For decades, many of us have been taught that sodium is bad for the heart, but like most nutrition topics, the story of salt and its impact on overall health isn’t quite so simple. First, your body needs salt to function. Second, the type of salt/sodium you consume is very important.
The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that individuals consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium each day (preferably no more than 1,500), which is equal to 5.75 grams, or just under 1.25 teaspoons of salt. Research, on the other hand, seems to before more forgiving regarding sodium intake, suggesting that the “salty spot” for avoiding heart disease and other complications is 8-15 grams of salt per day (1.5-3 tsp/3,200-6,000 mg sodium).
Apparently, countries around the world are taking the latter advice. You’d probably be surprised to learn that citizens of countries with higher sodium intakes enjoy longer lifespans. And while the relationship between sodium and life expectancy isn’t causal (more than one factor determines lifespan), it may give us some pause when we consider the current demonization of salt.
Again, though, not all salt is created equally. I recommend eliminating table salt from your diet altogether, primarily because of the unexpected ingredients it contains, including added iodine, aluminum derivatives, and MSG/processed sugar. But there are some good-for-you options, and both Celtic Sea Salt® and pink Himalayan salt have some impressive health benefits.
So why is salt so important to the body? How do we know if we are getting too much or too little? And what can we do to fix those problems?
Humans need salt for several processes within the body—including blood volume (controlling the amount of fluid in the cardiovascular system), nervous system management, and digestion—thanks to its ability to attract and retain water.
But you can definitely have too much salt, especially when you’re getting it from the wrong sources. Packaged, heavily processed foods and condiments tend to contain the most salt and, if not eaten in moderation, can trigger hypertension and other conditions. According to the American Heart Association, here are some of the top foods that contain excess sodium:
- Yeast breads
- Cold cuts/cured meat
- Savory snacks
- Bacon, frankfurters and sausages
- Ready-to-eat cereal
- Condiments and salad dressings
And while the human body can technically survive on as little as 500 milligrams of sodium each day, intake that low can actually come with its own list of problems. Extreme sodium deficiency is known as hyponatremia, which is associated with kidney failure, congestive heart failure, hypothyroidism, and cirrhosis of the liver.
How do I know if I’m not getting enough salt?
While most of the concern about getting too much sodium involves heart disease, there are many symptoms or risk factors of low amounts of salt, like depression, insulin resistance, and (wait for it) heart disease.
That’s right, too little sodium in the diet can slightly lower blood pressure—but at the cost of raising many other risk factors for heart disease. Significant sodium restriction can raise the levels of renin, aldosterone, catecholamines, cholesterols and triglycerides in your blood, all of which increase your risk of heart disease.
A few other signs you could have a salt deficiency (or probably need more salt) include:
- Excessive sweating from exercise or hot climates
- Excessive water intake
- Heart problems
- Cognitive decline (mostly in small children or the elderly)
- Salt cravings
- High cholesterol and/or triglycerides
- Diuretics (prescribed for heart failure)
- Underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism)
- Dizziness/falls (in the elderly)
If you do need to increase your sodium intake, I recommend the following sources:
- Sea/pink Himalayan salt (2.3 grams per teaspoon)
- Pickles (1.9 grams per serving)
- Canned peppers (1.9 grams per serving)
- Bone broth (.6 grams per serving)
- Sauerkraut (.4 grams per serving)
How do I know if I’m eating too much salt?
Before I describe the warning signs of too much salt, I want to note that many of these symptoms are actually a result of nutrient deficiencies that cause you to improperly process the sodium you consume. So rather than trying to nix salt altogether, you should first try increasing the amount of potassium, magnesium, and calcium in your diet (or choose a high-quality supplement).
Certain populations are also more susceptible to a sodium sensitivity. In particular, the African-American community; people over age 50; and those who already have high blood pressure, diabetes, or kidney disease are more likely to need a break from salt.
Consuming too much salt could possibly contribute to the development of autoimmune diseases, osteoporosis, high blood pressure and kidney disease. It may also cause kidney stones especially if you consume a lot of sodium and very little calcium.
Risk factors and warning signs of too much sodium intake include:
- Insatiable thirst
- Brain fog (especially in sedentary individuals)
- Stomach ulcers
- Salt cravings (this one is on both lists)
The best way to eliminate excess sodium from your diet is to stop eating processed foods, condiments, cold cuts, and pork. A great deal more sodium is found in processed foods that have no inherent nutritional value. (It’s no wonder that high salt intake is also correlated with soft drink consumption.)
Instead, focus on consuming whole, fresh foods high in protein, healthy fats, and fiber. Cook at home whenever you can, and get your sodium by seasoning that nutritious food with healthy sea salt or pink Himalayan salt.