by Mike Steck
In my previous nutrition post, I talked about the importance of maintaining consistent, adequate water intake. However, I did not address how sweating affects our hydration needs. As it turns out, when we sweat, we lose more than just water. We lose critical nutrients called electrolytes. One of these electrolytes is vastly more important than the others, critical to numerous metabolic processes. It also happens to be a nutrient that most people know little more about other than if they consume too much of it, it is bad for them. But even that widely accepted notion needs more explanation. The nutrient of which I speak is the positively charged ion known as sodium.
Sodium resides primarily in the body’s extracellular fluid, which is the fluid that surrounds all of our cells. One of its primary functions is to help potassium regulate the body’s fluid balance. Without it, our blood pressure would plummet, sending us into shock, eventually resulting in death. If we take in more than the body needs, our blood pressure can rise. Chronic hypertension, as you may have heard, is considered a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke, two of our nation’s leading killers. But sodium doesn’t just affect our blood pressure, it is also involved in nerve conduction, muscle contraction, and the lactate buffer, among many other things. But the three I mention are all especially important during exercise.
One thing pretty much everyone has come to believe about sodium is that if we consume too much of it, we are setting ourselves up for a high blood pressure problem. But it’s not quite as simple as limiting sodium intake. As I will explain, other factors come into play. An inactive body needs a minimal half a gram of sodium to function normally, but most of the generally sedentary population in the U.S. regularly consumes 4-6 grams of sodium daily. Highly active individuals require more sodium. So how much should you take in? Allow me to share with you five salty facts that may help you answer that question.
Most of us get the majority of our sodium from processed foods. This is not conducive to good health. Processed foods like commercial breads, snacks, deli meats and yes – sports and protein bars – are loaded with substances our bodies simply are not wired to assimilate. This includes processed sodium, which I will address below. Sodium from processed food sources is harmful to our health. We’ve been told for decades that things like salt and fat are the culprits behind our nation’s slew of health problems, but it is much more likely that these issues are due to our diet of processed foods that have been so far removed from nature that our bodies simply can’t handle the onslaught of synthetic agents.
2. Not all salt is created equal.
In recent years, we have seen a rise in popularity of sea salt as a healthy alternative to “table salt.” But is it actually healthier? And if so, what makes it healthier? As it turns out, like many food choices, picking healthy salt is a matter of, once again, processed versus unprocessed. That salt shaker on your kitchen table, full of finely granulated crystals, would be an example of processed salt. It is composed almost entirely of sodium chloride, and what’s left are man-made chemicals that do your body no good. Sea salt, on the other hand, is an example of unprocessed salt. It is considerably lower in sodium chloride, free of harmful chemicals and actually contains minerals that are beneficial to health. But some big companies sell processed salt that they market as real sea salt. So shop wisely. I personally use pink Himalayan sea salt.
3. Most whole foods naturally contain sodium.
Palatability aside, from a purely health perspective, there really is no need to be dousing everything we eat in salt. Almost every natural food that exists has naturally occurring sodium. Seafood, meat, poultry, and vegetables all contain sodium, but in relatively small amounts. This sodium is produced by nature, not processed by man, and thus is better for our health. So we can meet our sodium requirements simply by sticking to a diet of whole foods – the kind that enter our bodies in the same form that they were created in by nature.
4. Upping your potassium intake may be more important than cutting sodium.
Sodium and potassium work together to maintain the fluid balance between the inside and outside of our cells, so it would make sense that if we consumed more of one without also increasing our consumption of the other, then problems might arise. And that happens to be the case. It turns out that hypertension may not be caused by high sodium intake alone, but rather because we aren’t consuming enough potassium. Potassium can offset the negative effects of high sodium intake, so eating more foods that are rich in potassium may be just what nature ordered to keep hypertension at bay. And it just so happens that pink Himalayan sea salt naturally contains potassium, another reason to swap that for the typical salt shaker.
5. The more you sweat, the more sodium you need.
If you are a highly active individual, you will need more sodium due to the simple fact that you sweat a lot. More sodium is lost in sweat than any other electrolyte, so during these hot summer months, paying attention to your sodium intake might be a good idea. Low sodium levels can result in muscle cramps, nausea, and dizziness during exercise. In an ideal world, one would remedy this problem the old-fashioned way – by dissolving salt in water and drinking it. But I get it. Nobody finds that appealing. So this is where drinking something other than pure water can be beneficial. Enter sports drinks. If you tend to cramp up or get light-headed during intense workouts, bringing along a bottle of Gatorade to your next sweat session may be good idea.
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