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How low sodium diets may increase health risks

Salt’s value has changed with the industrial revolution, but it still plays a very important role in our individual health.

Salt has been used as currency. Roads and cities have been formed because of salt; wars have been fought over it. Not only that – our very lives depend on salt. It is needed for the transmission of nerve impulses. It is essential for digestion. It helps reduce our stress responses. Without adequate salt intake we have increased risk for heart attack, stroke and sleep disorders.

We’ve been taught that salt isn’t good for us, but the research supporting this conclusion is unsubstantial and faulty. While research indicates that blood pressure can be reduced by a few points after a drastic reduction in sodium intake, the full picture on the relationship between sodium and blood pressure is much more complicated. For example, our blood pressure is impacted more significantly by the amount of potassium we eat. In a group of hypertensive individuals (those with high blood pressure) consuming the upper levels of recommended potassium was associated with a drop in systolic blood pressure by seven points, and a drop in diastolic blood pressure by two points.

When looking at salt from a weight loss perspective, a lower-than-optimal salt intake actually creates a unique phenomenon. A deficiency in salt causes our body to respond by increasing insulin levels because insulin helps the kidneys retain more sodium. Higher insulin levels, caused by this low sodium level, suppress the enzyme that allows us to release fat from our stores to use as energy. Without being able to tap into the fat stores, now our bodies need more carbohydrates to use for energy. Pretty soon we start craving sugar because the more refined carbs we eat, the more we crave. Now we are trapped in a cycle where our bodies can’t burn fat and have become addicted to carbs and sugar. This leads to insulin resistance, weight gain and, for some of us, potentially Type 2 diabetes. All this time we thought the origin of our struggles was the bad guy “sugar,” when in fact the lack of salt in our diet could be the culprit.

Lower carb diets (not necessarily Keto, but simply a reduced-carb lifestyle) can correct the insulin response and increase our ability to burn fat for energy instead of glucose. But it is also very important to understand that this way of eating increases our need for salt because it allows our kidneys to work efficiently (great news) and release sodium out of the body rather than hang on to it. This is why we see high blood pressure resolve so quickly when changing our diet in this way.

Scientific research suggests that the optimal range for sodium intake is between 1-1/3 and 2-2/3 teaspoons of salt daily. Your needs would likely increase if you sweat excessively. This recommendation goes even for people who have hypertension. Dr. James DiNicolantonio said 55% of people with high blood pressure will not experience a decrease in blood pressure even if salt intake is reduced. Despite this alarming fact, please check with your doctor before altering your salt intake.

Now, what kind of salt to eat, you ask? The best choice is a good mixture of sea salt and table salt. Table salt provides iodine, an essential mineral, so mix, shake and enjoy!

Ashley Lucas has a doctorate in sports nutrition and chronic disease. She is also a registered dietitian nutritionist. She is the founder and owner of PHD Weight Loss and Nutrition, offering weight management and wellness services in the Four Corners. She can be reached at 764-4133.