Salt’s reputation as a “dangerous” food ingredient – some critics call it “white death” – hasn’t kept Americans from consuming it in large quantities. Many consumers find a “salt-free” diet bland and unappealing.
Moreover, a growing body of science has shown that salt – in moderation at least — is not that bad for you. Among other things, it can aid with sleep, reduce stress, improve digestion, and even help ward off allergic attacks.
In fact, it may even quench your thirst.
Well, not exactly. But a study published in 2017 based on tests with Russian cosmonauts found that ingesting salt can help you build up large stores of water in your body. That means you’ll be less likely to overheat the next time you sweat and may feel less thirsty, too.
The study’s findings contradict the commonly held view that salt makes thirst worse while adding liquid helps dilute its effects. While it may feel that way when we drink water, the relationship of sodium chloride and H20 in our bodies turns out to be far more complex, researchers found.
Jens Titze, the Vanderbilt University researcher who directed the study, found that the cosmonauts he tested with varying doses of salt increased the levels of glucocorticoid hormones in their body. That’s significant because these hormones break down muscle protein which is converted into urea. Urea typically helps the body excrete waste, usually through urine.
But with salt, the urea — for reasons not well understood — also retains water. Lots of it. The water-conserving effect can be felt within 24 hours and may last for days, Titze found.
Naturally, that’s of great interest to the Russian space program because it means that cosmonauts might not dehydrate so quickly — and could reduce their need for water supplies. But it also has implications for hikers or travelers or just everyday consumers seeking to create a balanced diet.
For example, if people need to drink less water with higher salt intake, they are less likely to gain weight, traditionally a key concern in discussions of high-salt diets.
On the other hand, past studies have also linked high glucocorticoid levels to conditions like type 2 diabetes and muscle loss. So having too much salt in your diet is still a major health concern.
A more recent study conducted worldwide has confirmed that moderate salt intake could well be a “protective” factor for good health.
The study was conducted by Professor Andrew Mente from the Population Health Research Institute of Hamilton Health Sciences and McMaster University. It involved more than 90,000 people in more than 300 communities in 18 countries.
Mente and his colleagues found that high-salt intake was only a major health concern in China because of the widespread daily use of soy sauce.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has suggested that daily salt intake be limited to 5 grams. However, Mente and his colleagues estimated the average daily intake level in China was nearly 12 grams.
In fact, no country has ever gotten its average daily intake level down to 5 grams.
Mente and his colleagues argue that the WHO’s efforts to reduce salt intake to near zero are misplaced. In their research, they found that communities and individuals that reported the lowest salt intake also reported the highest rates of heart disease.
In other words, consuming too little salt could be just as dangerous as consuming too much. Where’s the right balance? No one really knows. In the end, it likely varies from individual to individual anyway.
But the findings of Titze and Mente are only the latest evidence that salt is more friend than foe.