Can you imagine your meals without salt? It is like watching a movie blind-folded
Salt is a mandatory tastemaker for all our meals. It makes food palatable and enjoyable. Above all, salt helps maintain the chemical balance in your body. It (sodium) even helps to conduct nerve impulses in the body.
But did you know that high salt intake is linked to hypertension and osteoporosis? However, totally abstaining from salt can be equally dangerous (1). Extensive research is done on this tricky ingredient. Swipe up to know if salt is your friend or foe!
All About Salt
With about 40% sodium and 60% chloride, table salt stabilizes and flavors food. It doubles up as a preservative in foods with a long shelf-life (1).
The common sources of salt for consumers can be classified into refined (table)salt, sea salt, flower salt, and processed salt. They possess varying mineral content and nutritional values (2).
Our body requires a small amount of sodium (about 500 mg/day) to (1):
- conduct nerve impulses
- contract and relax muscles
- maintain the balance of water and minerals (electrolytes)
Potassium is another mineral our body needs in equal, if not higher, amounts as sodium to perform these functions. Potassium is found in almost all vegetables and fruits. But sodium is abundant in processed and pickled foods (3).
The present-day diet regimen includes relatively large portions of processed/fast foods compared to fresh fruits and vegetables (3).
What good does salt do to you? Is it even good at all?
Find out for yourself in the following sections.
What Are The Health Benefits Of Salt?
The sodium ions in salt help maintain the electrolytic balance in your body. They can help relieve muscle cramps and treat dental infections. Gargling warm/hot salt water frees airway passages and helps ease sinusitis and asthma.
1. Used For Oral Rehydration
Chronic pathogenic diseases like diarrhea and cholera lead to dehydration. Dehydration causes loss of water and minerals from the body. If not replenished, it will impair the functioning of the kidneys and the GI tract.
Providing water-soluble salts and glucose orally is the quickest way to deal with such loss of function. Oral rehydration solution (ORS) can be given to patients with diarrhea and other pathogenic diseases (4).
2. May Relieve Muscle (Leg) Cramps
Leg cramps frequently occur in older adults and athletes. Little is known about the definite cause. Exercise, body weight fluctuations, pregnancy, electrolyte imbalances, and loss of salts in the body are a few risk factors (5).
Intensive physical activity in the summer heat is a predominant reason for involuntary cramps. Field sports players may lose up to 4-6 teaspoons of salt a day because of excessive sweating. Having foods that are natural sources of salt may reduce the severity of cramps. Increasing sodium intake is suggested in such cases (6).
Drinking water with ¼ teaspoon of salt is recommended to athletes. Tomato juice and sports drinks are also good options (6).
3. May Help Manage Cystic Fibrosis
Cystic fibrosis is a genetic condition characterized by excessive loss of salt and minerals through sweat, dehydration, and mucus secretion. Excess mucus plugs the ducts in the intestines and the GI tract (7).
The loss of sodium and chloride ions in the form of sodium chloride is so high that the patients’ skin tastes salty. To compensate for this loss, such individuals should have salt and salty foods (7).
Since the mucus hinders fat absorption in the gut, those dealing with cystic fibrosis may also be deficient in fat-soluble nutrients like vitamins A, D, E, and K (7).
4. May Improve Dental Health
Enamel is a hard layer that covers our teeth. It protects them from plaque and acid attacks. The enamel is made of a sparingly soluble salt called hydroxyapatite. Tooth decay happens when such salts dissolve due to plaque build-up (8).
With no enamel, the teeth get demineralized and become weak with cavities. Using salt-based mouth rinses could have preventative effects over caries and gingivitis, similar to brushing or flossing (9).
However, scientific studies do not find any significant benefit of using oral rinses over brushing-flossing, especially in preventing chronic dental diseases (9).
5. May Ease Sore Throat And Sinusitis
Gargling warm salt water may ease a sore throat and also help treat upper respiratory tract infections. There is insufficient scientific evidence to prove this effect, though. Salt water may relieve the itchy feeling in your throat but does not necessarily shorten the duration of the infection (10), (11).
Flushing your nostrils with salt water (nasal irrigation) is an effective remedy for sinusitis. Salt water can relieve congestion that hinders normal breathing. However, clinical trials do not claim this technique to be a cure for sinusitis (12), (13).
In fact, it is difficult to decide if salt is good or bad for your health – both low and high intakes of salt trigger multiple consequences. In the following section, we will cover more on this.
What Happens If You Take Less Salt?
Low salt intake may lead to hyponatremia (low sodium levels in the blood) with symptoms like (14):
- Frequent falls or gait deficits
- Cognitive impairment
- Permanent brain damage
In older patients, hyponatremia often causes swelling (edema) of the hands, feet, and internal organs. This happens due to the influx of extracellular fluid as the chemical equilibrium is disturbed (15).
There is another set of medical conditions you’d face if you had a lot of salt too. Hypernatremia (high sodium levels in the blood) is one of the major effects. This leads to problems with the heart, pancreas, brain, and kidneys.
What Happens If You Take Too Much Salt?
Excess salt intake can lead to hypernatremia, which is less common. There is a significant loss of water or net sodium gain in the body. Only when the sodium concentration exceeds 158-160 mmol/liter will you experience acute symptoms like (15):
- Intense thirst
- Muscle weakness
- Altered mental status due to lesions in the brain
- Brain shrinkage (in severe cases)
Excess salt intake interferes not only with the nervous system, but also with the functioning of several organs, including the heart, bones, and kidneys. Scroll down for a detailed account.
What Are The Side Effects Of Excess Salt Intake?
1. Affects Cardiovascular Health
The Institute of Medicine and other researchers concluded that reducing sodium intake lowers blood pressure. In a Japanese study, reducing salt intake was associated with a significant decrease in hypertension and stroke mortality (1), (16), (17).
This was observed in normal and hypertensive subjects, irrespective of their gender and race. However, no scientific body has established yet that lower salt intake could decrease the risk of heart disease (1).
2. May Cause Kidney Diseases
High blood pressure leads to increased calcium excretion. Calcium ions are lost from bone mineral reserves and get accumulated in the kidneys. This accumulation, over time, causes stones to form in the kidneys and the urinary tract (17).
Patients with hypertension often deal with chronic kidney disease (CKD). This happens due to their inability to eliminate excess sodium from their systems. It is recommended to have a sodium intake of <4,000 mg/day to manage CKD and other kidney diseases (1).
3. May Trigger Osteoporosis
When you eat more salt, there is an increase in calcium excretion. Loss of calcium results in the depletion of bone mineral reserves. Bone demineralization (or thinning) ultimately manifests as osteoporosis (1).
Studies have shown that reducing salt intake could slow the bone loss associated with aging and menopause. It is also suggested that hypertension and stroke increase the risk of osteoporosis. This proves that all these conditions may have a common underlying cause – and that could be sodium balance (17), (18).
4. May Lead To Stomach Cancer
Clinical trials done over decades link high salt intake to stomach cancer. They suggest a positive statistical correlation between the bacterial (Helicobacter pylori) infection and salt consumption (17).
High sodium levels in the stomach may worsen the inflammation of the protective gastric mucosal cells. Such episodes may increase the possibility of undesirable mutations that trigger gastric cancer. The Helicobacter species also multiply in these unfavorable conditions (1), (17).
A few studies report high salt intake to be one of the reasons behind developing asthma, cataracts, and edema (swelling due to fluid retention). But the evidence is insufficient to prove these claims.
Hence, it is best to stick to low-moderate salt consumption to stay protected from these conditions. Avoid eating foods that are high in salt or sodium. We have covered these foods in the next section.
Which Foods Are High In Salt/Sodium?
- Cold cuts/cured meats
- Savory snacks (chips, popcorn, pretzels, crackers)
All you need to do is find low-salt or low-sodium substitutes for such foods. Having fresh fruits, nuts, and vegetables instead of the above-listed foods is a great idea to start with.
Moreover, you can find various types of salt on the market. We need more research to understand if they are superior to table salt.
Salt is the trickiest of all ingredients. It certainly makes your food palatable, but possibly at the cost of your health. So, watch how much of it you have every day. It is safe to consume less than 3,000 mg of salt per day, and that’s about just 1.5 to 2.0 teaspoons.
Consult a dietitian/nutritionist to find out ways to reduce/substitute salt in your regimen. It is important you do so. Also, keep your blood pressure levels in check.
Remember: Moderation is key, especially if it is salt.
How often do you eat salty foods? What steps have you taken to reduce your salt intake? Do share with us by leaving a comment in the box below.