How Salt Affects Your Health

Salt and Your Health
Salt is essential not only to life, but to good health. Human blood contains 0.9% salt (sodium chloride) — the same concentration as found in a hospital grade sodium chloride irrigant, commonly used to cleanse wounds. Salt maintains the electrolyte balance inside- and outside of cells. Routine physical examinations measure blood sodium for clues to personal health.  Most of our salt comes from foods, some from water.
Doctors often recommend replacing water and salt lost in exercise and when working outside. Bushwalkers know the importance of salt tablets to combat hyperthermia.

Oral rehydration (ORT) involves replacing both water and salt.  It has been termed, by the British Medical Journal “the most important medical advance this (20th) century.” Expectant mothers are advised to get enough salt.  Increased salt intakes have been used successfully to combat Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Dramatic deficiencies (e.g. “salt starvation” in India) or “excessive” sodium intakes have been associated with other conditions and diseases, such as hypertension and stomach cancer. Testing the salinity of perspiration is a good test for cystic fibrosis; scientists suspect that cystic fibrosis is caused by a deformed protein that prevents chloride outside cells from attracting needed moisture.

The National Academy of Sciences of USA recommends that Americans consume a minimum of 500 mg/day of sodium to maintain good health. Individual needs, however, vary enormously based on their genetic make-up and the way they live their lives.  While individual requirements range widely, most Americans have no trouble reaching their minimum requirements.  Most consume “excess” sodium above and beyond that required for proper bodily function. The kidneys efficiently process this “excess” sodium in healthy people.

Experimental studies show that most humans tolerate a wide range of sodium intakes, from about 250 mg/day to over 30,000 mg/day.
The actual range is much narrower. Americans consume about 3,500 mg/day of sodium; men more, women less. The very large percentage of the population consumes 1,150- 5,750 mg/day which is termed the “hygienic safety range” of sodium intake by renowned Swedish hypertension expert Dr. Björn Folkow. These figures are similar for Australian population. Chloride is also essential to good health. Every substance, including water, can be toxic in certain concentrations and amounts; this is not a significant concern for dietary salt.

Salt and Cardiovascular Health
For 4,000 years, we have known that salt intakes can affect blood pressure through signals to the muscles of blood vessels trying to maintain blood pressure within a proper range.  We know that a minority of the population can lower blood pressure by restricting dietary salt. And we know that elevated blood pressure, “hypertension,” is a well-documented marker or “risk factor” for cardiovascular events like heart attacks and strokes, a “silent killer.”  Cardiovascular events are a major cause of “premature” death and cost Americans more than $300 billion every year in increased medical costs and lost productivity. Reducing blood pressure can reduce the risk of a heart attack or stroke – depending on how it’s done.
Some have suggested that since salt intakes are related to blood pressure, and since cardiovascular risks are also related to blood pressure, that, surely, salt intake levels are related to cardiovascular risk. This is the “salt hypothesis” or “sodium hypothesis.” Data are needed to confirm or reject hypotheses.

Blood pressure is a sign.  When it goes up (or down) it indicates an underlying health concern. Changes result from many variables, often still poorly-understood. High blood pressure is treated with pharmaceuticals and with lifestyle interventions such as diet and exercise.
The anti-hypertensive drugs are all approved by regulatory authorities such as the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration.
To be approved, these drugs must prove they work to lower blood pressure. Whether they also work to lower the incidence of heart attacks and strokes has not been the test to gain approval (it would take too long to develop new drugs), but the US, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute has invested heavily in such “health outcomes” studies.

Health Outcomes
The study funded by the US National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) set to compare the health outcomes of four classes of anti-hypertensive drugs, all of which had demonstrated their ability to reduce blood pressure in relative safety.  The idea is that blood pressure is only a “surrogate outcome,” and we should be more concerned with clinically meaningful endpoints. Dr. Jeffrey R. Cutler of the NHLBI has supervised the study and explains its importance: “Trials are based on the notion that different antihypertensive regimes, despite similar efficacy in lowering blood pressure, have other beneficial or harmful effects that modify their net effect on cardiovascular or all-cause morbidity and mortality.”

Lifestyle interventions are “antihypertensive regimes” too. For years, the same situation prompting the trial, applied to lifestyle interventions designed to improve blood pressure – they were untested regarding health outcomes.  Certain dietary and lifestyle interventions reduced blood pressure, at least in sensitive sub-populations. Whether they also reduced the incidence of heart attacks and strokes had never been tested.
Thus, until the 1990s, scientists had never tested the “salt hypothesis” by documenting whether reducing dietary salt actually reduces a person’s chances of having a heart attack or a stroke.  As in the drug “health outcomes” trials, this is now changing.  The results have vast public health policy implications. We should not be recommending that everyone change their diets without evidence of some overall health benefit.

Even documenting an association of, for example, low-sodium diets with reduced incidence of heart attacks would only be the first step. Association is not the same as causation.  Nevertheless, unless an association is established, we have no reason to think that a causal link is possible. Of the first eleven “health outcomes” studies of sodium reduction, only a single study has found an association in the general population between low-sodium diets and reduced incidence of cardiovascular events like stroke or heart attack. Several have identified health risks of low-salt diets.  Here’s what scientists have found:

1. A ten-year study of nearly 8,000 Hawaiian Japanese men concluded:  “No relation was found between salt intake and the incidence of stroke.” (1985)

2. An eight-year study of a New York City hypertensive population stratified for sodium intake levels found those on low-salt diets had more than four times as many heart attacks as those on normal-sodium diets – the exact opposite of what the “salt hypothesis” would have predicted. (1995)

3. An analysis by NHLBI’s Dr. Cutler of the first six years’ data from the MRFIT database documented no health outcomes benefits of lower-sodium diets.  (1997)

4. A ten-year follow-up study to the huge Scottish Heart Health Study found no improved health outcomes for those on low-salt diets. (1997)

5. An analysis of the health outcomes over twenty years from those in the massive US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES I) documented a 20% greater incidence of heart attacks among those on low-salt diets compared to normal-salt diets.  (1998)

6. A health outcomes study in Finland, reported to the American Heart Association that no health benefits could be identified and concluded “…our results do not support the recommendations for entire populations to reduce dietary sodium intake to prevent coronary heart disease.” (1998)

7. A further analysis of the MRFIT database, this time using fourteen years’ data, confirmed no improved health benefit from low-sodium diets.    Its author conceded that there is “no relationship observed between dietary sodium and mortality.” (1999)

8. A study of Americans found that less sodium-dense diets did reduce the cardiovascular mortality of one population sub-set, overweight men – the article reporting the findings did not explain why this obese group actually consumed less sodium than normal-weight individuals in the study. (1999)

9. A Finnish study reported an increase in cardiovascular events for obese men (but not women or normal-weight individuals of either gender) – the article, however, failed to adjust for potassium intake levels which many researchers consider a key associated variable. (2001)

10. In June 2003, Dutch researchers using a massive database in Rotterdam concluded that “variations in dietary sodium and potassium within the range commonly observed in Westernized societies have no material effect on the occurrence of cardiovascular events and mortality at old age.” (2003)

12. In July 2004, the first “outcomes” study identifying a population risk appeared in Stroke magazine.   Researchers found that in a Japanese population, “low” sodium intakes (about 20% above Americans’ average intake) had one-third the incidence of fatal strokes of those consuming twice as much sodium as Americans. (2004)

Controversy Continues
For many years, the intense public controversy that has characterized the public policy debate over public health nutrition recommendations on salt intake has focused on the wrong question. Medical experts, public health policy-makers – and the public, trying to sort out the issues reading the consumer press – have all focused on the relationship of sodium intake to blood pressure instead of the relevant question of whether changing intake levels of dietary sodium results in improved health outcomes. There is no evidence that reducing dietary sodium improves the risk for heart attacks or strokes for the general population. In 1999, the Canadian Hypertension Society, the Canadian Coalition for High Blood Pressure Prevention and Control, the Health Canada Laboratory Centre for Disease Control and the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada issued a joint statement opposing general recommendations for sodium reduction.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force Recommendations for a healthy diet, chapter 56 on “Counselling to Promote a Healthy Diet,” at page 634 states: “here is insufficient evidence that, for the general population, reducing dietary sodium intake or increasing dietary intake of iron, beta-carotene, or other antioxidants results in improved health outcomes (“C” recommendation); recommendations to reduce sodium intake may be made on other grounds, including potential beneficial effects on blood pressure in salt sensitive persons.”

The debate has confused the public.  Medical journalists from ABC-TV’s 20/20 to America’s pre-eminent scientific journal, Science, published by the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science, have investigated the source of this confusion. The report in Science, authored by Gary Taubes, concluded:

“After interviews with some 80 researchers, clinicians, and administrators around the world, it is safe to say that if ever there were a controversy over the interpretation of scientific data, this is it…. After decades of intensive research, the apparent benefits of avoiding salt have only diminished. This suggests either that the true benefit has now been revealed and is indeed small or that it is non-existent and researchers believing they have detected such benefits have been deluded by the confounding of other variables.”

The Salt Institute is confident that the higher standards of evidence-based medicine will reduce the ongoing controversy, better inform public policy and reduce consumer confusion.

Published by the Salt Institute, USA.

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