I had a great question asked by a client:
What’s the deal with salt cravings?
But asking this question is like opening up Pandora's Box of Health! So, before I can answer, I have to make sure we're all on the same page. Let's start with the actual source of the salt. Just like there are good fats and bad fats, there is also good salt and bad salt.
Table Salt vs Sea Salt
Table salt is the bad salt. It has usually been bleached to make it whiter and the beneficial minerals have been removed due to excessive heating during processing. Flowing agents are used to make the salt less sticky and binding agents like aluminum are used to bind the iodine to the salt (in cases of iodized salt).
Consuming processed table salt actually requires your body to use its stores of calcium from your bones, since sodium works in conjunction with calcium. That means consuming table salt steals calcium from you! You could consider table salt a negative-nutrient food.
Sea salt on the other hand is the good salt. It can have health benefits rather than consequences. Sea salt contains many electrolytes that your body needs like potassium, magnesium, silicon, calcium, and of course the sodium itself. Depending on the brand and the variety of sea salt it may contain more than 84 different electrolytes or trace minerals! The flavor of sea salt is more complex too so that's an added bonus.
Now, let's squash the myth that salt is bad
Sodium is one of many nutrients that you need to survive and thrive. Your body uses it to regulate water and for electrical signaling in your nerves and muscles, including the heart (a very important muscle!). That might not sound that exciting, but it’s actually a huge deal when you think about how important those functions are. For example, just thinking about it uses sodium to help your neurons pass along those thoughts in your brain at this very moment. So cool! Sodium helps you think and helps your heart pump!
Also, salt is not just sodium. You may have heard salt's other name, sodium chloride, because salt contains a sodium molecule and a chloride molecule. This is the same chloride used in producing hydrochloric acid. You know... the acid in your stomach that helps you break down food! <<< One of the most important factors in health! Read more about stomach acid and how to improve that here.
And as we'll get to below, salt in moderation (moderation is considered anything below 5 grams per day, about the amount in 1 teaspoon) does not appear to contribute significantly to hypertension.
But first we need to talk cravings...
The different types of salt cravings:
- First there's the basic "I need more salt because my food tastes bland without it" craving. This isn't a real craving. This is just having desensitized taste buds. You're soooo used to the taste of salt, that food on its own tastes blah (this happens with sugar too).
- Then there's the "I want tortilla chips and a salt-rimmed margarita" craving (throw in some salsa and guacamole and that's my favorite combo). This too isn't necessarily a craving for salt as it may be a desire for refined carbohydrates! They might be at the top of my "favorite things to eat" list, but thankfully I don't crave em. Popcorn, pasta or potato chips may be here too. Ask yourself, is it a craving for salt or a craving for carbs?
- Then there's the cravings because your body actually needs more salt! Intense urges to eat salt can be a sign of an electrolyte imbalance, adrenal fatigue or worse, the possibility of Addison’s disease, an autoimmune condition affecting the adrenals. Chronic stress, sleeplessness and excessive caffeine intake can be contributing factors to low-functioning adrenals. If it's a real craving from your body, it may likely be that you actually need more salt.
And of course these types of cravings can overlap too!
So the deal with salt cravings may be that you actually need to eat more salt (sea salt)!
Let's look into some of these reasons:
Salt & Your Adrenals:
When your adrenal glands aren’t functioning optimally, they have a hard time hanging onto sodium because the hormone used to regulate sodium (aldosterone) isn’t being produced by the adrenals in sufficient quantities. This allows sodium to be excreted in the urine rather than retained for use. This can lead to intense cravings because the body knows it needs more sodium to replace what was lost.
In the short term, adding more sea salt to food to help your body get the amount of sodium it needs will help. You don't have to go crazy, but a little here and there will help supplement your body's need for sodium. Those who have sluggish adrenals also typically have low blood pressure and therefore can increase their salt intake safely.
Of course for the long term, the health of the adrenals must be assessed and optimized.
If you have been working out, sweating a lot, drinking large amounts of water too quickly, or consuming too much caffeine or alcohol, your electrolytes may be depleted.
A quality raw coconut water is great for replenishing electrolytes because it has all the electrolytes in the proper proportions. Sports drinks with artificial colors and artificial flavors are not good choices! If you’re in a pinch or don't want to spend $$$ for coconut water, you can buy plain electrolyte water or...
Make your own electrolyte drink by mixing a dash of sea salt with citrus fruits. You can also add a little (1/4tsp) maple syrup or raw honey for more electrolytes, but it's not necessary except for maybe after a strenuous workout to help replace lost glycogen. I personally skip it.
Imbalances can also come from eating too much processed foods and not enough whole foods. Processed foods contain an estimated 75% of the average American's daily salt consumption. Many of these processed and packaged foods are seasoned with the cheaper table salt (if sea salt is used, it will say "sea salt" in the ingredients list, if it just says "salt" it's non-iodized table salt). Minerals are not added back to the processed foods to make up for this imbalance so our bodies are left depleted. Being depleted in minerals can cause you to crave salt. So while in this instance you may actually be getting plenty of salt, it's the wrong kind of salt. The answer here isn't to necessarily add more but to switch to sea salt and cut down on processed foods instead.
When I told my client that her cravings may be because she needs to increase her salt intake, she was hesitant to because she'd always believed that salt was bad, and that it could cause high blood pressure and heart disease. I know she's not alone in those thoughts.
What About Blood Pressure?
Although the general recommendation by the FDA is to reduce our overall sodium consumption, especially those with high blood pressure, the correlation between salt, hypertension (high blood pressure) and cardiovascular disease is murky. Just take a look at these excerpts from this Washington Post article:
[...] the blood-pressure reductions that come from abstaining from salt are relatively small on average, because individuals vary widely in their reactions. (An average person who reduces his or her salt intake from median levels to the U.S. recommended levels may see a drop in blood pressure from 120/80 to 118/79, according to American Heart Association figures.) “The current [salt] guidelines are based on almost nothing,”
[...] Intersalt [a worldwide study] failed to settle the argument. When the results were published in 1988, many of the findings undercut the salt orthodoxy. In the comparisons of populations, there was little proof that societies that consumed more salt suffered from higher blood pressure. For example, while South Koreans consumed vast amounts of salt and had low blood pressures, the opposite was true for a Belgian population. One other item, however, did favor salt restrictions: In places where more salt was consumed, blood pressures rose more with age.
The excerpt below is from this abstract on sodium and highlights data in support of salt consumption above the American Heart Association's 1500mg recommendation and the 2300mg (Appendix 7) from the Dietary Guidelines Committee's current recommendations for cardiovascular health (keep in mind the numbers below are in grams. 1 gram is equal to 1000 milligrams):
"[T]hree randomized trials have found that heart failure subjects allocated to 1.8 g [equivalent to 1800mg] of sodium have significantly increased morbidity and mortality compared with those at 2.8 g. At the same time, a randomized study in retired Taiwanese men found that allocation to an average intake of 3.8 g improved survival compared with 5.3 g. [These studies suggest] sodium intakes above and below the range of 2.5 to 6.0 grams/day are associated with increased cardiovascular risk. This robust body of evidence does not support universal reduction of sodium intake".
Salt alone isn't the only factor to consider when it comes to blood pressure:
- Is sea salt, with health supporting nutrients used or table salt that depletes nutrients?
- Are the minerals and electrolytes in the body balanced? ie potassium and calcium
- Hydrated or dehydrated?
- How much processed food is eaten?
- What is the health of the kidneys and adrenals?
- Stress management?
The Bottom Line
Salt is not a one size fits all approach. Salt is used for vital functions in the body and reducing salt too low may have just as many health consequences as consuming too much salt. The problem is both of those amounts, too little and too much, are not a definitive number. So as long as you're eating a diet mostly of fresh & whole foods rather than processed and packaged foods and you don't already have high blood pressure, you don't need to fear salt!
What to remember:
- Don't ignore your cravings. If you have strong urges for salt that are more than just your regular lust for a fiesta, it could be your body asking for adrenal help or electrolyte balance. Figure out why.
- Reduce your intake of processed foods and eat more whole foods instead.
- Buy and use real sea salt only, not that processed table salt stuff.
- If you have high blood pressure, salt is just one area to consider.