the Sodium Scare
With the growing rate of high blood pressure, cholesterol levels and heart disease in North America, we as humans try to blame easy things on the cause instead of ourselves. Unfortunately, sodium is one of those easy targets since it has no voice of it’s own.
Let’s do a comparison with other cultures in the world. Take the eastern culture, they consume higher sodium diets than the west but have lower incidences of heart disease and high blood pressure. How does that work?
They consume less processed foods, especially the regular table salt that is chemically treated and heated before being used again. Instead, they get their sodium from whole foods like fruits and vegetables, seafood, and natural salts like Celtic sea salt and Himalayan salt.
Our western diets include processed foods like chips, crackers, bread, cheeses (especially processed ones), salt-cured foods like olives and pickles and some peanut butters all laced with salt. A diet consisting of these foods daily could clock in at above 13 grams of salt. No wonder our daily intake could exceed the 3 to 5 grams of salt which would naturally occur if you ate a whole food diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables and seafood alone.
Whole foods, organically grown naturally taste great paired with herbs and natural spices full of flavour. Processed foods are overcooked, and contain rancid vegetable oils and chemically made flavours and spices which will need more salt to mask the lack of tastes left.
Why our bodies need salt
Sodium is the primary positive ion found in the body and body fluids, is it also found in every cell, although sodium is concentrated outside our cells and potassium is concentrated in our cells which helps maintain normal muscle and nerve cell formation. Proteins in our blood push sodium out of the cell and potassium into it, thus aiding the heart, lungs and nervous system for optimum function. So when protein concentrations are low, fluid imbalances will occur.
Some sodium is stored in our bones and is called upon when needed if there is not enough consumed. Where salt goes so does water. Too much water intake without salt can go into our cells and cause swelling which can lead to headaches, weakness, loss of appetite, and poor memory. More often we crave salt and then become more thirsty for water to dilute it which is our body’s natural balance of the osmosis effects of sodium.
This process is mastered by our kidneys and our active adrenal glands located just above both of our kidneys. If it isn’t excreted through the kidneys, it can be reabsorbed since it is soluble to maintain proper blood levels.
Sodium supports our adrenal glands for making our stress hormone cortisol so when our stress levels go up so does our need for more sodium. During our stress response, cholesterol levels go up too since it is a building block for hormones. Thus when we are experiencing more stress, we may crave salt. If you are wondering if your adrenals might need more support, scroll to the bottom of this article and download my free checklist to determine your levels and find ways to support your stress response.
Sodium is also needed for the breakdown of proteins into the proper amino acids to make testosterone. Our testosterone levels naturally go down with age so ensuring you have enough sodium and the complete digestion of proteins is crucial to combat muscle wasting and hair loss as we age. Thus making it dependent on proper hormone development as well.
A Personal salt story of mine
In my twenties I avoided salting my food because I bought into the off-hand information from the media or from older family members being told by their physician to avoid salt. I figured I could avoid their health issues by preventing them in my youth. I had a physical job and worked out almost every day. I also drank a lot of reverse-osmosis water at the time. Without knowing it, I was diluting my low sodium diet even more and was probably sodium deficient due to my physical lifestyle. I suffered from a lot of headaches too! During my new wellness pursuit in my early thirties, I mentioned to my Naturopathic doctor that I’d been dizzy lately. She said to up my salt intake!!! What?
So I did and the dizziness and headaches went away over time. Later while in school, I learned that was due to adrenal fatigue which I had been and was currently suffering from. My stress load was too much for my body to handle and I was depriving it of what it actually needed – key minerals! Not to mention I had dysbiosis and wasn’t absorbing all the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients I was consuming, regardless of how healthy I was eating.
Thus my love of good quality salt emerged and years later while under a lot of stress when my family physician checked my cholesterol levels, they were fine too. Why? Because I was supporting my body (adrenals) and eating a balanced whole food diet it wasn’t showing up in the diagnostic testing. My cortisol levels were out of balance, but those tests (saliva) were not considered definitive in mainstream medicine. What I did do was quit my stressful and toxic job, one of the root causes of my adrenal fatigue. I didn’t jump on the bandwagon of prescription pills, instead supported my body and changed my lifestyle.
sodium and potassium harmony
When you think of sodium you must also think of potassium since they work together both inside and outside our cells for proper fluid balance. We technically need to double the intake of potassium to sodium for proper cell and electrolyte balance. I would also like to note that the base amount for salt is .5 grams daily to maintain our body’s concentration levels but as with potassium, this amount will increase with perspiration, activity level, vomiting and diarrhea and underlying health conditions. Proving again how easy it is to exceed the recommended sodium amount which is 1.5 to 3 grams daily.
Potassium is easily absorbed in our small intestine but because it is highly soluble breaks down easily in cooking and when used in processed foods.
And this ratio might be more important for controlling our blood pressure than just reducing sodium intake. The best way to do this is to eat a whole-food-based diet that will contain safe levels even if they are high. Consuming a diversity of whole foods will also support proper levels. Here are some examples of foods you can start incorporating into your daily meals to make it as easy as possible to get the right amounts. I have also included a list of foods with hidden or high levels of sodium.
whole foods high in sodium
- All Seafood
- Other sea vegetables like Nori and Dulse
high salt foods to avoid
- Table salt
- Smoked and Salted meats such as bacon, hot dogs, bologna and sausage
- Chinese restaurant food high in MSG and soy sauce
- Canned and instant soups unless salt free and watch out for MSG
- Salted of smoked fish and caviar
- Processed cheeses
- Commercially prepared condiments like ketchup, barbecue sauce, mayonnaise, salad dressings, mustard and steak sauces
- Snack foods like chips, salted peanuts and popcorn, pretzels and most crackers
whole foods high in potassium
- Dark leafy greens like spinach, parsley, mustard greens and lettuce
- Lima Beans
- Potatoes (especially the skins)
- Dried Apricots
- Whole grains
As you can see all of these foods are missing from our typical western diet especially at each meal of the day so no wonder our levels of both potassium and sodium can get out of whack real easily.
A final note and summary of the best nutrition practices. Focus on whole foods like fruits and vegetables and limit all processed or prepared foods so you don’t have to worry about what is in your food. So really, eat foods without a nutritional label or in a package and your levels will be naturally balanced.
If you are looking to safely add more natural salt to your diet check out my article The Salt of the Earth.
Most information in this article is based on information from ‘Staying Healthy with Nutrition” by Elson M.Haas, MD with Buck Levin, PhD, RD