Humans have been harvesting salt from the sea for at least 8,000 years. A precious, hard sought commodity, salt was considered “white gold” – essential for food preservation, especially meats, proper digestion and flavoring bland foods, an antiseptic. In Roman times, the word for salt (“sal”) came from Salus, “goddess of health.” Soldiers were paid in part in salt, from which came the word “salary.” If they did not measure up to the job, they were not “worth their salt” and their salary was cut.
What happened to this ancient wisdom? Nowadays, conventional food gurus demonize salt because it can lead to hypertension, heart disease and such. But, like so much of popular diet rhetoric today, the full picture has been lost. Our bodies need salt to survive, but we need the right quality and quantity.
The problem is, what most people are eating today is processed table salt which is completely worthy of vilification. Processed table salt contains 97.5% sodium chloride. The rest is man-made chemicals, e.g., moisture absorbents, flow agents like ferrocyanide, aluminosilicate, etc. The refining severely alters the chemical structure of the salt, so that it is, indeed, an irritant to the body. Natural unprocessed salts, such as sea salt, Himalayan or Celtic sea salt, contain about 84% sodium chloride. The remaining 16% are naturally-occurring trace minerals, such as silicon, phosphorus, vanadium – vital for proper body function.
But too much or too little of even the best quality salt can be harmful. How can we know? Again, it depends on the full picture, the quality and balance of foods in your diet, in particular, the sodium-potassium ratio.
The Crucial Role of Salt in the Body
Salt is essential for life, which is why we have salt taste buds. Sodium, the primary mineral in salt, is known as the “youth mineral” because it is associated with youthful, limber, flexible joints. The alkalinity of organic sodium helps neutralize acids that result from stressful lifestyles and poor nutrition. We need salt for protein and carbohydrate digestion, adrenal function, cellular metabolism and brain development. Specifically, salt is crucial for:
- Being a major component of blood plasma, lymphatic fluid, extracellular fluid, and even amniotic fluid.
- Maintaining and regulating blood pressure
- Carrying nutrients into and out of your cells, and helping maintain your acid-base balance.
- Helping your brain communicate with your muscles, so that you can move on demand via sodium-potassium ion exchange
- Increasing the glial cells in your brain, which are responsible for creative thinking and long-term planning. Both sodium and chloride are also necessary for the firing of neurons.
- Supporting the function of your adrenal glands, which produce dozens of vital hormones
Why Table Salt is the Wrong Salt for the Body:
- Destablizes blood pressure.
- Acts as a diuretic (expels water from cells) and is a cell-toxin.
- Can cause a slow-down in metabolism.
- Contains fillers such as aluminum hydroxide (aluminum implicated in Alzheimer’s Disease).
- Contains endocrine disruptors – fluoride and iodine.
- Can cause kidney stones, rheumatism, cellulite.
- Contains anti-clumping agents like aluminum and iodine, which does not occur naturally in any salt.
So How Much Natural Salt?
It would be best to discount current dietary recommendations for salt which are based on table salt and vary from 1.5-2.4 grams a day, depending on which organization you ask. One teaspoon of regular table salt contains about 2.3 grams. The average American today consumes about 4-6 grams a day. Unrefined seasalt, Himalayan or Celtic, however, require a completely different standard. Weston A. Price Foundation found that traditional cultures consumed up to 3 teaspoons a day and suggests we take in at least 1 1/2 teaspoons.
The Potassium Connection
Rather than worrying about the exact number of grams, many studies suggest a better approach would be to maintain a proper sodium-potassium ratio. Potassium helps offset the hypertensive effects of sodium. More sodium than potassium can lead to high blood pressure as well as contribute to other diseases, including heart disease and stroke, memory decline, osteoporosis, ulcers and stomach cancer, kidney stones, cataracts, erectile dysfunction, rheumatoid arthritis.
Potassium deficiency leads to electrolye imbalance which is characterized by water retention, raised blood pressure, heart irregularities/arrhythmias, muscle weakness and cramps, continual thirst and constipation.
The easiest way to upset the sodium-potassium balance is to eat processed foods, famously low in potassium and high in sodium. Too much sodium, too little potassium is a dangerous game. Here’s how to optimize your sodium-potassium ratio:
Ditch all processed foods.
- Eat a diet of whole, unrefined foods, ideally organically and locally-grown to ensure optimal nutrient content. This kind of diet will naturally provide much larger amounts of potassium than sodium, which is the goal. You cannot overdose on potassium from foods. Supplements are not recommended.
- Season foods with moderate amounts of natural, unrefined salt. Himalayan contains somewhat higher potassium levels than sodium. Celtic salt is slightly higher in sodium relative to potassium, but is still adequate in the context of a whole foods diet.
Eat foods rich in potassium:
- Lima beans
- Winter squash
- Cooked spinach
- Fruits – especially papayas, prunes, cantaloupe.
- Vegetables – particularly broccoli, Brussel sprouts, asparagus, pumpkin, though all green vegetables are good potassium sources.
Foods highest in sodium:
Celery, asparagus, barley, red cabbage, carrots, coconut, okra, lentils, kale, strawberries, sesame seeds, raisins, goat’s milk, egg yolks, pure sea salt (preferably Himalayan or Celtic).
How Do I Know If My Salt Intake Is Okay?
You can find out if you’re eating the right amount for your body by periodically doing a fasting chemistry profile. Generally speaking, an ideal serum sodium level is 139, with optimal range 136-142. If your level is much lower, you’ll probably need to eat more salt (natural, unrefined); if it’s higher, you’ll want to use less and, to be sure, increase intake of potassium foods. Keep in mind, if you have weak adrenals, you will lose sodium and need to eat more natural salt to compensate.
Most Americans are consuming far too much processed salt which is devoid of most any health benefit and can lead to serious health problems. Unrefined seasalt, Himalayan or Celtic salt are now widely available and are excellent sources of sodium and trace minerals. Too much or too little salt is counterproductive, so it’s important to practice moderation by balancing you salt intake with real food, minimally processed, grown without pesticides, hormones, antibiotics. To see how you’re doing, check your sodium profile at least once a year and adjust you diet accordingly. You deserve the best: you’re worth your salt!
“The Salt of the Earth” – Weston A. Price Foundation
Salt – A World History by Mark Kurlansky (Penguin Books, 2003)
“To Protect Your Heart, Your Sodium to Potassium Ratio Is More Important Than Your Overall Salt Intake,” – Dr. Mercola