For decades, salt has been demonized for a host of issues, everything from worsening high blood pressure and fluid retention to potassium deficiency and even food addiction. And these concerns are well founded.
According to study published in British Journal of Medicine in 2011, high blood pressure is the primary cause of death and disability in adults worldwide and is responsible for nearly 50 percent of deaths from coronary heart disease and more than 60 percent of stroke-related deaths.1 (See this blood pressure article.)
Similarly, fluid retention (or edema) can increase your risk for stiffness and tissue scarring, as well as decreased circulation and elasticity of arteries and veins.
When it comes to potassium deficiency, things get even worse. Low levels of this vital mineral have also been tied to high blood pressure as well as depression, obesity, fatigue, restless leg syndrome, constipation, insomnia and kidney stones.
Given this, why isn’t salt simply stricken from tables across America? Because, believe it or not, your body actually needs salt!
Sodium is Critical to Health
One of the biggest and most critical needs for salt (or, more correctly, sodium chloride) lies in our bodily fluids. In fact, all three of our fluid systems (blood, lymph and extracellular fluids) all need and contain salt. The salt helps to carry nutrients into our cells.
Salt also helps to regulate certain functions, including blood pressure and fluid levels. That’s why too much salt can push these functions into overdrive. Plus, the sodium component of salt works in conjunction with potassium to relay nerve impulses and signals, including messages to literally move your muscles.
Then, of course, there’s the iodine issue. Back in the 1920s, the U.S. government suggested adding iodine to salt as a solution to a growing concern over thyroid goiter, which is caused by low levels of iodine. While this was successful for a while, data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES) found that iodine levels have dropped by 50 percent in the United States over the last 30 years.2
This could be due to the fact that more and more people are avoiding salt, likely for the above mentioned reasons. It could also be due to the use of sea salt, which does not contain added iodine.
Given this, it is clear that salt is necessary for health, but not in the amounts that the average consumer is using. According to the CDC, the average American is taking in nearly 3,500 mg of sodium a day.3 With recommended amounts weighing in at 1,500 mg (just over half a teaspoon of salt), this is more than twice what our body needs.
Of course, the majority (up to 75 percent) of this comes from packaged, processed foods.4 But some does come from the family salt shaker. And what lies inside could mean the difference between good sodium and bad sodium.
Understanding Table Salt
Table salt is usually sourced from underground salt mines, then refined. It is processed at a very high heat, which removes all 50+ trace minerals. Iodine is then added, as are chemicals that help prevent clumping and caking. One such chemical is ferric ferrocyanide, which is also used in blue-black ink and carpenter’s chalk.
Short of the iodine, there is very little health benefit to this newly created, inorganic, refined sodium chloride source. Additionally, the anti-caking agents work by preventing the salt from mixing with water.
If these ingredients are able to accomplish this inside the box or shaker, then they likely do the same thing in your body. This is problematic, as one of the health benefits of salt is its role in regulating body fluid.
Understanding Sea Salt
As the name implies, sea salt is made from evaporated seawater. In some cases, it can also come from ancient ocean beds found inland. Regardless of source, these forms of salt contain calcium and magnesium, as well as up to 92 other trace minerals, including:
Unlike table salt, sea salt is unrefined. As such, it can come in a variety of colors, ranging from off-white or gray to pink and even darker.
This one seems pretty clear cut. First and foremost, avoid the sodium-laden processed, canned foods. Nothing good comes from them.
As for the salt shaker, any time you have a choice between natural and processed, you always have to go for the natural, unrefined option. While the iodine is a plus for table salt, the stripping of vital minerals and addition of potentially toxic chemicals undoes any possible benefits.
When choosing sea salt, opt for unrefined versions such as Celtic Sea Salt®, Himalayan Salt or Real Salt®.
If iodine is a concern, you can start with an iodine sufficiency test. There are many effective tests on the market. You can also ask your physician to order a test for you.
If you find you are deficient, you can use an iodine supplement. Aim for 12.5 to 50 mg of iodine a day.
1. Cappuccio, FP et al. BMJ. 2011 Aug11;343:d4995.
2. Hollowell, JE et al. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1998;83:3401-8.