In ancient times, salt was literally worth its weight in gold. African and European explorers plying the spice routes would trade the white stuff for the yellow stuff with similar regard. Our ancestors were right to value it. The sodium and chlorine compounds in unrefined, natural salt are essential for life. Our body cannot make these elements;
it requires them from a dietary source. They are critical in regulating blood plasma, lymphatic fluid, extracellular fluid and even amniotic fluid for our babies. They also help carry nutrients to the cells, support healthy glial cell populations in the brain, and help the brain communicate with the rest of the body. Perhaps ironically, salt is essential for maintaining and regulating blood pressure.
A 2010 Harvard University study showed that a low-salt diet actually led to an increase in insulin resistance, which is a risk factor for Type 2 diabetes, in only seven days. Other research found that salt restriction may play a role in increased death rates among people with Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes; increased falls and broken hips and decreased cognitive ability among the elderly; low birth weight babies; and poor neurodevelopment in infants.
The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a study in May 2011 that assessed the health of 3,681 healthy European men and women 60 years or younger over the course of eight years. It found those that consumed higher than average amounts of sodium did not experience increased risk for hypertension, stroke or heart attack, with the senior author of the study stating, “The findings do not support the current recommendations of a generalized and indiscriminate reduction of sodium intake…”
This research revealed that less sodium excreted in the urine (an indication of salt consumption), correlated with a greater risk of dying from heart disease. When the participants were divided up into low, moderate and high salt consumption groups and then studied for mortality, researchers found that 50 people died in the low salt group, 24 people died in the moderate salt group and 10 people died in the high salt group.
Additionally, the risk for heart disease was 56 percent higher for the low salt group when compared to the high salt group. It is important to note that some studies have shown a modest benefit to salt restriction among some individuals with high blood pressure, but the evidence does not extend to the population at large.
So why has salt gotten such a bad name? The answer is simple: not all salt is created equal. Processed salt is typically around 97 to 98 percent pure sodium chloride, with the additional portion comprised of anti-caking and flow agents like ferrocyanide and aluminosilicate, sodium fluoride or potassium fluoride, some of which are industrial byproducts. Processed salt is also structurally altered in the refining process, reaching high temperatures of 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit, which alters the chemical makeup further, resulting in a “scrubbed” molecular structure.
Additionally, the inorganic sodium chloride upsets the body’s fluid balance and constantly overburdens its elimination systems, which can impair health. When the body tries to process refined salt, water molecules must surround the sodium chloride molecules to break them up in order to help neutralize them. To accomplish this, water is taken from cells, resulting in dehydration and premature cell aging.
Much of the refined salt we consume is hidden in processed foods; some statistics state that it’s as high as 80 percent. There’s little argument that there is far too much sodium in processed foods, but these are foods that we should avoid to begin with. Refined salt is just one of many ingredients in packaged foods that will damage our health. Even “organic” processed foods are high in refined “sea salt” and other preservatives that we are better off avoiding.
When we look at natural salt (Himalayan, Redmond, Celtic) the composition is about 84 to 90 percent sodium chloride (NaCl). The other portion is comprised of common minerals such as calcium and magnesium, as well as other trace minerals that our body uses in daily processes. These minerals are essential to our health and actually help the body to process the sodium chloride.
The trace minerals found in unprocessed salt are also essential for body function. Even small departures from normal mineral composition of the interior of our cells may have profound physiological consequences. Trace minerals help with activating enzymes, regulating heartbeat, acting as antioxidants and stabilizing the structure of cells, among myriad other functions.
Unrefined sea salt is readily available and doesn’t have to be expensive, often available in a local grocer’s bulk section. All unrefined salt is sea salt: some of it is freshly dried or may come from ancient seabeds. Sometimes the salt will have some color to it: pink, yellow or grey. Be careful, because much of the salt labeled as sea salt is actually refined salt; if the salt doesn’t have some color to it, it’s been refined.
Some foods naturally high in salt/sodium are fish, eggs, nuts, prawns, crabs, lobsters and seaweed. Other naturally occurring, although less significant sources of salt are celery, carrots, cauliflower, pineapples, jackfruits and even fresh cow’s milk.
The more we can move toward a diet of whole, organic foods in their natural state, the healthier we will be—whether they are veggies, meat, dairy products or salt. Salt is an essential of good health, but we need to limit sources of processed salt and switch to a pure, unrefined salt; one with a little color from mineral content. Those that are exercising heavily or in the middle of a heat wave may require more salt than on a cool day when relaxing. Following our taste buds, it is perfectly fine to salt our food, provided the salt we’re using is natural and unrefined.
Christy Porterfield and Jennifer Taylor, of HealthWorks: A Creating Wellness Center, are practicing doctors of chiropractic in Plano and chapter leaders for Weston A. Price. For more information, call 972-612-1800 or visit HealthWorksTX.com.