How Low-Salt Diets Give Fuel to Addictions

The Salty Truth: Episode 6: How Eating Salt Can Keep Your Reward System in Normal Mode

Photo by Emmy Smith on Unsplash

Our body has an amazing built-in salt thermostat. When we need more salt we crave it and when we don’t need more, we don’t want it. Without enough salt, we die.

Sugar is a different beast. Your body does not need any sugar. The cravings for sugar are not powered by biology but by psychological or physiological needs. (Physiological being a response to low blood sugar caused by previous sugar overload.)

“It’s time to set the record straight about the health-protecting, lifesaving nature of salt cravings — and drop the guilt for good.” — Dr. James DiNicolantonio, The Salt Fix.

Dr. James DiNicolantonio explains that salt itself is not addictive, but there is a connection between salt and addiction. This connection is that being salt deprived makes you more vulnerable to addictive substances, including sugar.

The worst that can happen if you gorge on salt and eat too much is that your kidneys will not absorb it all. In other words, you won’t use it. Salt craving are a sign of needing more salt. Not having enough salt causes an imbalance in your bodies fluid-salt-electrolyte system.

There are certain actions and behaviors that create more need more salt. For example, caffeine increases sodium excretion and so those who drink a lot of caffeine need to consume more salt. Another activity that causes you to dump sodium is exercise, for every hour of exercise you lose 2g of salt.

This is why sportspeople consume Gatorade and other electrolyte drinks. The problem with those drinks is the other garbage they contain. Wouldn’t it be simpler to throw a little salt and lemon in your water after a workout? Or eat a few olives before the workout?

Despite all of this established science low-salt diets are still frequently prescribed by doctors.

“The origin of the myth all goes back to the moment we stopped looking at salt as an essential, life-giving force — and started seeing it as a hedonistic indulgence, a human appetite to be managed as opposed to trusted.” Dr. DiNicolantonio

Expert Population Data is used to form and perpetuate myths like this more often than you might think. There never was any real science that too much salt is harmful. Or that salt is addictive (depending on you age and country of origin you may or may not have been taught this myth). But because people with low salt diets ate more salt when it was available, it was decided salt must be addictive. Hopefully you can see the lack of reasoning here. If we take starving people and give them an endless supply of broccoli , and they respond by eating a lot more broccoli than they did before it was available, does that mean broccoli is addictive?

Our need for salt is much like our need for water.

“Our “hunger” for salt bears the most physiological resemblance to our thirst for water — how much we take in is controlled by how much we need.” Dr. DiNicolantonio
“Your body knows better than experts how much salt it needs — and telling someone to restrict their salt intake is akin to telling someone to restrict their water intake when they are thirsty. It just makes no biological sense.” Dr. DiNicolantonio

Although salt is not addictive our brain does have a reward system surrounding salt. When we need more this system in our brain turns up, and when we eat salt we are rewarded with pleasure. But when we get enough salt, the system turn back down, and we do no longer get a pleasure reward.

Restricting salt wakes up the reward system in our brain.

This does not only give us a reward for eating salt, but makes us vulnerable to other addictive substances, because the whole system in the brain is turned up. The addictive pathways in our brain are more sensitive and this means we are more likely to struggle with truly addictive substances, such as sugar, heroin and cocaine.

The good news is that as soon as we get enough salt, our brain turns down this addiction/reward pathway from high to normal.

There are, unfortunately some ways our salt thermostat can be thrown out of whack.

  1. Become depleted early in life.

If you are salt deprived during development in the womb your dopamine receptors will become highly sensitized. This is to ensure that you will eat all the salt possible (after you are out of the womb). Our body assumes lack of salt in development means there is limited supply and to ensure our survival makes the reward circuits super strong so we will know how much we need that salt.

But this also means you are born with highly sensitive receptors that will make you predisposed towards sugar and drug addictions.

2. Follow low-salt guidelines.

The FDA recommends we consume no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. There have been many studies, both human and animal that show when salt is readily available consumption stabilizes in a very narrow window of between 3,000 and 4,000 milligrams a day. This research is ignored by the FDA, and ignored again by doctors who prescribe further restricted low salt diets of 1,500 miligrams a day. This is supposedly to keep swelling and blood pressure down, but it works this way only because such low-sodium diets cause a chronic dehydration.

In addition to these poor results of salt constriction there are studies showing lowering salt intake can cause anxiety. (2011 Univerisity of Haifa in Israel)

And on the flip side, studies showing that high salt intake buffers the effects of stress. (University of Iowa & Pines and colleagues.)

Sugar may be used as a coping mechanism for dealing with anxiety because it gives you a temporary good feeling, however this effect is very fleeting and you soon need more to maintain the calm. The way salt works is different. High levels seem to promote a more relaxed outlook and attitude, instead of only a quick feel-good after a hit.

When we deny our body the non-addictive anxiety reducing effect of salt, we are more likely to turn to sugar for comfort. This is not good. Because sugar is not a biological need it has no on or off switch. It is not built into our human body systems because it is not available in nature in the form that we consume it.

Sugar is stripped from plants (and here I refer to both cane sugar and corn syrup, among many other forms of the substance) in much the same way that cocaine and heroin are stripped from plants. All of the addictive substances are high concentrations of just the addictive bit of the plant.

“In fact, people with obesity, ADHD, and drug addiction to cocaine and heroin share a similar brain signature. All three have the same down regulation of the dopamine D2 receptors in the brain, indicating a lack of normal dopamine function in all three conditions.” Dr. DiNicolantonio

Is it worth the risks to limit your salt intake?

For more juicy research details you can read Dr. James DiNicolantonio’s book The Salt Fix: Why the Experts Got It All Wrong — and How Eating More Salt Might Save Your Life. He is a pharmacologist and cardiac research specialist who has been exploring the foundations of salt science for years.