Do you feel like your hunger and cravings have gotten out of control? Do you feel like they might be getting in the way of you sticking to a diet and succeeding? Things might not be as complicated or emotional as they seem - it might all come down to salt. Are you hungry, or just salty? Let’s find out today.
Big Picture: Salt
We have heard a lot of controversies, back and forth, about salt. Does it raise blood pressure? Can it hurt heart disease? Is it relevant to our health at all? The consensus that we have finally reached is that salt plays a huge role in our health - specifically with regards to cardiovascular disease and overall mortality (1).
If we could take the overall intake of salt, in the nation, and go down by one teaspoon, per person, per day, we could save over 90,000 lives per year (2). This is huge, not only because of the number of people that might be saved, but because of the fact that all it takes is just one simple teaspoon of salt - it is really not that much at all.
Bottom Line: The connection between salt and our health is real, and it is very important to consider. Not only does it contribute to our cardiovascular health, but our mortality, too. All it takes is one pinch less of salt, and we might be on our way to saving thousands of lives.
Understanding Salt Cravings
Contrary to popular belief, it has been found that we are more likely to turn to saltier foods, rather than sweet foods, when we are feeling stressed or anxious (3). Ultimately, our taste buds adjust to a diet that is higher in salt - so our cravings not only become more powerful when we are stressed, but our taste buds change to prefer more salt in future.
Key Insight: This idea of salt cravings when we are stressed is a totally vicious cycle. When we like things that are a little bit salty, we continue to throw our preferences out of whack by craving more and more salt - all of a sudden, the thing that was only a little bit salty no longer tastes salty at all anymore.
What’s the positive in all of this? It is true that your taste buds can be reset to prefer foods that are lower in salt in just 2 - 3 days (4). While food might taste a little bland during the first day or so, all it really takes is two or more days to adjust your taste buds to foods with lower salt.
The Downside of Salt
What else do we have to worry about when it comes to salt? Well, it has been shown that our consumption of salt can be directly tied to weight gain. In the short term, we might even see a couple pounds of fluid being retained after a particularly salty meal. This concept of fluid retention is just the beginning, though, and represents the short-term risk.
Long term, we can see that salt radically changes our appetite. As we adjust to higher levels of salt, we simply eat more. But, let’s look into one of the most important studies on this topic…
The Astronaut Study
The astronaut study (5) was done on, you guessed it, astronauts! What they were doing was putting a group of earth-bound astronauts on a diet that would test thirst, water requirements, and fluid balance as it related to salt. They would put astronauts on diets that were the same, calorically, but which had varying levels of salt. Then, they would monitor:
- Fluid intake
- Overall thirst
What they ultimately wanted to see was if there was a diet that would influence fluid retention negatively - which is a big problem in space, where a lack of gravity can improperly influence fluid distribution throughout our bodies.
The interesting thing about the results was that they did not see any big changes in fluids, that were meaningful, but they saw that the saltier the diet, the hungrier the astronauts became - even when all of the diets maintained the exact same caloric load. The researchers even had to reassure the astronauts that they were getting enough food, and that they were not being starved - that is how hungry they became.
Bottom Line: What we learned from the astronaut study was that diets which are heavier in salt increase our appetites, without doing much to change the balance of fluids in our bodies. It makes us hungrier, and it has a direct effect on overall weight gain in our bodies. They also found that it can lead to bone thinning, too.
How does salt affect your adrenals?
It turns out that salt raises the cortisol output in your body - and, given what we have learned, cortisol can cause a shift in our bodies where all of our fuel is directed towards our visceral fat. So, you end up putting more stuff into your belly fat - due to your body basically going into “survival mode.”
If your cortisol is running lower, or you are just feeling rundown and fatigued in general, salt has the ability to act as a stimulant in your body. At first, you might be able to feel a real boost that can get you going and get you feeling better in the short term. The problem is, though, that this is only in the short term.
Based upon our best evidence, I would argue that salt strains the adrenals. This means that it might force more cortisol out of your adrenals, but it does not do anything to strengthen them or make them work better. Even if you feel a temporary boost of energy when you raise your salt intake - that’s all it is, a temporary boost that will set you back over time.
Key Insight: Salt might help your adrenals produce more cortisol, but you are straining what might already be a weak part of your body. It does not make things stronger, it only further strains them and can hurt you in the long term.
I would definitely recommend minimizing or eliminating excess amounts of salt across the board. If you are on an extreme sodium restriction (under 1000 mg daily), it can be hard on those with low adrenals, but those who have normal salt levels (1000 - 2500 mg/d) are not affected (6).
If you are within this normal range, you are best off as it concerns:
- Lowest cardiovascular risk
- Lowest issues with blood pressure
- Lowest stress on the adrenals
Bottom Line: The big idea here is that we need to come up with effective strategies to nourish and heal the adrenals, rather than working them to the bone and ultimately hurting them in the long term. Salt might be a boost, but it is only a temporary one, and not one that I would recommend. If you stay within a normal range of salt, while focusing on other action steps, you can do a lot more good for your adrenals than harm.
Actions Steps: Salt
There are two basic steps that you can consider when it comes to cutting down the salt in your life:
- Test cutting down the amount of salt
- Aim for 1000 - 2500 milligrams daily
What does 1000 - 2500 milligrams of salt look like? Well, when it comes to these sorts of things I am a huge fan of the practice of food logging. This means keeping track of everything that you are eating, and its salt content. While this might have been more difficult in the age of food pyramids and notebooks, now we have handy applications and smartphones that can help us to keep track of these important parts of our day.
Personally, I would recommend MyFitnessPal. This is a go-to application for food logging, and if you want to try and keep track of your salt intake this is where you need to go. You do not have to worry about logging everything you are eating, for all of its combined nutritional performance, but just try and focus on salt. Keep track of it for a week, and simply keep in mind your sodium intake.
Key Insight: Before I started food logging, I assumed that my diet was perfectly healthy. Once I got started, though, even I was surprised with the results. It changed my perspective on my sodium targets, what I was eating and what I did not even realize had a whole bunch of salt in it.
What about extreme activity?
This is a question that comes up quite a bit. People want to know what they should do if it is hot outside, and you are training or doing extreme activities out in the sun. First, as a brief aside, you should definitely make sure you are covering up with the right sunscreen (7).
Second, the idea of salt intake while working out, and increasing your intake to balance out your sweat, was something even I adhered to in the past. Since then, I have learned that the higher your salt intake becomes, the more your body is used to dumping out extra salt.
Guess what? This extra dumping means that when you are working out you might just be the first one getting tired, or cramping up, because your body is not holding onto and recirculating your salt effectively. On a day-to-day basis, if you are on a diet that is lower in sodium you are going to deal less with electrolyte loss when it comes time to start working out.
Bottom Line: When you are training in the heat, you need to make sure that your body is good at managing its electrolytes. That means enjoying a diet that is lower in your salt, so that your body does not naturally trend towards dumping more salt out and leaving you fatigued.
Salt Intake When Working Out
If you are working out in the heat, for more than 90 minutes, and you need those levels of salt (electrolytes), here is what I would recommend:
- Electrolyte beverages
- Coconut water (less sodium, more potassium and magnesium)
- Trail mix (with fine amounts of powdered salt)
Really, these snacks only work if you are doing long, intense workouts of more than an hour and a half. In most cases like these, you would want to have more food anyway - and you will get enough of that salt from the food, and will not need to worry about additional supplements anyways.
Himalayan Salt and Sea Salt
Before we go, it is important to note this important subject. I have been asked about these types of salt before, and whether or not they are all that different from regular salt. The fact of the matter is that they really are not that different. They are 97 - 99% sodium chloride.
Key Insight: In sea salt, I appreciate the fact that you can get a little bit of magnesium - which is always good (8), but it is not harmless when it comes to blood pressure and other factors.
Last, but not least, for those who have thyroid disease you will want to ensure that you are enjoying non-iodized salt - for anyone else, iodized salt is fine, so long as you are enjoying the appropriate amounts of salt.
Salt and your Adrenals
Are you concerned about your salt levels, and are you worried that it might be negatively impacting the performance of your adrenals? Take the Adrenal Quiz (9) today, and we can start to get a bigger picture of your overall health right away.
Dr. Alan Glen Christianson (Dr. C) is a Naturopathic Endocrinologist and the author of The NY Times bestselling Adrenal Reset Diet.
Dr. C’s gift for figuring out what really works has helped hundreds of thousands of people reverse thyroid disease, lose weight, cure diabetes, and regain energy. Learn more about the surprising story that started his quest.