I am not a medical professional, please consult your Doctor before making dietary changes.
Since the beginning of time, salt has been one of the most important commodities in the world. Before refrigeration, salt was not only used to season meat but to preserve it. Up until the industrial revolution, salt was extremely labor intensive to farm. Therefore, from China to Africa to the French Revolution, wars were fought over salt. In ancient Rome, salt was used as currency. In fact, that’s where the Latin-based words soldier and salary are derived (FREEMAN, n.d.). Our ancient ancestors understood the importance of salt, so what happened?
First, what’s the difference between salt and sodium? Most table salt is made up of sodium chloride. It’s approximately 40% sodium and 60% chloride (Good, 2014). The FDA recommends 2,300 mg of sodium a day or about 5,750 mg of salt. Most Americans eat about 3,200 mg of sodium a day, most likely due to the high amount of it in processed foods (Sodium in Your Diet, n.d.). The recommended amount is low due to the medical field demonizing salt. This is most likely due to the high amount of cardiovascular disease.
High Blood Pressure and Sodium
To simplify it, when you consume salt, your body holds more water. When there is more fluid in the body blood pressure will increase. Blood pressure is measured in millimeters of mercury which is abbreviated as mm Hg. A standard blood pressure example would be 120/80. The top number is measuring the amount of pressure in the arteries during the contraction of the heart, which is called the systolic pressure. The bottom number is called the diastolic pressure and it’s referring to the blood pressure between beats of the heart muscle (What do the numbers mean?, n.d.). Now, consuming salt does increase these numbers. Per 1,000 mg of sodium blood pressure will increase, on average, 4.58 mm Hg (Study of U.S. adults finds strong association between higher sodium excretion and higher blood pressure and association between higher potassium excretion and lower blood pressure, 2018). If your blood pressure is extremely high, this can be a huge problem. However, for the everyday person, when considering the risk vs. reward (which we will get into the reward soon) adding a few more grams of sodium will not increase your risk of cardiovascular disease significant enough to worry.
Easy ways to Decrease Blood Pressure
The medical industry focuses on salt being the main culprit of raising blood pressure, or BP, but there are other, more significant factors to decrease it. One of the biggest ways to reduce BP is get enough sleep! Even getting five to six hours is enough to build stress hormones enough to increase BP (Sheldon G. Sheps, 2019). A main offender of lack of sleep is sleep apnea. A recent study showed those with sleep apnea who didn’t comply with using a CPAP raised their mm Hg by 10, which is much more significant than salt (Renaud Tamisier, 2017). Another obvious way to decrease blood pressure is proper diet and exercise.
The human body needs electrolytes to function properly. The electrolytes include sodium, potassium, calcium, bicarbonate, magnesium, chloride and phosphate. The first noteworthy is calcium. Eating a proper calcium source, 15 mg, will open blood vessels and improve the potential of decreasing BP. Another significant discussion point is eating proper vitamin D3, which aids in the absorption of calcium (English, 2019). Another one that is under consumed on the list is potassium. “Molecular pumps that pull potassium into cells and push sodium out create a chemical battery that drives the transmission of signals along nerves and powers the contraction of muscles” (Potassium and sodium out of balance, 2019), so to function properly, you need a balance of the two. The average American consumes about half the recommended amount which is 4,700 mg a day (Potassium and sodium out of balance, 2019). Raising the amount of sodium you eat paired with eating adequate potassium, calcium and vitamin D3 will keep the risk of raising your BP at bay. Eating a well-balanced diet, made up of whole foods should get you the correct amount of most electrolytes except for potassium and sodium. Those two need to be intentional by eating potassium sources like potatoes, bananas, legumes and other vegetables while salting your food. If you’re eating a diet made up of mostly whole foods, without salting, it will lead to the under consumption of sodium. Under consuming sodium will ensure you miss out on several benefits and will lead to muscle cramping.
Types of Salt
Not only is salt highly criticized but iodized salt takes the brunt. Most health-conscious individuals switched to Pink Himalayan salt. Although it is far less processed than iodized, it lacks an iodine source. In the 1920’s goiter was a bad issue, due to the lack of iodine in the diet. Once they added it to salt it dropped goiter from 30% to about 2% in the population (Letter, 2011). Iodine also severely effects the thyroid function. Therefore, if you aren’t using iodized salt aim for a proper source like cranberries, cranberry juice, dairy or certain seafood.
Benefits of Sodium
As mentioned before, eating enough sodium will lead to better muscle contractions, nerve transmissions (the battery effect) and fluid balance. All of which are connected to an increased performance in athletic endeavors. There is also a direct correlation to holding more water at the cellular level and strength. Also eating too little sodium will unbalance the proper pH level (amount of alkaline) in the blood. This leads to thicker blood. Thicker blood leads to less oxygen and lower cardiovascular performance, worse ability to recover from workouts and a bigger strain on the kidneys. Another reason sodium is so important for athletes is it is severely underestimated how much sodium is lost in sweat. Working out in moderately hot conditions can lead to at least 500 mg of sodium lost an hour (Miller, 2008). Most athletes and medical professionals don’t account for the amount lost, which needs to be an important focus of attention.
- Salt is made out to be a villain. As a trainer, I see average people and athletes needlessly restricting salt. When implementing proper nutrition and exercise even those I’ve trained with high blood pressure have had to significantly increase their sodium intake and eventually gone off high blood pressure medication. With high BP if you exercise, get enough sleep, eat whole-unprocessed foods, have a proper calcium (paired with vitamin D3) and a potassium source, eating more than the low-recommended FDA amount, will not put you in direct danger of increasing your blood pressure.
- Sodium will cause bloating but at the intercellular level, so feeling bloated in your stomach is most likely from the junk food you’re eating, not the high level of salt in it.
- Salt your food liberally (assuming you follow all the other topics discussed) and add half a teaspoon before a workout. It should also be noted intaking enough sodium surrounding a workout cannot be done with sports drinks like Gatorade. Dr. Godek of the Heat Institute gives insight on this matter. “Typical sports drinks can’t restore blood-sodium levels because they are not salty enough”, “to replace 30 g of sodium, for example, an athlete would have to drink 65 L of sports drinks—which would cause hyponatremia” which could kill you (ACHAUER, 2017).
- Use recommended whole food sources for all the vitamins and minerals to meet the proper amounts. Supplementing limits the bioavailability/absorption of them.
Due to the heart disease pandemic in modern America, salt has been the bad guy long enough. Eating properly, especially as an athlete, leads to the importance of eating at least 5g+ of sodium a day. Using this amount will lead to better athletic performance, strength, neurological function and better hydration. If anyone recommends cutting salt out, get a second opinion and do your research.
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ACHAUER, H. (2017, May 5). Top Five Hydration Myths Busted. Retrieved from CrossFit the Journal: https://journal.crossfit.com/article/top-five-hydration-myths-busted-2
English, N. (2019, June 19). The Surprising Benefits of Salt for Strength Athletes. Retrieved from BarBend: https://barbend.com/sodium-salt-benefits-for-athletes/
FREEMAN, S. (n.d.). How Salt Works. Retrieved from How Salt Works: https://science.howstuffworks.com/innovation/edible-innovations/salt5.htm
Good, A. H. (2014, July 22). ARE SALT AND SODIUM THE SAME? Retrieved from Sodium Breakup: https://sodiumbreakup.heart.org/salt-vs-sodium
Letter, H. H. (2011, June). Cut salt - it won't affect your iodine intake. Retrieved from Harvard Health Publishing: https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/cut-salt-it-wont-affect-your-iodine-intake
Miller, G. P. (2008, Jan 29). Sweat rate and sodium loss during work in the heat. Retrieved from U.S Library of Medicine National Institute of Health: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2267797/
Potassium and sodium out of balance. (2019, April 2). Retrieved from Harvard Health Publishing: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/potassium_and_sodium_out_of_balance
Renaud Tamisier, P. L. (2017). Management of hypertension in obstructive sleep apnoea: predicting blood pressure reduction under continuous positive airway pressure. European Respiratory Journal . Retrieved from European Respiratory journal : Management of hypertension in obstructive sleep apnoea: predicting blood pressure reduction under continuous positive airway pressure
Sheldon G. Sheps, M. (2019, January 9). Sleep deprivation: A cause of high blood pressure? Retrieved from Mayo Clinic : https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/high-blood-pressure/expert-answers/sleep-deprivation/faq-20057959
Sodium in Your Diet. (n.d.). Retrieved from U.S. Food and Drug Administration : https://www.fda.gov/food/nutrition-education-resources-materials/sodium-your-diet
Study of U.S. adults finds strong association between higher sodium excretion and higher blood pressure and association between higher potassium excretion and lower blood pressure. (2018, February 28). Retrieved from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention : https://www.cdc.gov/salt/research_reviews/sodium_potassium_blood_pressure.htm
What do the numbers mean? (n.d.). Retrieved from heartline: https://www.healthline.com/health/high-blood-pressure-hypertension/blood-pressure-reading-explained