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By Matt Stone

The Mayo Clinic put out an article entitled “Sodium – How to Tame Your Salt Habit.”  I figured the “180 Degree Mayo Clinic” needed an article about the many powerful benefits of sodium, when you might need more salt, how much you might need, and some foolproof ways to get lots without taking in too much lifeless, depleting water with it.

Before we begin, I must point out that it is the nature of those who spend way too much time perusing health articles on the internet to take things to extremes.  If you eat enough salt, and take in too little fluids to balance it out, you will die.  Likewise, if you take in enough water, without enough salt to accompany it, you will die.  Life is about balance, and when you have the optimal amount of salt in proportion to fluids for your own personal body fluids, your body will work better.  Plain and simple.

You may need more salt in general.  You may need less salt in general.  I don’t know.  But I don’t want anyone buying into the idea that some necessary mineral is “bad.”  It’s neither good nor bad.  It just is.  Taking in more or less can be highly beneficial or highly detrimental depending on the individual that this change is interacting with.

The mainstream tendency is to come out with some kind of blanket recommendation for all humans when it comes to certain substances.  And that is exactly what has been done with the mineral sodium, a primary constituent of salt.  My Morton’s sea salt container tells me that a ¼ teaspoon, 1.5 gram serving of salt contains 590 mg of sodium.  This represents about a fourth of my recommended daily allowance – a number established by a bureaucratic entity that is effectively doing what I did when working as a Wilderness Ranger for the Forest Service years ago when I heard some hikers coming down the trail while napping… I jumped up and tried to look busy.

This number is meaningless.  When it comes to salt, you want to consume as much salt in proportion to water as is required to get the benefits of salt, but not so much as to encounter the detrimental effects of salt.

The benefits of salt include an increase in body temperature, metabolic rate in general, a healthy blood volume, and a decrease in sympathetic nervous system activity (suppression of stress hormones that is) – much of which can all be felt by a feeling of relaxation and well-being, increased blood circulation, and a noticeable increase in general body warmth and the warmth of extremities like the hands and feet in particular.  These important physiological changes on an ongoing basis can result in a far-reaching number of overall health improvements and general degenerative disease avoidance and health prolongation.  Some of the many potentially beneficial attributes of salt are discussed in Ray Peat’s fascinating discussion on the topic: Salt, energy, metabolic rate, and longevity. 

Consuming too much salt in proportion to water can result in, as discussed in my important post on Restless Leg Syndrome, muscle twitching (including restless leg syndrome), sleep disturbances, strong feelings of fatigue, headache, irritability, an uncomfortably strong pulse, and a handful of other forms of malaise.  It’s not a case of the more the better.  Eat a bunch of salt and avoid fluids when you are already toasty warm and you will run into the consequences of overdoing it.

Having said all that, this article is really geared toward those who tend to be my target audience in general – those who are chronically cold, with body temperatures well below normal, who urinate frequently with pale-colored urine, who tend to have icy cold hands and feet, who have low blood pressure (though not always), particularly enjoy salty foods or crave salt, and who suffer from spending way too much time in such a physiological state.

If you are in this state and trying to get out, how much salt should you take in, and what are some good sources?

For starters, let’s cover the basics.  You can consume as much salt as you want, but what matters is the amount of salt in proportion to water.  If you consume enough water to create what’s called a hypertonic solution – meaning that the salt concentration of the salt/fluid combo you’ve consumed is stronger than your cells, the sodium content of your body fluids will increase and you can expect a rise in body temperature and accompanying changes.  If the salt concentration is weaker – let’s say you ate a whole, salty-ass pizza but drank an entire gallon of water with it, you will have effectively taken in the equivalent of a hypotonic solution, and you can expect your body temperature to plummet, stress hormones to surge, urine density to be lowered, and so forth.

So to answer the question, “How much salt should you take in?” you must also consider how many fluids you are consuming – from all sources.  If you want to drink water all day and eat tons of “health foods” like fruits, vegetables, salads, juices, smoothies, and the like, you’ll need a lot of salt – especially seeing that all those foods contain tons of water and very little salt.  If you eat concentrated foods with low water content – lots of burgers and bread and pizza and chips, you’ll need a lot less salt.  Of course, such foods have tons of salt, so you’ll need to drink more fluids!

I find the best strategy is to wake up and focus on salt at breakfast time, loading up big, and then sipping beverages when thirsty throughout the rest of the day – including watery foods like fruits, juices, soups, and so forth as long as you are holding onto the warmth in your extremities.  The tendency towards sympathetic activity and lower body temperature and metabolism is greater early in the day than late in the day (generally-speaking, not everyone fits this profile), perhaps why eating breakfast has been found to be such a protective habit against obesity and diabetes.

We normally think of things like chips and pretzels as being the foods heaviest in salt, but that’s not true.  I find meats and cheeses to actually have the highest threshold for salt before they become unpalatable.  In my recent McDonald’s experiment, I noticed that there really is nothing more warming on the planet than Double Cheeseburgers, with 1150mg of sodium in each.  That’s far more sodium in a small, 440-calorie cheeseburger than what you would get by eating an entire 1400-calorie bag of Sea Salt Kettle Chips.  So you could say that a cheeseburger like that has a “salt density” four times greater than even potato chips with “salt” in the title.

Do you need that much sodium?  Maybe.  If your metabolism is really low you might find that getting 10 grams of salt (roughly 4000mg of sodium) in your breakfast and maybe even your lunch too is what it takes to get you to the point of warmth and nervous system relaxation.  It probably depends on your metabolic rate and urine concentration in general.  The lower it is, the more salt you need.  The higher it is, the more water you need.  In the context of a high metabolism, a big salt load won’t do anything for you, and might even make your feel worse – especially at the time of day when you are likely reaching your metabolic peak (the evening, but like I said, not everyone fits this profile).

Be flexible and find out how much salt you need, and when you need it.  In general, hands and feet cold – salt good, fluids bad.  Hands and feet hot – fluids good, salt bad.  Certainly don’t take some standard blanket recommendation at face value and become hysterical if you fail to meet or exceed the mass-prescribed dose.  Mass-prescribed doses and blanket advice is dangerous.  Focus on getting your body working correctly, and shut out the rest of the noise from those who think they know what is healthy for everybody else – which I find is everyone these days.

Salt is powerful stuff, rivaled only by sleep and sugar in the category of isolated things that can stimulate your metabolism.  Water is powerful stuff too.  In a future edition perhaps we will take this line of thinking towards sugar, and theorize as to why sugar consumption is associated with leanness, while soft drink and juice consumption is associated with obesity.  Excess water’s ability to impair cellular energy metabolism certainly could play a role.

As of December 1, 2012, you can read more about the virtues of salt and its application towards a higher metabolic rate in the book Eat for Heat.