A recent report commissioned by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reviewed the health benefits of reducing salt intake and the take-home message is that salt, in the quantities consumed by most Americans, is no longer considered a substantial health hazard. What the CDC study reported explicitly is that there is no benefit, and may be a danger, from reducing our salt intake below 1 tsp per day. What was absent about the report was is the difference between healthy mineral salts and iodized table salt.
It may be that we’re better off with more salt than less, up to 2 or even 3 tsp per day. How did it happen that such standard medical advice drifted astray, then went un-corrected for so long?
This review by the National Academies Institute of Medicine (IOM), commissioned by CDC, considered dozens of studies, from cross-cultural (less reliable) to prospective, randomized with control (most reliable). Most studies showed no relationship between salt intake and any health outcome. Some seemed to indicate that more salt had a beneficial effect.
One 2008 study the committee examined, for example, randomly assigned 232 Italian patients with aggressively treated moderate to severe congestive heart failure to consume either 2,760 or 1,840 milligrams of sodium a day, but otherwise to consume the same diet. Those consuming the lower level of sodium had more than three times the number of hospital readmissions — 30 as compared with 9 in the higher-salt group — and more than twice as many deaths — 15 as compared with 6 in the higher-salt group. Another study, published in 2011, followed 28,800 subjects with high blood pressure ages 55 and older for 4.7 years and analyzed their sodium consumption by urinalysis. The researchers reported that the risks of heart attacks, strokes, congestive heart failure and death from heart disease increased significantly for those consuming more than 7,000 milligrams of sodium a day and for those consuming fewer than 3,000 milligrams of sodium a day.
To translate this last study into teaspoons: the finding was that anything between 1-1/2 and 3 tsp of salt per day is just fine, and there were adverse effects from eating more than that or less than that. Most Americans who are not consciously restricting salt fall in this range (1-1/2 to 3 tsp). People who are on low-salt diets for medical reasons are getting as little as 1/2 tsp, and they’re well into the range where dearth of salt is harming them. The worst impact of low salt is on insulin sensitivity. Loss of insulin sensitivity is a big risk factor for all the diseases of old age.
Salt is the most common and readily available nonmetallic mineral in the world. So how could a mineral which we’ve bathed in and absorbed in all foods since our existence be so harmful for the human body? Two words. It isn’t. Actually, the opposite is true. A low salt diet will actually increase your risk of death.
World renowned salt researcher Dr. Brownstein states that even in those individuals with high blood pressure, the lowering effect is quite modest at best when reducing salt. Many researchers imply that any effect on blood pressure is not a direct consequence of salt at but other minerals acting on the body. Still, Dr. Brownstein will tell you that he learned in medical school the traditional party line that salt = hypertension (high blood pressure). A myth of mammoth proportions.
A study by lead researcher Dr. Niels Graudal, of Copenhagen University Hospital in Denmark, adds to a growing body of research questioning the long-term benefits of a low-salt diet. A review of seven previous studies published in the journal the Cochrane Library found that a moderate reduction in salt intake did not reduce a person’s risk of dying or having heart disease.
In a systematic review published by The Cochrane Library, British scientists found that cutting salt consumption did not translate into lower death or heart disease risk. “With governments setting ever lower targets for salt intake and food manufacturers working to remove it from their products, it’s really important that we do some large research trials to get a full understanding of the benefits and risks of reducing salt intake,” said Rod Taylor of Exeter University, who led the review.
WHY have we been told that salt is so deadly? It has what nutritionists like to call “biological plausibility.” Eat more salt and your body retains water to maintain a stable concentration of sodium in your blood. This is why eating salty food tends to make us thirsty: we drink more; we retain water. The result can be a temporary increase in blood pressure, which will persist until our kidneys eliminate both salt and water.
The scientific question is whether this temporary phenomenon translates to chronic problems: if we eat too much salt for years, does it raise our blood pressure, cause hypertension, then strokes, and then kill us prematurely? The answer is no.
A paper published in the American Journal of Hypertension warns that once average daily consumption dips to below 6.25g, the risk of heart attacks and strokes starts to increase once more. Restricting salt consumption increases levels of cholesterol and triglycerides — both of them harmful fats which cause heart disease — and also leads to insulin resistance (the early stages of type-2 diabetes). Diets low in salt also increase the levels of fat and hormones in the blood that are known to increase the risk of heart disease.
The problem is not salt, it’s the type of salt we use. It takes just half an hour for one meal high in table salt to significantly impair the arteries’ ability to pump blood around the body, alarming research has shown. Blood flow becomes temporarily more restricted between 30 minutes and an hour after the food has been consumed. “Most scientific studies use processed table salt as a source of sodium which the body has a hard time physiologically to process unlike its natural counterpart sea salt,” said Dr. Jamil Najma who only recommends sea salt to his patients.
There’s Good Salt and Bad Salt…Know The Difference!
Many experts argue that salt could be just what we need for healing, health and longevity. Modern salt, they agree, is unhealthy. But common table salt has almost nothing in common with traditional salt, say the salt connoisseurs. Just look at the rose-coloured crystals of Himalayan rock salt, or the grey texture of Celtic salt — both pride themselves on traditional harvesting, avoiding heat treatment or refining methods — and you know you’re getting something special, not least that when you taste them, they actually have flavour. And unlike the sodium chloride you find on most kitchen tables, unrefined rock salt contains more than 84 different minerals.
“These mineral salts are identical to the elements of which our bodies have been built and were originally found in the primal ocean from where life originated,” argues Dr Barbara Hendel, researcher and co-author of Water & Salt, The Essence of Life. “We have salty tears and salty perspiration. The chemical and mineral composition of our blood and body fluids are similar to sea water. From the beginning of life, as unborn babies, we are encased in a sack of salty fluid.”
“In water, salt dissolves into mineral ions,” explains Dr Hendel. “These conduct electrical nerve impulses that drive muscle movement and thought processes. Just the simple act of drinking a glass of water requires millions of instructions that come from mineral ions. They’re also needed to balance PH levels in the body.”
Mineral salts, she says, are healthy because they give your body the variety of mineral ions needed to balance its functions, remain healthy and heal. These healing properties have long been recognised in central Europe. At Wieliczka in Poland, a hospital has been carved in a salt mountain. Asthmatics and patients with lung disease and allergies find that breathing air in the saline underground chambers helps improve symptoms in 90 per cent of cases.
Dr Hendel believes too few minerals, rather than too much salt, may be to blame for health problems. It’s a view that is echoed by other academics such as David McCarron, of Oregon Health Sciences University in the US.
He says salt has always been part of the human diet, but what has changed is the mineral content of our food. Instead of eating food high in minerals, such as nuts, fruit and vegetables, people are filling themselves up with “mineral empty” processed food and fizzy drinks.
Due to modern farming methods, fruit and vegetables are much lower in minerals than they once were. Meanwhile, table salt is stripped of all minerals save for sodium and chloride. These changes, he believes, are responsible for the current prevalence of high blood pressure.
“A lot of people say salt is bad, but bad salt is bad,” says Amanda Nelson, founder of The Natural Salt Seller. “If you put a fish in table salt solution, it will die. Good salt, on the other hand, can be wondrous.”
This attitude that studies that go against prevailing beliefs should be ignored on the basis that, well, they go against prevailing beliefs, has been the norm for the anti-salt campaign for decades. Maybe now the prevailing beliefs should be changed. The British scientist and educator Thomas Huxley, known as Darwin’s bulldog for his advocacy of evolution, may have put it best back in 1860. “My business,” he wrote, “is to teach my aspirations to conform themselves to fact, not to try and make facts harmonize with my aspirations.”
Given what we know about confirmation bias, it was rather brave of the IOM to report conclusions that were at odds with medical advice of the last 50 years. Officially, the recommendation to reduce daily intake below 1 tsp has been lifted, but some of the studies cited seem to show that our bodies need more than this to avoid impaired insulin sensitivity. Â Now that IOM has made it respectable to take a different view of salt, we can expect a sea change in the medical establishment’s attitudes toward salt, as the force of confirmation bias has been shifted to the other side of the scale.
Dave Mihalovic is a Naturopathic Doctor who specializes in vaccine research, cancer prevention and a natural approach to treatment.