I have a feeling that this post is going to be salty.
So what’s the first thing that comes to your mind when I say SALT. I wouldn’t blame you if you think I am talking about Angelina Jolie as Evelyn Salt in the movie SALT.
Salt is also that whitish crystal powder we put in our foods and you got to be careful with that thing, right? After all, the conventional wisdom will have us believe that high salt intake could be responsible for heart attacks, hyper tension and high blood pressure. Well, read on.
|This salt may be even better than Himalayan sea salt
Before we get into what salt really is let’s take a historical digression. Nearly every society that has ever existed has had salt as part of its cuisine. Animals lick salty rocks and deposits and we followed the paths created by these animals and we humans settled close to these salt deposits. Salt has always been one of the most sought after commodities in the world, up until very recently.
Or consider these popular quotes which are part of our modern lexicon:
“Are you worth your salt?”
“Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.”
Most worthy amongst us are called “salt of the earth”.
Culture and history aside, at a personal level it’s undeniable that an otherwise boring soup or bone broth is rejuvenated with a pinch of salt. It starts to taste better. Notice how we crave salty food if we haven’t had it in a while. It’s an essential tool in the cooking trade.
So how did salt get such a bad rep anyways?
There were couple of studies done in 70s and 80s and one of them showed how giving 500 g of salt to rats killed them and the legend grew. But we can also kill a rat or a human by giving them too much water!! We know people who have died in ‘who can have the most water’ competitions. So always remember that it’s the dose which makes the poison. Another reason for salt’s fall from the grace is excessive amount of sodium in our modern processed foods and very little of balancing minerals like potassium. So something needs to be fixed and as usual it’s far easier to put the blame on something like salt (or saturated fat).
WHAT IS SALT ANYWAYS
Let’s look at the Himalayan sea salt sitting in front of me
|Himalayan rock sea salt
First you will notice that it’s pink-ish and not the dead white kind you may be used to. This actually looks like it was part of a salt rock formation. On the wrapper I am informed that this kind of “Pink rock salt is a natural source of over 84 minerals and trace elements including Iodine, Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium, Zinc, Silica and Selenium.”
Let’s check out the typical analysis of this rock salt. Of 1000g, 388g is sodium and 598 g is chloride. Then you have 3.6g of sulphur, 1.7g of potassium, 1.45g of calcium, magnesium, zinc, copper and so on and so forth.
This is the sodium-salt connection and why sodium is loosely thought of as salt in the bag of chippies or Coke. It begs the question: Are sodium and chloride vital to us?
Here are some of benefits of sodium and I quote this from www.marksdailyapple.com (When Mark has already done the research, it just makes sense to quote one of the Masters)
•Supports the nervous system – both sodium and chloride (also known as sodium chloride, or salt) are necessary for the firing of neurons.
•Regulates blood pressure – keeps it from going too low or (usually) too high.
•Helps maintain acid-base balance and blood volume.
•Supports the function of the adrenal glands which produce dozens of vital hormones, including the stress and sex hormones.
Institute of Medicine recommends 1500mg (around 4g of salt) of sodium for a healthy adult.
Let’s talk about chloride and digestion. As you eat your food and it reaches your gut, your body generates HCL (hydrochloric acid) to create an acidic environment in which enzymes can work to break down proteins, fats and carbohydrates and kill pathogens in our food (how very clever). We are talking about pH levels as low as 1 or 2, which is highly acidic. Now chloride ions in the salt help with generation of HCL. If your stomach can’t generate enough of this acid then you can’t basically extract nutrition out of the food you just ate or kill the bad guys (pathogens) in your food.
I should put in a note here about antacids – to give you acid reflux relief, they supress the creation of HCL. I speak from person experience when I tell you that be afraid of them and use them extremely rarely. Most of us due to less than optimal diets and excessive use of anti-biotic don’t make enough acid in the first place and so our digestion is poor to begin with. On top of that, conventional wisdom tells us that if you feel an acid reflux you should take an antacid!! We are making a bad situation worse by doing that. It’s like putting water on the fire that is cooking your food. You could eat the best food in the world but if you can’t generate enough acid to digest it, it wouldn’t mean much. Worse, long term use of antacid will prevent the absorption of Vitamin B12 and so you could end up in a very dangerous territory. You have been warned.
I know the ad on TV tells you to follow up your Mexican lunch with an antacid but that’s not normal. If the tacos and nachos are giving you an acid reflux, prudent course of action would be to fix the underlying issue with your digestion and keep off the tacos for a bit.
SODIUM POTASSIUM PUMP
Time for a bit of biochemistry geek out. If that’s not your thing or you are a bit heartless, skip this paragraph.
There is a phenomenon happening at cellular level called sodium potassium pump. I have tried to capture the essence of it in this photo. What’s shown below is portion of a cell and the pinkie below is a protein channel.
Step 0: You have 3 sodium ions that get sucked into the protein channel and attach themselves to the protein channel. At the bottom right corner you can see an ATP molecule creeping up.
Step 1: One of the phosphate from the ATP is going to provide energy to change the shape of the protein channel and the bottom will close and it will open up from the top.
Step 2: The sodium ions are release outside of the cells and now the protein channel has high affinity for potassium ions.
Step 3: Two potassium ions now get pulled into the protein channel and phosphate ion is still bound to the protein channel. This will again cause a change in the shape of the channel.
Step 4: Once the shape reverts to as it was in Step 0, the phosphate ion is release. Eventually potassium ions will be release and we will be back to Step 0.
Rinse and repeat.
The most important point that I would like you to takeaway from this is: This phenomenon is super critical for our nervous system and we actually know about it and it relies on sodium potassium. What will happen if sodium potassium levels go out of whack? How will that affect this pumping, what will that do to your nervous system? And this is just one of the phenomenon we know about. There are perhaps 100s of other events happening that we don’t even know about. So it’s a bit silly to just say that sodium or salt is bad.
HOW SALT CAME TO MY RESCUE
I should also talk about how salt came to my rescue 6 months ago. Unfortunately the topic is not as sexy as talking about skinny jeans and six pack abs. It’s about pooping. A good poop in the morning is one of the best starts you can get to the day right? It tells you that stuff is moving through the pipes ok and you don’t have toxic stuff sitting in you for 3 days. Invaluable.
Now 6-9 months into my whole foods diet, I started experiencing mild constipation. This was in spite of me eating plenty of plants and salad in both my meals, so fibre was not the issue. I also tried increasing my water intake and that would help some days but not the other. What was really going on was that my whole foods diet is a low carbohydrate diet. Vegetables don’t contribute all that much by way of calories and I also eat very little of processed and sugary food that trigger insulin spikes. Because my insulin is relatively low most of the time, my kidney was dumping sodium and body was shedding excess water. Now like I have already mentioned earlier, sodium is a key electrolyte and low sodium can induce side-effects like light headedness, fatigue, headaches and even constipation. And so I started adding a bit of salt to my water throughout the day and just like that I went back to being awesome in the loo again. I drink normal amount of water and I don’t really buy the ‘we must drink 8 glasses of water everyday’ nonsense. I respect my thirst instincts and so drink appropriate amounts.
Recently I have also learnt that salt in the morning provides adrenal relief – you get up and your body needs to generate cortisol and enough blood pressure to wake you up from your sleep. Salt helps with generation of adrenal hormone cortisol. As far as I am concerned, salt is a superstar.
After a big workout or a long run, you don’t need the Gatorade crap or drink excessive amounts of water to hydrate yourself. Moderate amount of water with salt will do the trick.
So you are not a bad person if you like to use some salt, ok? We are hard wired to seek out salt.
TOO MUCH SODIUM IN MODERN PROCESSED DIET?
Salt is ubiquitous in the modern processed diet and it’s estimated that Americans consume 10gms of salt per day. However most of it is from the processed food and only the remaining 20% is from discretionary use, like adding it to your food when you cook it. And it’s reasonable to extrapolate that this is true not just for Americans. We are getting too much sodium from processed foods like bread, pasta, noodles, chips and fast foods and little of other minerals so things get out of balance. You wouldn’t think but even sweet tasting 12 ounce Coke has 40mg of sodium in it. Adding Himalayan sea salt to the meal you are cooking at home is nothing like having sodium from the Coke or other processed foods.
Our Palaeolithic diets were low in sodium and you could argue that we don’t need that all that much sodium or salt. But bear in mind that Palaeolithic diets were also high in potassium rich plants. Now we are at an exactly opposite situation with very high sodium and very low potassium (and that’s true for most nutrient minerals) in our diets. So potassium:sodium ratio may be important and that itself may just be an indicator of a healthy diet. I think it’s downright silly to pin the blame on sodium or salt.
There have been numerous studies in recent times showing the exact opposite – low salt is related with overall increase in mortality. Look at this recent article in nytimes:
1. Use Himalayan natural sea salt and avoid the dead white processed kind.
2. If you are convinced that salt is not the enemy and have upped your salt intake, follow it up with the blood pressure test and don’t just take my word for it. My last test was normal and I plan to get another test done sometime in next 6 months.
3. Balance salt in your diet with potassium. Good sources of potassium are green leafy vegetables, sweet potatoes (what else do you expect from this superhero starch), potatoes, avocadoes, bananas.
As always, the solution is really simple and it lies in eating whole foods, real foods. Body is infinitely intelligent and when you have a genius working for you, you don’t micro manage their work. Just give it the right input and you will get the right output.