Welcome everybody to More Than Healthy as we continue to share a Full Year of Resolutions. This week’s topic might surprise you. Today we are going to talk about Tip #42, the health benefits of the right kind of salt. Believe it or not, the right kind – and the right amount – of salt is absolutely vital to our health.
Salt is everywhere!
Few things in the world are more ordinary than salt. Most of us have interacted with salt within the last couple of hours without even realizing it. We use salt to make leather, pottery, soap, detergents, rubber, clothes, paper, cleaning products, glass, plastics, and pharmaceuticals. It sits largely unnoticed (until we take a bite of something bland) on hundreds of millions of café and restaurant tables around the world. This organic mineral is the most popular seasoning the whole world over. There are even biblical-based idioms, phrases like, “She is the salt of the earth!” that emphasize the essence of salt’s goodness.
Unlike pepper, which often sits next to it, salt is essential for our health. It has been eaten and used by human beings wherever we have settled. We add it to so much of our food that many languages simply distinguish between sweet and salty flavors. We spread it across roads when it snows. More than half of the chemical products we make involve salt at some stage. And we haven’t even mentioned the trillions of tons of it that sit in our oceans, covering 70 percent of the surface of our planet. Salt is everywhere.
A little salty history
We can trace the history of salt clear back to 6050 BC. Salt has played a critical role in ancestral food preparation and preservation for thousands of years. And, even though it helps make our food taste better, salt is not a spice. It is a mineral. This mineral has many more functions in food than to just flavor and season it.
One lesser-known function of salt is that it enhances texture. Have you ever had a really good, juicy steak? Chances are, whoever cooked your stake salted it at just the right time using large salt crystals. This creates the perfect texture in steak, helping the meat to release juices and soften. Salt is also used in the production of cheese and to make processed meats like sausage and ham because it helps to gelatinize the proteins.
You probably already know that salt is one of the oldest food preservation methods in history. Salt is a serious moisture absorber. So when salt is used to preserve food, it absorbs moisture and prevents microbes from spoiling the food. Brining is another method of food preservation that preserves food, which uses a large of amount of salt mixed with water.
We all know that salt enhances the flavor of food. But you might not know about some of salt’s additional flavoring functions. Besides just creating a “salty” flavor, it also intensifies sweetness. This is why most dessert recipes call for at least a little salt. It also neutralizes bitterness. For example, the bitter taste of olives can be counteracted with a little salt.
But, my doctor told me I needed to reduce my sodium?
Some of you might be thinking, “I’ve always heard that salt is bad for you!” or, “My doctor told me to back off the salt.” Both of these can be true. We’re not here to challenge your doctor. He or she knows about your specific health challenges. But sometimes we get too steeped in “all-or-nothing thinking.” We might forget that the right amount of salt is necessary not only to stay alive, but to thrive!
Sadly, in the last few decades, salt has been made into a villain as it’s been associated with hypertension and heart disease. These so-called “salt wars,” or the notion that a low-salt diet is better for us, began about 200 years ago. But this notion was founded on flawed science. Doctors knew then that our bodies relied on salt to maintain blood pressure balance. They believed that consuming too much salt contributed to high blood pressure and heart disease. This resulted in huge government campaigns to get people to eat less salt.
Salt isn’t the “bad guy”
Today, however, research is finding that this theory isn’t nearly as clear-cut as they thought. A meta-analysis of over 6,250 patients found there was no actual link between salt intake, high blood pressure, and risk of heart disease. Like many of the dietary recommendations that come and go, our beliefs about salt deserve to be re-examined.
This tends to be a pattern with governmental campaigns that we need to be aware of and watch out for. Remember when the same thing happened with the low-fat craze? We’re still recovering from those decades of misinformation. A concept like “salt is bad and is causing high blood pressure” gets some airtime, and then the government steps in and starts promoting a false statement before it’s been fully studied. Research says it’s much more likely that the sugar and processed foods we’re eating are the culprits, and their link to heart disease is frightening. Yet you hardly ever hear anyone sounding that warning call from our government.
A note about sodium and processed foods
Salt consists of sodium and chloride, two essential elements. We require sodium for survival. It helps the muscles contract and balances fluid levels in the body. But, sodium
is also the reason that salt gets such a bad rap. Too much of it is not good for you. And we don’t need to go looking for it – we get way more than enough in the typical American diet. Unprocessed foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, meats, and dairy foods are all low in sodium.
Most of the salt we consume doesn’t come from the amounts we add when cooking or even from the salt you shake on to your food before eating. It comes from highly-processed foods. According to the CDC, top sources of sodium in our diets include bread, pizza, burritos, tacos, and savory snacks (chips, popcorn, pretzels, crackers, etc.). In fact, the average American gets 75% of their 3,300 milligrams of sodium each day, far more than we need, from processed foods.
This is an important distinction to recognize as we talk about getting the right amounts of the right kind of salt in our diets. If we are eating healthy and avoiding processed foods (see some of our previous tips about this here, here, and here), we can happily add the right kind of salt to our diet.
The health benefits of the right kind of salt
I know it’s confusing when the messages are so mixed. But the truth is that the right kind of salt in the right amounts is absolutely necessary for our health. So let’s talk about four of the specific health benefits of the right kind of salt.
Benefit #1: Salt helps you stay hydrated
Common thought used to be that salt would contribute to dehydration. The more salt you ate, the more thirsty you’d become. Which meant you’d drink more water, causing the sodium levels in the body to be diluted. But now, thanks to science, we know better. Studies show that one of the big benefits of salt is that it actually increases water conservation in the body, making you less thirsty.
This is something that Carla and I know from personal experience. When we’re playing pickleball for several hours in the hot sun, we’re losing a lot of salt. This is especially true for Carla. It’s truly the only health issue I watch her deal with. She can drink a lot of water, but if she doesn’t supplement it with salty food, salt pills, or straight salt water, she will always get leg cramps. Sometimes they’re so bad that they wake her up in the middle of the night, screaming in pain. She has learned that she has to work to keep her salt levels up when she sweats, or she pays for it.
In order to stay hydrated, your body needs a delicate balance of sodium and potassium. The water in your body follows sodium, so if you have too much, your body will retain water. Potassium, which we will talk about in a future post, works to balance this out. This is why sea salt is much better than sodium chloride or table salt. Sea salt (more on this in a minute) contains sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium, which helps balance your levels naturally. It also balances your electrolytes, which studies show helps to prevent muscle cramping.
The time that salt saved the day
Our bodies cannot create these minerals, so they have to come from what we eat. Without sufficient electrolytes, you can experience irregular heartbeat, fatigue, nausea, and even seizures. I had a pretty dramatic experience with this several years ago when I was competing in an Ironman triathlon. I was done with the swim and the bike and I was about five miles into the run when I hit a wall. I simply couldn’t go any further.
Fortunately for me, there was an aid station just a couple hundred yards away. I walked up to it, ready to give up on the race. I had worked so hard to train for and complete in this Ironman race! I was completely devastated. They happened to have pretzels and crackers at the station, and I felt impressed to eat some of them.
Within five minutes I was feeling fine! And I was able to finish the race. Later, we learned more about why my nutrition was so off due to some health complications. But during that race, salt truly saved the day. I’m so grateful for the salt at that aid station and the almost immediate effect it had on my body.
Benefit #2: Sea salt improves sleep
Here we go again, talking about sleep. Since we know that sleep is a foundation of health, we will always talk about anything that helps to improve your sleep. Salt is no exception. When you read studies about salt and sleep, it might initially seem that there are mixed reports. But, if you look closer, you’ll realize that the advice against eating salt before bed is referring to table salt and processed foods. These can cause an imbalanced amount of sodium in the body.
Sea salt has been shown to improve sleep because it contains so many of the helpful electrolytes for regulating hormones. When you get the right amount of sea salt for your body you may find you have better sleep. You will also likely be less thirsty, hungry, and more satisfied when you eat. Who knew that one of the reasons I wasn’t sleeping well for so many years is because I had too much of the wrong kind of salt in my diet? It probably didn’t help that I was eating salty processed foods just before bed. This is something I never do anymore, and my sleep has really improved.
Benefit # 3: Good sea salt promotes good vascular health
Studies show that sea salt (not table salt – an important distinction) has protective effects against heart disease. This makes sense since dehydration can cause high blood pressure. When your body is dehydrated, it releases higher amounts of a chemical called Vasopressin. Vasopressin helps your kidneys retain water, which prevents you from losing more water through urination. At the same time, it causes your blood vessels to constrict, causing your blood pressure to increase. If this situation persists, you can develop high blood pressure.
These findings about how sea salt actually helps heart disease markers directly contradict all those years of recommendations about avoiding salt for the sake of your heart. BUT, it matters which type of salt you’re using!
Benefit #4: The right amount of sea salt supports a healthy nervous system
The nervous system is your body’s command center. Healthy water flow in the body is necessary for a healthy nervous system. Sodium regulates that water flow. In addition, the water of your nervous system requires salt so that electrical conduction can send and receive nervous system signals. Just as it is required for other body systems to function, studies prove that your brain needs the right balance of sodium to other electrolytes. This is another reason why sea salt is a much better option than table salt.
It’s critical that we maintain a healthy nervous system, as it plays a role in nearly every aspect of our health and well-being. It guides necessary bodily activities such as waking up and breathing. It’s also involved in complex processes like thinking, reading, remembering, and feeling emotions. The nervous system controls:
- Brain growth and development
- Sensations (such as touch or hearing)
- Perception (the mental process of interpreting sensory information)
- Thought and emotions
- Learning and memory
- Movement, balance, and coordination
- Healing and rehabilitation
- Stress and the body’s responses to stress
- Breathing and heartbeat
- Body temperature
- Hunger, thirst, and digestion
- Puberty, reproductive health, and fertility
So that healthy nervous system is a pretty big deal!
The difference between table salt and sea salt
The main difference between regular table salt and sea salt is how they are processed. Table salt comes from salt mines and is processed to eliminate minerals. Iodine and other additives (to prevent clumping) are usually added to table salt.
Sea salt comes from evaporated seawater and has minimal processing, so it retains trace minerals. The amount of sodium in both sea salt and table salt is the same, but because sea salt has larger crystals than table salt, it has less sodium by volume.
Our favorite types of salt
It’s easier to access the health benefits of the right kind of salt when you know a bit more about the kinds of salt out there. Here are a few of our favorites:
Natural sea salt
Carla, always a fantastic cook, loves experimenting with different types of salt. Her go-to for most types of cooking is Redmond Ancient Fine Sea Salt. It contains a small amount of natural iodine, which Dr. Gundry told me I needed more of in my diet. Natural sea salt is good for whenever you’d usually use table salt for cooking or baking, and you can use the same measurement of it for all recipes.
Pink Himalayan rock salt
Along with natural sea salt, we like Soeos Himalayan Pink Salt. It’s rich in minerals and contains 84 essential trace elements required for your body. Pink salt can assist in many bodily functions, such as reducing muscle cramps, promoting blood sugar health, and promoting healthy pH in your cells. This salt has a rich flavor. We use this salt for seasoning meats and seafood and when brining chicken or turkey. It is also good for seasoning vegetables.
Celtic sea salt
Another good salt is Celtic Sea Salt. It’s unrefined and unprocessed, and it’s sourced from clean coastal waters along the Guerande Region of Brittany, France. This grey sea salt is harvested by traditional Celtic methods and contains naturally-forming minerals. We use this salt whenever we’re drinking salt water to prevent muscle cramping. Simply add .5 – 1 teaspoon to 8 ounces of water and mix. This salt water concoction is also great for gargling if you have a sore throat.
We’ve also used these Bioplasma Cell Salt Tablets that melt in your mouth during exercise. We’ll be taking them to our next pickleball tournament. They have a high rating and they have all the minerals I like to get during a game. Carla takes these when competing to prevent leg cramps. They’re also fabulous to have around for whenever you do experience muscle cramping, as it gets rid of the cramp immediately.
Salt has helped us “up our game”
As a fun side note, Carla and I just finished competing in the Fall Brawl and the Huntsman World Senior Games in St. George, Utah for the past two weeks. The competition was intense with over 11,000 athletes competing. It was a good week for us. Carla and her partner took gold and silver medals in women’s doubles Pickleball at Fall Brawl. She and I took bronze together in couples doubles in Pickleball. And I ribboned in every cycling event, eventually taking gold in the criterium race.
I don’t share this to brag. Rather, I share it to celebrate! Just a few short years ago I was battling cancer for the third time along with a slew of other serious health problems. So far this year, we’ve shared 42 health tips with you. Every one of these tips has helped me to reclaim my health. The right kind of salt in the right amount has been one piece of my health puzzle. Has it been hard work? You bet. Has it been worth it? Absolutely. And we plan to keep it up – Carla and I intend to continue competing (and hopefully winning!) for decades to come!
The health benefits of the right kind of salt are worth it!
Did you learn something you didn’t know about salt? Hopefully we helped clear up the myths and confusion about the benefits and risks of the right types and amounts of salt. Please let us know if you have any questions. We always love to hear from you!
We’ll discuss this and all other recent tips on our free monthly More Than Healthy coaching call. We do them once a month on a Tuesday night at 6 PM MST. Anyone can join us. Just text COACHING to 1-647-558-9895 to join our email list. You can also watch our social media pages for the link. This is a fantastic resource we hope you’ll take advantage of on your journey to optimal health.
Thanks for joining us. Have a super week!