By Dr. Mercola
Salt has long been a treasured staple for humans across the globe.
In ancient times, salt was literally worth its weight in gold, as African and European explorers would trade an ounce of salt for an ounce of gold.
Roman soldiers were also paid in salt, hence the modern word "salary" (sal is the Latin word for salt) and the expression "worth his salt" or "earning his salt."
Far from being harmful, high-quality salt is actually essential for life, but in the United States and many other developed countries salt has been vilified as a primary cause of high blood pressure and heart disease.
These latter claims have failed to be proven conclusively, as have the purported benefits of a low-salt diet.
Now the Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF) is trying to set the record straight, and has warned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that further plans for salt restriction pose a serious threat to human health.
FDA's Salt Restriction Plans Could Harm Your Health
In a recently released document titled "Approaches to Reducing Sodium Consumption,"1 the FDA and the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) cite recommendations to reduce daily sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg, with a further reduction to 1,500 mg (just over one-half teaspoon) for people who are age 51 and older, African American, or who have hypertension, diabetes or chronic kidney disease (this encompasses about half of the U.S. population).
But as WAPF pointed out, the title of the document implies a determination has already been made that Americans' sodium consumption should be reduced, a move that is contrary to scientific evidence.
Sally Fallon Morell, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, stated:
"A study from 1991 indicates that people need about one and one-half teaspoons of salt per day. Anything less triggers a cascade of hormones to recuperate sodium from the waste stream, hormones that make people vulnerable to heart disease and kidney problems. This is proven biochemistry. Yet, FDA as well as USDA want to mandate drastically restricted sodium consumption at about one-half teaspoon per day."
The truth of the matter is that oftentimes sensible advice gets taken to the extreme and ends up being more harmful than helpful. Health officials' misguided advice to shun the sun comes to mind, as now we are facing epidemic levels of vitamin D deficiency (the advice should be to avoid sunburn, but regular sun exposure is healthy). Likewise, health agencies' advice to severely restrict salt may actually cause significant health problems …
Why Your Body Needs Salt
Unrefined natural salt provides two elements – sodium and chloride – that are essential for life. Your body cannot make these elements on its own; you must get them from your diet. Some of the many biological processes for which salt is crucial include:
- Being a major component of your blood plasma, lymphatic fluid, extracellular fluid, and even amniotic fluid
- Carrying nutrients into and out of your cells
- Maintaining and regulating blood pressure
- Supporting healthy glial cell populations in your brain, which are essential for forming the protective coating known as myelin that surrounds the portion of the neuron that conducts electrical impulses, as well as other vital neurological functions
- Helping your brain communicate with your muscles, so that you can move on demand via sodium-potassium ion exchange
What else is salt good for? WAPF's commentary to the FDA further breaks down the importance of both sodium and chloride for body function:2
"Sodium plays a critical role in body physiology. It controls the volume of fluid in the body and helps maintain the acid-base level. About 40 percent of the body's sodium is contained in bone, some is found within other organs and cells, and the remaining 55 percent is in blood plasma and extracellular fluids. Sodium is important in proper nerve conduction, in aiding the passage of various nutrients into cells, and in the maintenance of blood pressure.
Sodium-dependent enzymes are required for carbohydrate digestion, to break down complex carbohydrates and sugars into monosaccharides such as glucose, fructose and galactose; sodium is also involved in transporting these monosaccharides across the intestinal wall. Although salt is the most common dietary source for these essential elements, sodium is also available from various foods that contain sodium naturally.
Chloride ions also help maintain proper blood volume, blood pressure, and pH of body fluids. Chloride is the major extracellular anion and contributes to many body functions including the maintenance of blood pressure, acid-base balance, muscular activity, and the movement of water between fluid compartments. Chloride is the major component of hydrochloric acid, which is needed for protein digestion.
Symptoms of hypochlorhydria (low hydrochloric acid) include bloating, acne, iron deficiency, belching, indigestion, diarrhea and multiple food allergies. Chloride is available in very few foods, and adequate chloride must be obtained from salt."
Did Salt Get the Blame When Fructose Was Really at Fault?
Many of you have likely heard of the DASH diet, which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, and which is very low in salt, consisting largely of fresh vegetables and fruits, lean protein, whole grains, and low-fat dairy. This is the diet used in the DASH-sodium study3 -- the ONE study that was conducted to determine whether or not a low-salt diet would control hypertension.
People on DASH diets did show reduced hypertension, but researchers were so eager and personally invested in proving their salt theory that they completely overlooked other factors – like the fact that the DASH diet is also very low in sugar, including fructose.
Hypertension is actually promoted far more by excess fructose than excess salt, and the amount of salt Americans eat pales in comparison to the amount of fructose they consume on a daily basis. I'm convinced that sugar/fructose—rather than salt—is the major driving force behind our skyrocketing hypertension rates. (If you're struggling with hypertension, you can read my full recommendations for normalizing your blood pressure ). Blood pressure drops as much in low-sugar studies as it did in the DASH-sodium study, but this fact has been conveniently ignored.
Is Salt Really Linked to Heart Disease?
Last year a meta-analysis of seven studies involving more than 6,000 people found no strong evidence that cutting salt intake reduces the risk for heart attacks, strokes or death4. In fact, it was salt restriction that actually increased the risk of death in those with heart failure.
Furthermore, research in the Journal of the American Medical Association revealed that the less sodium excreted in the urine (a marker of salt consumption), the greater the risk of dying from heart disease5. The study followed 3,681 middle-aged healthy Europeans for eight years. The participants were divided into three groups: low salt, moderate salt, and high salt consumption. Researchers tracked mortality rates for the three groups, with the following results:
- Low-salt group: 50 people died
- Moderate salt group: 24 people died
- High-salt group: 10 people died
The risk for heart disease was 56 percent higher for the low-salt group than for the group who ate the most salt! Some studies have shown a modest benefit to salt restriction among some people with high blood pressure, but the evidence does not extend to the rest of the population.
"While excess sodium consumption does increase blood pressure in certain sensitive individuals, increased salt intake does not raise blood pressure in most people. In an average population when salt intakes are reduced, about 30 percent will experience a small drop in blood pressure (between one and four mm Hg), while about 20 percent will experience a similar increase in blood pressure.
The remaining 50 percent of the population will show no effect at all of salt intake reduction. In most people, even a significant increase in salt consumption does not raise blood pressure. … While salt restriction may benefit a small percentage of people with high blood pressure, the science shows no health benefits – and significant health problems – due to salt restriction in the majority of the population."
Dangers of a Low-Salt Diet
The simple truth is, there are very real risks from eating too little salt, and population-wide recommendations to restrict salt intake to very low levels could in fact increase rates of a wide range of diseases. WAPF explains, as reported by Globe Newswire:
"Recent studies show a correlation of salt restriction with increased heart failure and with insulin resistance leading to diabetes. Studies show that even modest reductions in salt cause an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Higher incidence of inflammatory markers and altered lipoproteins are also found by researchers evaluating those on salt-reduced diets. These factors are precursors to metabolic syndrome, which predicts heart problems and diabetes."
In one study by Harvard researchers, a low-salt diet lead to an increase in insulin resistance, which is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes -- and the change occurred in just seven days!6 Other research has found salt restriction may play a role in:
- Increased death rates among people with type 1 or type 2 diabetes
- Increased falls and broken hips, and decreased cognitive abilities, among the elderly
- Giving birth to babies of low birth weight
- Poor neurodevelopmental function in infants
There is also a condition in which you have too little sodium. This is known as hyponatremia, where your body's fluid levels rise and your cells begin to swell. This swelling can cause a number of health problems, from mild to severe. At its worst, hyponatremia can be life threatening, leading to brain swelling, coma and death. But mild to moderate hyponatremia has more subtle effects that you or your health care provider may not even connect with a sodium-deficiency problem, including:
✓ Nausea, vomiting, and changes in appetite
✓ Loss of energy
✓ Urinary incontinence
✓ Nervousness, restlessness and irritability, and other mood changes
✓ Muscle weakness, spasms or cramps
There are other dangers to salt restriction, too, which WAPF outlined in their report -- dangers that many are apt to overlook:
- Chemical salt alternatives: As food manufacturers seek to lower salt levels in their foods, salt substitutes like Senomyx are on the rise. Along with potential dangers from Senomyx itself (which does not require extensive testing and, as WAPF states, "would seem to be nothing more or less than a neurotrophic drug"), it's possible that eating foods that taste salty but actually do not satisfy our sodium requirements may trigger us to keep eating more and more until these requirements are met … a recipe for obesity in the making.
- A loss of nutrient-dense foods: Certain nutritious foods, such as raw milk cheese and lacto-fermented vegetables, depend on high levels of salt for production. If salt becomes increasingly restricted, it could harm the production of these nutrient-dense foods.
Some Types of Salt Are More Dangerous
When you add salt to your diet, the type matters greatly. Today's table salt has practically nothing in common with natural salt. One is health damaging, and the other is healing. Natural salt is 84 percent sodium chloride, and processed salt is 98 percent. So, what comprises the rest?
The remaining 16 percent of natural salt consists of other naturally occurring minerals, including trace minerals like silicon, phosphorous and vanadium. But the remaining two percent of processed salt is comprised of man-made chemicals, such as moisture absorbents, and a little added iodine.
You might be tempted to think "salt is salt," but even the structure of processed salt has been radically altered in the refining process. Refined salt is dried above 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit, and this excessive heat alone alters the natural chemical structure of the salt. What remains after ordinary table salt is chemically "cleaned" is sodium chloride.
The processed salt is not pure sodium chloride but is only 97.5 percent sodium chloride and anticaking and flow agents are added to compromise about 2.5 percent. These are dangerous chemicals like ferrocyanide and aluminosilicate.
Some European countries, where water fluoridation is not practiced, also add fluoride to table salt. In France, 35 percent of table salt sold contains either sodium fluoride or potassium fluoride and use of fluoridated salt is widespread in South America.
More than 80 percent of the salt most people consume is from processed foods. Indeed, there is far too much sodium in processed foods. But you shouldn't be eating those foods anyway—sodium is just one of MANY ingredients in packaged foods that will adversely affect your health. The salt added to these convenience foods is bleached out, trace mineral deficient and mostly sodium—as opposed to natural salt, which is much lower in sodium.
The more you can move toward a diet of whole organic foods in their natural state, the healthier you'll be—whether it's veggies, meat, dairy products, or salt.
Given that salt is absolutely essential to good health, I recommend limiting processed foods (most of which are high in processed salt) and processed salt and switching to a pure, unrefined salt. My favorite is an ancient, all-natural sea salt from the Himalayas. So, generally speaking, it is perfectly fine to salt your food to taste, provided the salt you're using is natural and unrefined. If you are exercising heavily, or in the middle of a heat wave, you may require more salt than on a cool day when you're relaxing.