Salt has gotten a bad rap. According to conventional wisdom, sodium leads to dehydration (through decreased water absorption and increased urine output), high blood pressure, heart disease, and other health woes.
More recent research has demonstrated, however, that most of these assertions are wrong. As usual, it turns out that the story is quite a bit more complex—we simply came up with an elegant and logical story that allowed us to use salt as a scapegoat for a variety of misunderstood maladies.
Salt actually has some incredible health benefits, and there’s still much we have to learn about how it affects bodily function.
Before you rush off to eat a heaping serving of your favorite salty food, though, know this: it’s still entirely possible to eat too much salt, and not every kind of salt is healthy. We’ll go over best practices for salt consumption later in this article, but first, let’s debunk some longstanding myths.
Setting salt’s record straight
According to Dr. Melanie Hoenig, a leading nephrologist and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, “we really do not understand the effect of sodium chloride on the body.”
The suspicion that we’ve been wrong about salt all along cropped up in a very unlikely place: the Mir Space Station. In 1991, Dr. Jens Titze noticed that the urine output cycle of the cosmonauts—whose sodium intake could be monitored meticulously—didn’t align with what conventional ideas about salt intake would have predicted.
When researchers dug deeper into the conundrum, they ended up redefining our understanding of how salt affects the body. Here’s a sampling of what they found.
Salt intake does not make you thirstier or promote dehydration. A deep dive into the medical data of the Mir cosmonauts revealed that quite the opposite is true. It turns out that higher levels of salt can actually aid water retention in the body, thus decreasing thirst and improving hydration.
The mechanisms by which this occurs are not yet fully understood, but researchers have observed that sodium boosts levels of glucocorticoid hormones in the body. These hormones speed up metabolism and break down fat and muscle proteins; a byproduct of this breakdown, urea, is known to boost water retention in the body.
Because the protein breakdown triggered by sodium is an energy-intensive process, healthy salt intake can lead to another unforeseen benefit: weight loss. The study cited above found that the more salt the cosmonauts consumed, the hungrier they were. These findings were confirmed by subsequent animal studies, which demonstrated that mice fed a high-sodium diet need to consume more calories in order to maintain their current weight.
Salt does not cause heart disease and high blood pressure. Sodium intake has long been considered a leading factor for the development of hypertension of cardiovascular issues, but new research shows that it’s the balance between sodium and potassium that really matters.
Proper sodium-potassium balance has been shown to lower blood pressure as well as risk of both stroke and cardiovascular events
Proper sodium-potassium balance has been shown to lower blood pressure, as well as risk of both stroke and cardiovascular events. One study demonstrated that low sodium intake may worsen cardiovascular health in individuals at risk for heart attack and stroke.
As we intimated above, though, the issue is a complex one. Some data does still suggest that high sodium intake can increase the risk of heart disease—why the contradiction?
Not all salt is created equal, and because even healthful salt intake can be harmful when the body has insufficient potassium
Here’s the short answer: because not all salt is created equal, and because even healthful salt intake can be harmful when the body has insufficient potassium. Let’s dive deeper into how to make salt a balanced and healthy aspect of your diet.
How to optimize the benefits (and avoid the pitfalls) of salt
While the mechanisms by which sodium chloride functions in the body may be complex, the basic rules of healthy eating still apply when it comes to benefiting from it.
It’s simple really: most “excess” sodium intake comes from processed foods. These products nearly always have extremely high sodium levels and very low potassium levels. And to make matters worse, most food manufacturers use the equivalent of refined table salt, which lacks beneficial minerals and can contain iodine, absorbents, fluoride, and other industrial chemicals.
The first rule of healthy salt consumption, then, is to minimize or completely avoid processed foods. Instead, fill your diet with lots of organic fruits and vegetables. Swiss chard, spinach, beets, avocado, squash, bananas, lima beans, and apricots are especially high in potassium, and will ensure that your sodium-potassium levels stay balanced.
Whenever you do consume salt, choose natural, mineral-rich varieties like pink Himalayan salt or unrefined sea salts—they’re packed with all the healthful nutrients your body needs to maintain proper cell communication, nutrient absorption, optimal cognitive function, hormonal function, and more.
Adding a pinch or two of Himalayan salt to your drinking water provides you with your daily dose of minerals, and helps your body retain and use more of the water you drink. This practice is especially important if your water is filtered in ways that deplete mineral content, such as reverse osmosis, distillation, and similar filtration methods.
To sum things up: switch out your table salt for Himalayan salt, swap processed foods for potassium-rich fruits and veggies, and try adding a bit of Himalayan salt to your drinking water. You’ll be amazed by how proper hydration and salt balance can make you feel!