The effect of salt on health (especially heart health) is confusing. For every study that suggests salt is unhealthy, another one suggests otherwise. Of course, too much sodium in your diet can have adverse effects. But eliminating too much salt from our diets may also prove problematic.
Let’s dig into the research on how salt impacts our health and sleep.
Is salt good for your health?
Salt is essential for the human body to function correctly and maintain the proper balance of water and minerals. However, eating too much or too little salt can harm health.
Reasons why salt is good for you:
Reasons why salt can be harmful:
- Excess sodium intake is a risk factor for hypertension, also known as high blood pressure.
- Hypertension increases the risk of kidney disease and cardiovascular diseases such as heart disease and stroke.
- Eating too much salt can cause bloating and thirst.
How much salt do we need?
Although there is some debate on this topic, the American Heart Association recommends 2,300mg of sodium intake per day or about one teaspoon. The average American consumes 3,400mg.
We can hit that sweet spot in our salt intake by considering the sodium in our diets. This includes factoring in our activity levels and ensuring we get enough salt from our diets. While our bodies need sodium, it’s better to avoid processed foods such as canned soups and processed or cured meats.
The importance of healthy salt consumption
As mentioned earlier, salt is essential for our bodies to function. Low-sodium diets are associated with higher triglycerides, cholesterol, and even higher blood pressure.
This might sound surprising. Here’s how it works:
When salt intake is cut dramatically, the body responds by releasing an enzyme and a hormone, renin, and aldosterone, that increase blood pressure. Similarly, cutting salt to low levels also triggers a release of adrenaline and noradrenaline. This reaction contributes to a 2.5% increase in cholesterol and a 7% increase in triglycerides.
And salt deprivation impacts more than just our cardiovascular system. Not consuming enough salt can also lead to digestion issues, headaches, muscle cramps, and brain fog. Sodium is connected to mental functions like memory and executive functioning. Which means sodium levels can impact the ability to manage tasks such as planning, goal execution, and impulse control.
When it comes to cognitive and athletic performance, Louisa Nicola, a neuroscientist and neurophysiologist, helped clarify this connection:
“When it comes to electrolytes, sodium seems to be the most important for brain health. Even mild decreases in sodium levels can cause cognitive complaints, and when we look at elite athletes, we see the average athlete loses 1 to 3 liters of sweat per hour. Sodium, chloride (salt), magnesium, potassium, and calcium primarily comprise sweat. The average loss of sodium per liter of sweat is about 200mg. A hydration protocol consisting of sodium and other forms of electrolytes during a game can increase the efficiency of their brain so the athlete can perform better.”
Because sodium is such an important factor in our hydration and has an independent effect on how well we think and plan, it’s crucial to monitor our sodium before, during, and after we are active.
Whether we are athletes or not, salt serves essential purposes for everyone in regulating our insulin, transporting neurotransmitters, promoting blood flow, and helping balance other minerals that help our bodies function, such as magnesium and calcium. We need to keep healthy and adequate levels of salt intake to support multiple systems.
Does salt impact sleep health?
Evidence connecting salt and sleep is starting to emerge. As we noted above, research has shown a relationship between low-sodium diets and increased adrenaline production. The adrenaline activates our stress response (a.k.a. fight or flight response/sympathetic nervous system) and is associated with fatigue and lower sleep quality.
Another study found that people with insomnia had lower sodium levels in their bloodstream, and this same group of patients had poorer health outcomes. Also, one interesting study found that restricted salt intake accelerated the process of decreased body temperature and lowered the metabolic rate of brown fat that can occur as we age. Lower metabolic rates of brown fat are a pathway to more inflammation and chronic pain, which can negatively impact sleep. When brown fat tissue metabolism is reversed or increased in rats, they have more slow wave sleep (SWS).
Although this link between sodium intake and sleep is less clear, these studies support that having properly balanced sodium levels in our bodies can indirectly promote sleep quality.
Salt can impact a night’s sleep in various ways, from supporting to hindering sleep. Here are some common connections between sleep and salt.
1. Sleep disturbances
Consuming a meal high in sodium at dinnertime can contribute to sleep disturbances, partly due to increased blood pressure and fluid retention]. One study found that salt delayed the time to go to bed, caused individuals multiple awakenings during the night, and disturbed about two to three hours of sleep.
2. Water retention
Excessive sodium intake can cause water retention, leading to bloating and swelling. This can also contribute to sleep disturbances.
3. Disturbed sleep patterns
A low-sodium diet has been associated with disturbed sleep patterns, including decreased REM sleep, deep sleep, and slow wave sleep, and increased wakefulness.
5. Circadian rhythm disruption
6. Balance of fluids
Drinking sea salt water, which contains minerals called electrolytes, can help keep the fluids in your body in balance, which can lead to better sleep quality.
Drinking salted water before bed
Drinking a glass of water with a pinch of salt (not a spoonful) before bed can be considered in certain situations, but it’s important to do so in moderation and with a clear purpose.
This practice is often suggested as a way to rehydrate and replenish electrolytes, especially after strenuous exercise or if you’ve lost fluids throughout the day. It’s generally considered a short-term add to a bedtime routine rather than a long-term solution for a good night’s sleep. Here are some things to consider before adding Himalayan salt or sea salt to your drinking water before bed:
- Hydration: Adding a pinch of salt to water can help your body retain fluids and maintain better hydration, especially if you’re feeling dehydrated.
- Electrolyte balance: The small amount of salt can help maintain electrolyte balance, which is important for proper muscle and nerve function.
- Restoring after exercise: If you’ve had an intense workout or engaged in physical activity that caused you to sweat a lot, a pinch of salt in water might help you recover some of the electrolytes lost.
- Specific health situations: In some medical conditions, like certain cases of low blood pressure (hypotension) or dehydration, a small amount of salt in water might be recommended by a healthcare professional.
- Moderation: It’s important not to overdo it. Just a pinch of salt is sufficient, as consuming too much salt can have negative health effects.
Drinking salted water before bed might not be necessary for most people on a regular basis. Instead of making this a nightly routine, consider focusing on maintaining proper hydration throughout the day and getting essential nutrients from a balanced diet.
As always, if you have any specific health concerns or conditions, it’s best to consult with a healthcare professional before making any significant changes to your diet or fluid intake, including drinking salted water before bed.
Balancing salt for better health
It’s clear that too little or too much salt can negatively impact our overall health and sleep. Our bodies love moderation, balance, and consistency in our salt intake and sleep (and everything, really)!
When it comes to salt before bed, consuming too much salt can negatively impact sleep quality and lead to sleep disturbances. It is important to be mindful of your salt intake throughout the day and to choose fresh, unprocessed foods that are naturally low in sodium. Additionally, it is recommended to avoid consuming a meal that’s high in sodium at dinnertime to avoid the negative effects on sleep.