Do We Need Less or More Salt?
A Guide to Salt
Sodium is a mineral essential for human function and the most concentrated electrolyte in our blood. It can be found naturally in many foods such as meat, milk, yogurt, certain tropical fruits, and vegetables. The human body can’t make sodium, and we need to ingest it daily.
Salt is sodium combined with chloride. One teaspoon (6g) of table salt contains 2,325.5 mg sodium. Table salt usually contains no other minerals, while sea salt and Himalayan pink salt contain other trace minerals. Table salt also has slightly more sodium than Himalayan and sea salt, but the difference is not significant enough to worry too much.
We need sodium daily to:
- maintain chemical and fluid balance in and around cells
- maintain blood pressure
- contract muscles
- conduct nerve impulses
We know that excess salt is bad for blood pressure and damages the heart and brain. However, too little salt can cause other severe physical and cognitive issues.
Based on research to date, there’s a U-shaped relationship between salt intake and health, with elevated risks at very low and very high salt intake. Same as with most other vitamins and minerals, both too little and too much can harm us.
Furthermore, our salt sensitivity is coded in our genes. Salt sensitive individuals may develop hypertension and heart issues from chronically high salt intake, while those with low salt sensitivity can be perfectly healthy when consuming identical amounts. Research suggests that instead of restricting sodium intake, those with high salt sensitivity should be focusing on whole foods diet aiming at weight loss and improved insulin sensitivity, which could lower their salt sensitivity, thus decreasing disease risk.
Although salt reduction can lead to improvements in hypertension, systematic reviews and meta-analyses all showed no benefit of salt restriction among people with normal blood pressure. Furthermore, salt restriction increases insulin resistance, which has been shown to occur in several trials in healthy adults.
It’s important to note that none of us is likely to overconsume salt by eating foods in their natural form. Excess sodium intake is mainly the result of consuming ultra-processed foods daily. Because such foods are also laden with highly inflammatory processed oils, refined sugar and gut-destroying emulsifiers, the linked health issues are likely a consequence of eating junk and physical inactivity.
How Much Sodium Do We Need?
How much sodium we need depends on many factors, including genetics, lifestyle, diet, and level of physical activity, to name a few. Dr James DiNicolantonio defined adequate ranges in his book Salt Fix.
The recommendations are:
- 8-12g of salt a day 3.2-4.8g sodium (1.5-2 teaspoons of salt per day) for a healthy person (several studies back this)
- The correct potassium and magnesium amount for the above sodium intake is 4g of potassium:400mg magnesium
- Avoid very high salt intake (over 6-7g of sodium per day)
However, there are situations when we need more sodium than what is recommended.
We need more sodium when:
- On ketogenic and very low carb diet
- Under stress
- Suffering low blood pressure
- Drinking too much coffee
- Intermittent fasting
- Exercising and or sweating a lot
Signs of lack of salt:
- Muscle cramps and weakness
Always increase your sodium needs by consuming salt-containing whole foods such as meat or adding a pinch of salt to your water. Salty ultra-processed junk is never a good idea.
When you slightly increase salt intake by consuming natural foods, your sugar cravings will be hugely reduced because of the interaction of neural pathways for sweet and salty.
Salt During Stress and Anxiety
We need more salt when we are under stress (not chronic but acute stress). Our ability to meet physiological stress challenges (elevated heart rate and blood pressure) is impaired when sodium is too low. That’s why we often crave salt when stressed.
Low dietary sodium can also exacerbate anxiety. It’s because sodium is one of the key elements in neural function. Neurons and the brain don’t function optimally when we don’t consume enough sodium, which presents as confusion, lack of coordination, dizziness, and cognitive impairment. Extremely low sodium, such as in hyponatraemia, can cause the nervous system to shut down.
Salt On A Low Carb Diet
One of the main benefits of low carb diet is lower insulin levels. Besides other functions, insulin regulates fat storage and sodium retention. Lower insulin equals less fat storage and more sodium excretion.
As insulin levels lower, kidneys start excreting excess sodium and water along with it. This is one of the reasons people often lose a few kilograms on scales within a few days of low-carb eating. It’s usually just the water loss. Another fact contributing to the water loss on a low carb diet is that 1g of muscle glycogen binds 2-3ml water. When we don’t eat enough carbs, the body uses muscle glycogen, and the water goes out of the body with it.
The crappy feeling at the start of any low carb or keto diet, the so-called keto flu, is your body asking for more salt. Consuming about 4 to 7 grams of sodium (about 2 to 3 teaspoons of salt) per day is where many people on a low-carb or keto diet feel and perform the best.
Research indicates that reducing carbs can lower blood pressure, decrease cardiovascular disease markers, help reverse diabetes, and promote weight loss, even with moderate to high sodium consumption. Diets higher in carbs and sugars cause higher insulin levels, and higher insulin levels trigger more sodium retention by the kidneys. That’s why you don’t need as much salt when you eat lots of carbs and when you do overconsume salt, it can lead to health issues over time stemming from insulin resistance and salt retention in the body.
Salt, Caffeine, Exercise and Fasting
Caffeine is a diuretic. It causes the excretion of water, sodium and potassium from the body.
If you are fasting and just drinking coffee or tea during the fast or ingesting a lot of water, you will be excreting sodium along with the water. It is helpful to have some sea or pink salt in your water or eat salty whole foods to break the fast in this scenario. It would be best to increase water intake every time you have a coffee. For every 100ml of coffee or tea you drink, you need 1.5x water with a tiny pinch of salt. If you exercise fasted and drink coffee before or during the workout, you need even more fluids and sodium. That’s why Chief Beef bars are a great breakfast or post-training snack.