Salt is an essential nutrient, not our enemy

We’ve believed for so many years that salt is bad for us, that it increases blood pressure, increases our risk of cardiovascular disease, makes us bloated, and even makes us gain weight. However, sodium is an essential nutrient that the body needs but is not able to produce by itself. And we can not live without it, it plays a vital role in the regulation of many functions in the body. It is contained in body fluids that transport oxygen and nutrients, and is also essential in maintaining the fluid and acid-base balance. It is needed to propel oxygen through the blood and move our muscles, including our heart. It controls our taste and smell. It enables the transmission of nerve impulses around the body. And it is an electrolyte, like potassium, calcium and magnesium, and helps regulate the electrical charges moving in and out of the cells in the body.

Collecting fresh sea salt

The word salt comes from the Latin word “sal”. When combined together, sodium (or natrium) and chlorine (or chloride) form sodium chloride, which is also known as common table salt. This is found largely is processed foods. 8–10 grams of salt is equal to 3–4 grams of sodium.

Chlorine is also essential to maximize health, and is a fundamental element in the digestive process. It preserves the acid-base balance in the body, aids potassium absorption, and supplies the essence of hydrochloric acid in the gastric juices, which are used in the stomach to help us break down and digest the food that we eat and to control the level of bacteria present in the stomach.

Salt is found in almost every part of the human body, and our bodies normally hold around 250 grams of salt. Salt is non-addictive and the body senses when it has enough, and any excess is then just naturally excreted. To survive and to avoid dehydration we all need to consume sodium regularly, so it is vital that we eat and drink well. We can lose up to half a liter of sweat per hour in hot conditions.

There is a lot of confusion, however, about whether salt is beneficial or harmful. The recommended daily intake is only 2300 milligrams per day, which is only around 1 teaspoon. Yet scientific research is now showing that lowering sodium has an almost immeasurable long term effect on the blood pressure of healthy individuals. In fact, for certain groups of people, such as pregnant women, senior citizens and those with an energetic lifestyle, research is proving that cutting back on salt may actually be harmful.

Potassium and sodium are essential for life. Molecular pumps that pull potassium into cells and push sodium out create a chemical battery that drives the transmission of signals along nerves and powers the contraction of muscles. Potassium and sodium help the kidneys work properly, and are important for energy production and fluid balance. And researchers are beginning to explore their roles in bone health too.

The kidneys respond to excess sodium by flushing it out in the urine. Unfortunately, this also removes potassium. If potassium levels are low, the body tries to hoard it, which also means hanging onto sodium. Water follows sodium, leading to an increase in the amount of water in the body and the volume of blood in circulation. Blood pressure climbs, and the heart must work harder. Excess sodium blunts the ability of blood vessels to relax and contract with ease, and may also overstimulate the growth of heart tissue. All of these responses are made worse by low potassium intake.

In his book “The Salt Fix” Dr James DiNicolantonio, a cardiovascular research scientist, explains that we are making a mistake when we consume too little salt, and that this can actually can be harmful for us. He also argues that a low salt diet can actually lead to heart disease and other conditions, including obesity, diabetes, and a damaged immune system. He explains that being cold in our extremities can be a signal that we may need more salt. And chronic salt depletion can increase insulin levels, because insulin helps the kidneys retain more sodium. He explains that on average our kidneys may filter between 3.2–3.6 pounds of salt (1.28 and 1.44 pounds of sodium) every day, and low salt intake stresses the kidneys and results in lower energy to avoid sweating. This could lead to weight gain.

Salt is anti-microbial, which means that it can protect us from food-borne illnesses. Foods with lower salt levels have a shorter shelf life. Actually, before refrigeration was available, people used salt to preserve food. This of course meant that their average sodium consumption was much higher than our’s today. Salt also helps regulate body temperature and reduce sugar cravings too. And it’s also good for the skin when it is sweated out, helping to fight off bacterial infections.

If you eat a low-carb diet then you need to take additional salt. Higher salt intake can help reduce anxiety and stress too. And rather than decreasing sodium, it’s the effect of increasing potassium that can help regulate blood pressure.

Some people need more salt than others, depending on how active they are, the environment in which they live, and how much caffeine they consume each day. Coffee, exercise, sweating, and some medications can cause our body to reduce sodium, which can increase the stress hormone cortisol and can cause sugar cravings too.

Choosing the correct type of salt is also important. Brand names such as Real Salt and Celtic Salt are normally good options. Sea salt is good too, but it does not have iodine (a mineral which the body can use amongst other things to make thyroid hormone) which can cause problems in the long term. Consuming salt before and during exercise can help the body cool off faster, due to increased blood circulation.

I take half a teaspoon of salt with a big glass of water before my high intensity training workouts. Since doing this I have seen a huge increase in my performance, and I’ve noticed that fatigue starts to set in a lot later too.

Most of us are not salt sensitive, however we are all different so before making any dramatic changes do check with your physician, or start slowly and see how your body reacts.

If you’d like to read more about salt then here’s one of my previous articles that you might find interesting:

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