All your emulation centers on the saltworks; instead of ploughs and scythes, you work rollers whence comes all your gain. Upon your industry all other products depend for, although there may be someone who does not seek gold, there never yet lived the man who does not desire salt…
–Cassidorus, A.D. 523
We’ve considered the importance of salt in history and the basic physiological processes that need salt. Clearly salt is not a poison that we should avoid at all costs. The big questions are how much salt is necessary, how much is too much, and will eating salt drive up my blood pressure?
Let’s start with the last question. Does it drive up blood pressure? Well…yes and no. Does salt play a role in blood pressure regulation? Absolutely yes. But oxygen plays a role in house fires. You can’t burn to death in your bedroom without plenty of oxygen around, but that doesn’t mean you should hermetically seal your home and try to keep oxygen levels to the bare minimum needed for survival. It would be much more effective to stop smoking in bed or using that twenty-five-year-old electric blanket.
There is also no disputing that salt plays a role of some kind in the process of blood pressure regulation. In studies like this one, 51% of people with hypertension showed a higher sensitivity to salt while only 26% of non-hypertensives showed that kind of sensitivity.
SO! Salt does drive up blood pressure! I told you! Pass the “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Salt.”
Wait just a second, because that’s not the whole story.
The whole story is that while we have an association, and even a correlation, between high salt intakes and higher blood pressure, we don’t have a corresponding association or correlation between a low-salt diet and success in lowering blood pressure or saving lives. Drastic reductions in salt result in only meager reductions in blood pressure and no enhancement of life expectancy. What good is a slightly lower blood pressure if you’re not going to live any longer? This suggests that something other than salt is at play in our high blood pressure problems: something that people in industrialized nations–who tend to consume a lot of salt–experience or do that people in non-industrialized nations do not do or experience, at least not as much.
The whole story is that there is a very wide range of sodium intakes around the world, and these do not correspond with average blood pressure levels.
The whole story is that there are people groups with very low sodium intakes who also have very low blood pressure, but further study has shown this connection to be meaningless. Most famous of these groups are the Yonamami Indians of the Amazon who have very low blood pressure even into old age. They’re non-industrialized, too, and if we’ve learned anything from our politically-correct educations in the last couple decades, it is that there is no greater evil in all the world than industrialization, and possible pineapple on pizza.
The problem is there are other non-industrialized peoples–some have very low salt intakes and some of don’t–who are throwing our data out of whack. Over in Panama are the Kuna, another traditional tribe with very low salt intake and very low blood pressure. Some of the Kuna adapted to an evil modern diet where they started ingesting gobs and gobs of salt, yet they unfortunately (for researchers) didn’t nicely develop high blood pressure like they were supposed to.
Nothing else about their lives had changed, by the way–just their diets.
When your theory is that all dogs are black, and then you see a spotted dog, what do you do with your theory? You throw it out. The Kuna are our spotted dogs. When your theory is that it’s their low salt intake that gives them low blood pressure, and then you give them lots of salt and yet their blood pressure stays low, what do you do with your theory? You throw it out. Clearly something else is keeping their blood pressure low. Yet it is largely because of the Kuna and the Yonamani that “official” guidelines tell you to reduce your salt intake.
And speaking of the Yonamani Indians, yeah, they’ve got nice, low blood pressure on their low-sodium diet. They also aren’t fat. They also ingest high levels of fiber. They also eat little saturated fat. They’re also very physically active. They don’t drink alcohol at all. They have very low stress levels, as we measure stress in our society. In other words, they’re poster children for the vegetarian-back-to-earth-naturopathic-earthfriendly lifestyle.
They also have a life expectancy of just 29-46 years. Oops. Read all about it here.
The whole story is that there are dozens of other things that affect your blood pressure just as much as salt ever will, and sometimes more. Yet none of these things have been demonized like salt, or lionized in proportion to salt’s degradation:
1. Potassium. Drastic reduction in sodium results in an average of five points reduction in your systolic blood pressure and three in your diastolic. Getting enough potassium, however, resulted in a seven and two point change, respectively. As good or better than salt, yet while you can find “low-sodium” everything on every store shelf and every menu, there is no “high-potassium!” label to correspond. (Want to have your mind blown? Studies have proved that it is physically impossible for a human being to simultaneously meet the USDA’s guidelines for sodium and potassium. Next time some idiotic reporter drones on about Americans not meeting either their sodium or their potassium guidelines–like here–just ignore her. Or write to Caroline and explain to her that 99.9% of Americans fail to meet the guidelines because IT’S IMPOSSIBLE).
2. Zinc. Zinc’ll get you coming and going. Even a small deficiency in zinc has a demonstrable effect in raising blood pressure, though we don’t yet know why. More likely to be your problem, though: too much zinc also raises your blood pressure. Why do I say this is more likely to be your problem? Well you’re taking a multivitamin, right? You’re just taking that generic one to save money, so that’s got 11mg of zinc in it. That’s the RDA for men, but for women the RDA is only 8mg. That means you women are already getting more than you need right there. That wouldn’t be so bad by itself if you weren’t also eating some kind of super–healthy whole grain breakfast cereal, fortified with zinc. The skim milk has some, too. That’s another 3.3mg with your breakfast cereal. Then you want to be healthy, of course, so you eat all these superfoods that are also really high in zinc like spinach, salmon, kidney beans, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, garlic, lima beans, the Other White Meat, dark chocolate, chickpeas, brown rice, peas, cashews, and mushrooms. Not to mention more fortified breads and bagels and stuff.
3. Alcohol. While every magazine touts the benefits of that one glass of red wine twice a week, regular over-consumption has just as strong an association with high blood pressure as salt.
4. Every Other Food On The Planet. Ok, that’s an exaggeration, but there are studies associating vitamin C, coffee, wine, tea, blueberries and any other thing that has flavonoids in it with lower blood pressure.
5. Regular Exercise of Any Kind. Aerobic or anaerobic. Weightlifting for ten minutes a week, swimming for two hours, walking, cycling, or anything all all, really. All are associated with drops in blood pressure. Just get yourself out of the house/office once in a while and DO something.
6. Petting Your Dog. That’s right. Have a look at this study. It didn’t matter if the dog was yours or not. It didn’t even matter if you liked dogs or not. Petting one will still lower your blood pressure. Why? It seems to be because petting a dog lowers anxiety and stress by lowering cortisol and causing your brain to release serotonin. Why petting a dog does that I couldn’t say: but as Louis Sabin once said, “Even the tiniest poodle is lionhearted, ready to do anything to defend home, master and mistress. No matter how little money and how few possessions you own, having a dog makes you rich.” Want to really lower your blood pressure? Throw out that NoSalt and get yourself a retriever.
The whole story is that a low-salt diet is far more closely associated with health risks than with health benefits. If you’re hypertensive, with a blood pressure of say 156/95, is getting that all the way down to 151/92 really worth the dangers of chronically low sodium intake? Is it even worth denying yourself the enjoyment of salted food? Let’s see…
1. Here a low-salt diet–just for seven days–increased insulin resistance in the participants. Oh dear. That’s diabetes risk right there–and we all know how good diabetes is for your heart.
2. These folks had lots of fun in their study. They found that drastic reductions of sodium had a small effect on those with hypertension and almost no effect on those without hypertension. You might be thinking Oh! Well, if I’ve got hypertension then I should go for it just to be safe! But before you do that, read the whole study and look at how the low-salt dieters, in addition to slightly lowering their blood pressure, also got to enjoy elevated triglycerides, higher LDL counts, and increases in the stress hormones coursing through their bodies.
3. The Gov’Mint wants you to restrict your sodium to 1,500mg per day. Which is odd, since this study in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that while those eating over 7,000mg a day were at greater risk of having a heart event than those eating less, those taking in less than 3,000mg a day were at even great risk–not just of having heart attacks, but of actually dying from them. The sweet spot of good health was between about 4,500 and 6,000mg. 4,500mg people. That’s a lot of salt. Chances are you aren’t ingesting that much.
Next time we’ll look at what kind of sodium intake you’re getting if you’re eating real food. In the meantime, enjoy some salt. If you’re still worried, here are a few more studies about the dangers of a low-sodium diet, the lack of connection between sodium intake and future hypertension, and the positive effects of a high-sodium diet.
And I recommend this salt. It’s awesome:
Plato says he’s hungry
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