THE EFFECTS OF SODIUM
Toward the end of Fourth-grade, on a particularly warm day in late spring, I was swinging across the monkey bars during recess. My hands were a little sweaty. I thought of dropping off early, but I was nearly to the end of the rungs. As my toes touched the Lincoln-log-ish landing, about two feet above the ground, my hands slipped. I hadn't thought about my feet being on the platform, so high off the ground. It was such a distance I was able to tell myself the story of what was happening. The snap in my left elbow, as I put my hands back to catch my fall, was unexpected.
Instead of sharp pain I felt a warm, dulling sensation spread over my body, as if being filled with molasses. I would later learn this to be shock, and was in shock for three or four hours because the school didn't call emergency services, and my dad picked me up but didn't want to leave work for the day, so I waited on the lawn at his work in the sun with my arm in two pieces. It all seemed dreamy and surreal, and I don't really remember much of it. Finally at the hospital I was scheduled for surgery and put on an intravenous drip. It is that moment when my memory of the experience post-break becomes clearer—I remember my mother's nervous face and wondering why she was nervous, and if I should be as well. I remember being wheeled into the operating room and talking to the kind doctor as they asked me if I would prefer cherry or mountain-air flavored gas (I chose cherry), and the emerald colored mask they lowered over my face while asking me to count to ten, of which I remember reaching only four.
From the moment I got the IV drip until I blacked out from the anesthesia, as well as recovering in the hospital afterward (trying to play nintendo with a cast on a broken arm is abysmal) is one of the clearest memories of my life, yet I was only nine years old and even more momentous occasions from years later are not quite as clear in my memory. The other time I was hospitalized, in 9th-grade for out-patient broken knee surgery is about as fuzzy as the first time I learned to drive. Though I could have used one during driving class, and had one just before my 9th grade surgery, the reason my memory of my hospital stay in fourth grade is so clear is the saline IV drip.
Sodium has a very profound role in our physiology. It is highly conductive. When you are involved in any accident, emergency responders will immediately inject you with saline solutions of varying concentrations, because sodium can be used to stabilize and sustain traumatized tissue. Literally your general practitioner will tell you to eat a low-sodium diet to avoid heart attack, and when you do have a heart attack the hospital will flood your dying body with huge amounts of sodium to save your life. If there is any better illustration of the contradictions that exist within the medical establishment, I haven't heard it.
So why is it that we comsider low sodium foods and diets healthy? If low-sodium is supposed to be good for you, why do we crave it with such intensity? Why is it used in emergency situations to save our lives?
To summarize a very long and complicated history, salt received its malignant reputation a few decades ago, when doctors observed elevated sodium in the blood of hypertensive patients. With absolutely no research to support their claims, health professionals decided that excess salt in the blood was caused by high sodium diets, and so encouraged low sodium intake. A surge of advertising for low-sodium products cemented a harmful reputation for salt. If a person actually has a condition in which their blood shows elevated sodium, it is caused by hormones like aldosterone in disease conditions when the body needs to retain sodium in order to continue sustaining life, because it requires more of it, and not that the person has eaten too much. When my ex suffered his first attack of appendicitis, the hospital told us it was "gastroenteritis," and put him on an intravenous saline solution before sending us home. The sodium was so effective it completely relieved his pain and appendicitis symptoms for almost six months, until it finally returned and we found out the hard way that it was not in fact, gastroenteritis.
Evidence of life and health's requisite for sodium can be seen even in studies which claim the negative. For instance, one study claims a higher mortality rate in dialysis patients who ate higher levels of salt, but what the study actually shows is that the dialysis process, which removes sodium from the blood of those patients, shortened the life span of individuals whose sodium requirements were greater than the others. Many studies which assail sodium begin with the caveat "However, the evidence on which these assumptions are based is limited." Because there never was any actual evidence to begin with, and most actual clinical studies show positive outcomes from increased sodium intake, such as increased blood flow or longer life span, even when the authors attempt to draw negative conclusions.
Other researches bemoan the public's stubborn insistence to continue eating more sodium than the recommended guidelines. If the entire public was daily getting drunk on Whiskey I'd probably say they were nuts, but they're not, because the population as a whole tends to reflect natural biological processes rather than stubborn learned behavior. The instinct to eat salt is so profound that many birds and mammals travel for miles to ingest clay and earth deposits high in salts. Sodium isn't a carbohydrate or a fat, and we don't eat clay, so it doesn't make sense that humans would eat salt merely to indulge an hedonistic character trait. No, we crave sodium because it makes our bodies electrically virile.
SODIUM AND INSTITUTIONALIZED RACISM
A few months ago I met a woman suffering from a painful and serious edematous condition of her leg and ankle. She was by no means overweight or unhealthy by other appearances, yet her foot and calf were swollen to a grotesque two or three times their normal size. She took care to wrap and hide it, but when we were alone I was compelled to ask. She confessed that her doctors were unable to help, and been suffering with it for more than a year and tried all kinds of medications. Further inquiry revealed a severe bias against sodium, on account of her mother dying by heart attack many years ago. She claimed to not have added any salt to her own diet in twenty years, and now she was walking around (if you can call that walking), with a life-threatening condition. Her son, whom she presumably included in this extreme low-sodium diet, was currently dying of a pancreatic disease though only in his mid twenties. On more than a few times I have heard from friends and acquaintances who are black that they are supposed to avoid sodium, because they are black (and some other quack medical advice based on race). Every time when I've asked what color their doctor is, the answer is "white." Because many years ago when hypertension was first being studied, doctors found that blacks had a higher rate of it and some other cardiovascular diseases, and assuming without evidence that it was caused by a high-sodium intake, began advising people with black skin that they should lower their sodium intake. Major campaigns were undertaken to spread this information among black patients and communities. The problem is that a greater proportion of black (and hispanic) communities are poorer than their white counterparts, because of our country's history of institutionalized prejudice, and the function of having a higher rate of these kinds of diseases is a function of economic ability, not biology. Poorer communities can't afford very healthy food, and tend to have less access to the kinds of foods which improve or sustain health. Even though some aspects of this segregation have improved over the last few decades, these racially-based rather than economically-based ideas about health have persisted, to the detriment of anyone who needlessly adopts a low-sodium diet.
THE HEALTH BENEFITS OF SODIUM
Most of the health concerns to which we are subject are ultimately a deficiency of sodium. The body often compensates for reductions in other vitamins, sunshine, and hormones by releasing sodium. Often we have difficulty improving from these conditions because a chronic lack of sodium also persists. If a person wishes to improve their health they should first increase calorie intake and access to nutritious, whole food and then follow it with an increase in their sodium. Much hullabaloo is made about consuming enough water in any given day. But water has no inherent structural properties, so if you didn't contain sodium water would do disastrous things to your physiology. Water stays within us not because we are made of a quadrillion tiny water balloons but because minerals like sodium control, disperse, and move water throughout. Shortages of sodium disrupt the balance of water and energy production, and conditions from fatigue to preeclampsia are the result. One way in which sodium has helped me is with a symptom I suffered/suffer, probably in relation to my having had cancer, is a nightly painful stinging sensation in my legs and feet, which is immediately relieved on supplementing salt (in the form of a pickle or two), and does not occur if I've taken enough sodium during the day.
One serious health concern with salt is the anti-caking additives added by inferior brands like Morton. Do you know what yellow prussiate of soda is? Then why are you buying it and putting it into your body?
If you're like me, going about my day and minding my own business, I assume I've already gotten enough salt just in the food I've been eating. But I eat mostly whole food, many fruits, milk, meat, etc. Hardly any of it is processed and most of the places from which I buy my food are also victim of the low-salt mentality. When I measured my actual intake of sodium it barely hit 1.5 grams, and the daily recommended amount is 2.3 grams! When I increased my daily intake to 4 grams I experienced a more consistent and elevated body temperature, increased energy and a better mood, as well as fuller muscles and a vanishing of bloat. Fatigue, irritability, constipation, aches, low muscle tone, excess fat, and insomnia are all conditions among many that can be caused by a sodium deficiency. It's easy to acquire and difficult to notice. If you've ever dieted, you subjected your body to a severe sodium deficiency and may still not have recovered from it, especially if you've dieted frequently. Unless you instinctively crave salt no one pays attention to how much they are eating. But all these conditions can be relieved by increasing sodium consumption, even if they weren't caused by a deficiency of it. That's because sodium increases cellular metabolism, and the reason it is used in emergencies to save your life.
An easy experiment to see sodium's effect on your health can be done at home without any equipment. Take notice of your resting breath rate and body temperature. Maybe you feel fine, and breathing normal? Maybe you feel cold and your breaths are shallow and soft? Take some extra salt over an hour (too much at once will make you throw up, this isn't candy folks...). Notice how your body begins to warm up, feel your heart rate increase and your breathing become deeper. This is because salt has a direct and instant effect on increasing your metabolic rate, and it is this property by which health is improved by sustained levels of sodium. Some foods are naturally high in sodium, like some pickles and chicken broth, but it can be added to foods, especially if cooking, to easily meet the daily recommended value.
Healthy bodies are excellent at excreting excess salt, so getting too much isn't actually much of a worry, and a lot of diseases like hypothyroidism actually involve a loss of sodium from the body. Low sodium causes way more problems than high sodium. If you have some disease in which sodium is retained by the body, and thus increasing it in the blood stream, it means that your body desperately needs more sodium and is trying to hold it, not that you have some defect or take too much in your diet. By gently increasing the amount you take every day it will help improve whatever condition has triggered the retention of sodium, and the condition will improve. If you're an active athlete or an ill person you need to consume far more than the recommended daily amount, and taking active steps to do so will not only improve your quality of life, but will also extend your youth and lifespan, and you don't have to be in the emergency room to reap its benefits. More on nutritional health and how to support your body in its recovery from metabolic troubles, lose weight, and feel and look good is covered in my book Fuck Portion Control.