, this is the last thing you want.
Our bodies function brilliantly because of our incredibly complex feedback loops and homeostasis. The idea that we can greatly reduce an essential mineral to target one particular disease without other grave consequences is totally deluded. We should all remember that the original Dietary Guidelines were put together by an American Committee of Senators with no scientific background. They were under pressure to reduce heart disease and they listened to the scientists who shouted the loudest while ignoring the advice that urged more caution. (ref. The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teischolz.)
A study published by the Canadian Population Health Research Institute in 2014 has interesting results. They followed 150,000 people from a wide variety of countries over several years. They measured the amount of sodium in their urine, which gave an accurate indication of salt in their diet. The results of their study showed that the lowest death rates came from people eating between 10 and 17 grams of salt per day. There were higher death rates for those who consumed both higher and lower intakes. On average, those who consumed less than 8g of salt per day had a death rate 38% higher than those consuming 10 to 17g per day.
Eating far too much salt is bad for you, but far too little salt is just as bad. The latest research suggests that the recommended maximum of 6g per day is far too low. The author of a new book on this topic (The Salt Fix) claims that his training sessions are far better when he takes salt beforehand rather than just replace it afterwards. We should all add salt to our food to the point of taste preference. The only exceptions are people with kidney disease, diagnosed hypertension and people who eat nothing but processed food. If you are in the latter group you probably have far more health problems than just a sodium imbalance.