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Don't Get Too Salty

Sodium seems to be a strangely controversial, hot topic these days. The American Heart Association has recommended that we watch our sodium intake due to correlation between high salt intakes and conditions like hypertension and heart disease, with a modest recommendation of 1500-2300mg. On the flip side, you have functional nutrition coaches and athletes recommending intakes upwards of 4000-5000mg per day. So what are we really supposed to be consuming? Does it matter? What influences our intake? Is pink Himalayan sea salt more nutritious? I want to get into all the nitty gritty details and why some people seem to be so salty about it (pun intended).

Why Do We Need Sodium?

Sodium plays a role in blood pressure, nerve and muscle function, electrolyte balance and is the main component of extracellular fluid, which aids in the transportation of nutrients throughout the body. Without it, a plethora of our body’s processes wouldn’t work the way they should. On the flip side, a diet too high in sodium has been correlated with elevated blood pressure, increased risk of stroke, cardiovascular disease and mortality (although I do have to note that each individual’s response to sodium intake varies greatly depending on their genetics). Since salt causes our bodies to retain water, the typical dietary approach to lower blood pressure involves strategies to reduce sodium intake.

The general recommendation is to keep your intake below 2300 mg, or about 1 tsp table salt. Most dietitians and health professionals will suggest this for the average adult. Before you come for me I think I need to note that table salt is 40% sodium, so while 1 tsp of table salt is roughly 5.9 grams in weight, only 40% of that is sodium.

The American Heart Association recommends 1500mg as an adequate intake to promote heart health in most adults and especially those with high blood pressure. This is where you’ll hear some debate about how much salt our bodies can handle--but I want to remind you that just because your body CAN handle something doesn’t mean doing it repeatedly is healthy. The average person just doesn’t have a need for high levels of salt intake day to day.

Some populations, such as athletes, can benefit from a higher sodium intake. Have you ever gone for a run in the summer and noticed a white, gritty substance on your forehead or arms when you got home? Some of that is salt being released through sweat. The rate at which you lose salt through sweat depends on the exercise duration, intensity, temperature, clothing and training experience, but generally if you’re exercising for longer than an hour it’s a decent idea to supplement with electrolytes. If you lose too much sodium during exercise and forego replenishing your body’s stores, you may experience fatigue, vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, dizziness and muscle cramping. Dangerously low sodium levels, also known as hyponatremia, whether due to excessive salt loss or water intake can be fatal.

So how much salt do athletes need? A good baseline is 500-700mg salt per hour of exercise, but if you’re training in heat and humidity or notice you’re a “salty sweater,” you may be able to get away with closer to 2000mg per hour. If you’re an otherwise healthy athlete, fueling your body with plenty of fruits, veggies, whole grains and quality protein to ensure you’re performing your best, you’ll most likely be able to liberally salt your food and cooking without much contraindication. This can help you prevent dehydration and improve performance. If you’re an athlete with a condition such as hypertension or kidney disease, you should discuss sodium goals with your dietitian or physician and monitor accordingly.

Other than being an athlete, certain cases like Bartter Syndrome, diuretic medications and salt-losing nephropathy may require an increased intake in salt. In these cases, salt consumption should be discussed with a medical professional and a medical professional only.

What’s The Deal With Himalayan Pink Salt?

Proponents of pink salt claim that it’s rich in mineral content, aids in hydration, more natural and is just all around healthier, but do these claims really hold any water?

Pink salt is about 98% sodium chloride and 2% other minerals, which is rather close to the makeup of plain old table salt. It seems the claim surrounding it’s elite status is that it contains 84 trace minerals, which isn’t a false claim, but how much does it really matter? We can get the same amount of trace minerals from the rest of our diet, and any potential health benefit of these trace minerals would be counteracted by the ridiculous levels of sodium intake. Something I find to be comical is that a few of the trace minerals found in Himalayan pink salt include heavy metals like lead, mercury and barium. It seems a little strange for a group of people typically peddling chemophobia and detoxing while selling their chemical-free, all-natural, unregulated products to be promoting a food containing substances known to be radioactive and toxic to humans. I suppose it’s just another example solidifying that with anything it’s the dose that makes the poison.

Let’s take a look at some of the other claims surrounding pink salt:

It Will Balance Your pH

I keep hearing this thrown around attached to diets, specific foods and pretty much anything else that sells. The issue is that it’s completely wrong and ignores the basics of how metabolism and physiology work.

Our bodies are incredibly smart and adaptive. The blood stays between a pH 7.35 and 7.45 thanks to our kidneys and lungs working together (it’s really an incredible system that I’d love to talk more about if that’s something you’d like to hear from me). If your blood pH changes to anything outside of that range, you’re not going to be fixing it with diet, you’ll be in the hospital receiving IV treatment.

Beyond just the blood, other parts of our body have a regulated pH: bile, stomach acid, intracellular fluid and even the skin. The pH of urine can vary within a range of 4.6 to 8.0, because excretion of an acid or an alkaline urine is what helps keep our body’s constant pH. Having urine that is acidic does not mean that you are alkalizing your body or vice versa, it just means that your body is doing its job to keep everything in the range it should be.

It Aids in Hydration

Sodium helps to regulate fluid balance, yes, but this isn’t exclusive to pink salt. As for the mineral content of pink salt helping post-workout, it’s nothing to write home about. The mineral content is so low that it would be much more beneficial for you to eat a balanced meal post-workout to get both the minerals as well as carbohydrates and protein to help restore muscle glycogen and tissue.

It Detoxes the Body

I’m really not sure where this claim came from but our body detoxes on it’s own. The liver, kidneys, lungs and skin are all involved in those processes. While it’s important to give our bodies the nutrients it needs that allow these organs to function, we can meet those needs through our overall diet filled with fruits, veggies, whole grains, high-quality protein and plenty of water. The type of salt you’re using has very little, if any, impact on this.

It Helps You Sleep

This one I couldn’t find any conclusive evidence for. One study found that higher salt use was associated with greater difficulty staying asleep. While another found the opposite, with the group with the lowest amount of sleep more likely to report a low sodium intake. Unfortunately, both of these studies were looking at nutrient intake overall, so it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what might be causing these trends. It could be salt or it could be something else; there’s no way to determine that from this data. It also doesn’t seem to make a difference whether or not it’s pink salt or table salt.

Himalayan Pink Salt is Natural

“Natural” is used to mean many different things since it’s not a regulated term, but in this case it’s passable. Pink salt is mined from the earth and minimally processed, so in this case it seems to be an appropriate term. However, just because it’s less processed than iodized table salt does not mean it’s any healthier.

I also want to add that since salt is a mineral and not an agricultural product, it cannot be labelled as organic. There’s also no such thing as GMO salt, so if you see non-GMO salt on the shelf, know that it’s a marketing tactic to get you to spend extra money. If you want to use pink salt, it’s not necessary to reach for the one with packaging covered in these buzzwords.

What Does All of This Mean?

Pink salt can provide you with flavor and make your dish a little more aesthetically pleasing, which is always a plus. On the flip side, it’s more expensive and isn’t going to do anything magical for you, so it really comes down to personal preference. If pink salt is something that you value and think is worth spending your money on, there’s nothing wrong with that. If you don’t feel like spending an extra $5, you won’t be missing out.


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