When fitness professionals discuss the topic of salt, certain other words naturally come to mind: hypertension, water retention, stroke, heart disease, and kidney disease are a few.
Today’s diet of fast, processed, pre-packaged food has indeed added to the total amount of salt in the American diet. That’s a problem. But for individuals who eat fresh meals of mostly whole foods, who train often and hard, is further reducing their salt intake the right thing to do? Let’s look at how salt impacts your workout and just how much you need to find the right balance.
What Exactly is Salt?
To help paint a clearer picture, it is important to know exactly what this thing called “salt” is. Salt is a crystallized compound that is abundant in nature. This naturally occurring mineral is composed of 40% sodium and 60% chloride. These are two substances necessary for the proper functioning of the human body. Salt has long been used to make to bring out the flavor in ingredients and to preserve foods prolonging shelf life. But what happens in the body when we eat salt?
Salt at Work in Your Body
You may have experienced some of the following symptoms:
- Dry Mouth
- Decreased Performance
- Cognitive Issues/Confusion
- Muscle Cramps
- Heat-Related Illness
- Lack of Muscle Fullness
- Lack of Muscle Pumps
- Low Urinary Volume
- Higher Rates of Sweat
All of these are symptoms of hyponatremia. This condition sets in when the body holds on to too much water. This dilutes the amount of sodium in the blood, which in effect results in sodium levels that are abnormally low. Low sodium levels can affect the proper functioning of muscles and nerves and can even dangerously lower blood pressure. All of these can cause potentially serious health issues.
5 Reasons Why You Need the Right Amount of Salt
Click to view or print the full infographic on the 5 reasons why you need the right amount of salt. Consuming adequate salt is important for the complete functioning of your body, but ensuring you have enough salt in your diet will also impact your workouts.
Here are five ways that having proper salt intake will benefit your training:
1. Sodium Regulates Blood Volume
Whether you’re working out in the gym or on a sports field, performing at high intensity requires the body to use both oxygen and carbohydrates as fuel sources. This means that the two will need to circulate through the bloodstream, both quickly and in large amounts. Only when sodium levels are balanced, can blood circulate adequate amounts of nutrients quickly. Sodium enables a higher blood volume response, creating better nutrient and oxygen delivery to muscle cells. Research studies have proven this.
A research study conducted at the University of Otago, New Zealand found that Sodium loading aids in fluid balance and reduces the physiological strain of trained men exercising in the heat. Researchers put eight highly trained runners through a VO2 max double-blind study where runners ingested a high or low sodium beverage before running to exhaustion at 70% of their max, across a three-week span.
Results showed that those who consumed a high salt beverage before exercise increased their blood plasma volume by 4.5% before exercise, allowing them to exercise for 46 minutes longer than those who did not ingest sodium prior. These trained athletes were able to increase their total exercise capacity even in warm weather conditions.
2. Salt Removes Toxins
During training, our muscles get filled with various acids, toxins, and substrates that can cause fatigue, reduced oxygen uptake, and decrease our ability to recover, both during and after exercise. Adequate levels of sodium run the body’s natural detoxification process. Sodium balances systemic pH and excretes these waste products, resulting in a longer, more sustained performance and increased recovery.
3. Sodium is the Nutrient Driver
Whether you’re an athlete or fitness enthusiast, most of us know that our body’s main source of energy stems from our carbohydrate consumption and that water, paired with electrolytes, is needed to hydrate the body.
The body is unable to use these key nutrients properly without a way of getting into the muscle cells and tissues. This is where sodium plays a key role. Sodium’s ability to regulate blood volume increases these nutrient absorption rates, which provides the body with the fuel it needs to continuously perform at a fully hydrated level.
4. Salt Balances Blood Sugar
When salt enters the body, it is absorbed into the circulatory system and activates the movement of water from the cells to the blood by osmotic pressure. Osmotic pressure is the force that pushes water out of the cells where it can then be circulated throughout the body. This helps to improve blood volume, a number of red blood cells and plasma found within our circulatory system. When sodium pushes osmotic pressure, it drives the kidneys to flush out excess sugar in the blood. Through the stabilization of blood sugar levels, you get a whole host of benefits: a better night’s rest promoting improvements in recovery, overall higher energy levels, better cognitive functioning, higher fat oxidation levels, and higher metabolic functioning.
5. Salt Improves Hydration
Adding salt to a drink stimulates carbohydrate absorption, which enhances water uptake. Every gram of carbohydrates consumed comes with 2.7 grams of water. So, when salt drives carbohydrates into the muscle tissue, it brings water along. The water pulled into muscle cells acts as a lubricant, which helps them function better. In addition to pulling water into the muscle cells, sodium also aids in keeping fluid balance within cells, along with potassium and magnesium. These nutrients help to transmit nerve impulses throughout the body, allowing muscles to contract and relax.
Sodium ingestion during or following endurance exercise stimulates thirst, which makes you turn to your water bottle more often. More consumption of water prompts recovery in two ways: rehydrating the body and increasing urine output, which in turn flushes the body of toxins that have accumulated during the workout.
A recent study examined the effectiveness of sodium-containing sports drinks in preventing hyponatremia and muscle cramps during prolonged exercise in the heat. The results concluded that sodium intake during prolonged exercise in the heat does play a significant role in preventing sodium losses that may lead to hyponatremia when fluid intake matches sweat losses.
How to Safely Get the Benefits of Salt
High Potassium Food (all measurements in mg per one cup serving): Potatoes – 925.55, Bananas – 422.44, Dark leafy greens – 1308.96, Spinach – 838.80, Tomatoes – 426.60, Oranges – 237.11
If you’re looking to take control of your salt consumption, here are a few quick tips to help control sodium and make sure you are consuming enough to optimize your training:
Cut down on processed food. Junk food contains a lot of salt typically, but also other things that you don’t need in your diet. Many processed food contains salt because, without it, it can be completely inedible and tasteless. For example, a can of refried beans has 1,989 mg of sodium. Therefore it is critically important to tally up the total sodium you are consuming in a day. While the FDA does not regulate sodium levels in U.S. Food Supply, they recommend that individuals consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day and that certain groups limit intake to 1,500 mg per day.
Increase the amount of potassium in your diet. Sodium and potassium work together to help regulate blood pressure, but the problem for most people is consuming too much sodium and not enough potassium. A recent study found that consuming twice the amount of potassium in relation to sodium can reduce your risk of dying from heart disease by 50%.3
Here are some high-potassium foods:
- Dark Leafy Greens
Stay hydrated, always replenish your water and sodium intake before, during, and after exercise.
Use Celtic sea salt or pink Himalayan salt instead of table salt. Refined, white table salt that most people use has been processed to remove all minerals but sodium chloride. Less processed salts have important trace minerals and provide better overall nutrition.
References: [Thomas Munck and Paul Hovan Jr.]
About Thomas Munck and Paul Hovan Jr.
Thomas Munck is a certified physical education and school health teacher in Connecticut. He holds both his M.S in School Healthy, and a B.S. in Exercise Science from Southern Connecticut State University. Early on in life, he was heavy and lacked motivation physically, mentally, and emotionally. This made for some rough years growing up until he learned about the benefits of daily physical fitness and proper nutrition from his physical educator. From that moment on, the fire inside of him was ignited. This led him to his current profession, impacting the youth who will eventually change our world! In addition to teaching, Thomas has his own personal online nutritional guidance counseling service, where he strives to educate individuals on how to lead a healthy balanced lifestyle through proper nutrition, and physical fitness.
Paul Hovan Jr., BS, CPT, is an ISSA Specialist in fitness nutrition and the founder and President of Hov Hustle Fitness. Paul has written extensively on sports nutrition, exercise science, sport performance, metabolism, and meal planning. Paul has trained hundreds of clients from South Korea, UK, Canada, and all around the U.S. He is currently working on a degree in Nursing to help individuals who need the highest level of care.