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June 5, 2015
By Joseph Strongoli, Contributing Columnist
We all crave salty foods. It’s human nature—we evolved to crave the
things that our body needs to function properly. Sodium isn’t all bad
either; in fact it is essential to human health. The water levels in your
blood have a sensitive range, and salt helps to control this and the
balance of other bodily fluids through salt intake and excretion.
Salt is also vital for growth and reproduction. According to a 2008
study by Dr. Geerling et al., at the Washington University School of
Medicine: “Without dietary salt, growth slows, reproduction fails, and
animals die prematurely. In humans sustained on sodium-free nutrient
infusions, bone mineralization ceases and growth stops in all tissues
except fat. Even short-term sodium deficiency in humans causes severe
muscle cramps, loss of appetite, nausea, fatigue and considerable
It is no surprise then that we have evolved a hard-wired behavioral
mechanism to ensure salt intake to maintain healthy sodium levels. But
this adaptive trait evolved in response to a highly different environment
than the one we live in today. We no longer face sodium deficiency, or
any food scarcity for that matter, as our ancestors once did. What
happens when you put an organism designed to reward substance-
seeking behavior during the scarcity of said substance, into an
environment with an over-abundance of that substance? The result is a
habitual overdosing on salt that leads to obesity, hypertension,
cardiovascular disease, and other dangerous consequences. Controlling
your cravings is the first step to taking back control of your eating
How Much Salt is Too Much?
The CDC recommends a daily intake of 2300 mg, with a minimum
adequate intake of 1500 mg. This is between ½ to 1 teaspoon of table
salt per day. What does the average American consume daily? Nearly
double the recommended amount: 3,436 mg. The CDC estimates that
about 2,700 mg of that daily amount, or 77% comes from the salt in
processed food. If your salt consumption is closer to the average
mark, you are at a higher risk for cardiovascular disease and
Stay away from processed foods and add less table salt to the foods
you eat. Try replacing salt with other spices to enhance the flavor of
your food, such as herbs like parsley, cilantro, dill, basil, or oregano.
Choose healthy fats such as the ones found in avocado, tahini, and
coconut. If your food seems bland, allspice, clove, cumin, ginger,
cayenne and chipotle pepper power can all add to and brighten the
Not all cravings are just the result of our evolved hardware though. If
you experience a gnawing, insatiable longing for salt, one that is
chronic, persistent, and excessive, you might be at risk for one of the
following seven conditions.
1. Adrenal Fatigue
Salt cravings can be a sign of poor-functioning adrenal glands. Your
adrenal glands are small, hormone-releasing organs nestled on top of
each kidney. They produce various hormones, including hormones that
maintain blood sugar control, suppress immune response, help the
body respond to stress, and sex hormones such as androgens in males
and estrogens in females. Particularly, the adrenal glands produce a
hormone called aldosterone, which regulates sodium and potassium
Adrenal fatigue occurs when your body is under chronic stress—
perpetual fight or flight arousal. Since your adrenal glands are a key
organ in helping the body to deal with stress, constant strain can lead
to the glands ‘burning out’ so to speak, and this leads to adrenal
Because the adrenal glands also regulate sodium balance in the body,
you may crave salt if you suffer from this condition. Other signs and
symptoms include fatigue, body aches, low blood pressure, and light-
headedness. If you are experiencing these symptoms along with salt
cravings, get your adrenal and cortisol levels checked.
2. Addison’s Disease
While Adrenal Fatigue results from constant stress and fight-or-flight
arousal draining your adrenal gland’s capacities, Addison’s Disease
results from actual physical damage to the adrenal glands. Such
damage can occur as a result of the immune system mistakenly
attacking the adrenal glands (autoimmune disorder); infections such as
tuberculosis, HIV, or fungal infections; a hemorrhage to the adrenal
glands; or tumors.
According to a 2013 study by Dr. I. Ross et al. at the University of Cape
Town in South Africa, 15% of patients with Addison’s suffered from
chronic and excessive salt cravings. The authors indicate that these
cravings are a sign of a deficiency in mineralocorticoids (such as
aldosterone) that regulate sodium and potassium balances. In fact, lab
tests showed that patients had increased potassium levels and
decreased sodium levels.
In effect, your body is sending out distress signals to replenish its
diminished salt levels by making you crave salt! Addison’s Disease must
be treated with hormone replacement therapy, usually for the rest of
the patient’s life.
3. Bartter Syndrome
This genetic condition affects the kidney’s abilty to re-absorb sodium in
the blood. Therefore, too much sodium is lost through urine. The body
responds by producing more and more aldosterone in an attempt to
regulate the sodium balance, but this just makes the kidneys remove
too much potassium from the body.
Just as in the case of Addison’s, your body tries to correct for the drop
in sodium by making you crave it. A 2013 report by Dr. B Wisse at the
University of Washington recommends treating this condition by eating
foods rich in potassium, sodium, and magnesium, and also by taking
dietary mineral supplements. In severe cases, certain medications may
also be needed to block the kidney’s ability to remove potassium from
4. Gitelman Syndrome
Gitelman Syndrome is a related but slightly different condition to
Bartter Syndrome. Like Bartter Syndrome, Gitelman Syndrome affects
the ability of the kidney to absorb certain minerals, and this causes the
kidney to ‘waste’ magnesium, sodium, potassium and chloride in urine
instead of reabsorping it back into the bloodstream.
While the results and the treatment are similar to Bartter Syndrome,
these two conditions differ in that they actually affect different parts of
the kidney and are the result of different genetic mutations.
If you are diagnosed with either of these conditions be sure to avoid
eating licorice, as it is a diuretic that causes potassium loss, further
exacerbating the symptoms.
5. Salt Addiction
Another reason for your gnawing salt cravings? You might be addicted!
The Salted Food Addiction Hypothesis proposes that overeating and
obesity conditions should be treated as symptoms of a drug addiction.
Except the drug in this case is actually a food that behaves like a drug
A 2009 study by Dr. JA Cocores et al. at the University of Florida
indicates that salted food behaves like an addictive substance that
stimulates opiate and dopamine receptors in the brain’s reward and
pleasure center, much moreso than it is just ‘tasty’.
The study further notes that salted food preference, urge, craving and
hunger may be manifestations of opiate withdrawal.
Both salted food and opiate withdrawal stimulate appetite, increase
calorie consumption, and augment the incidence of overeating, obesity,
and related illnesses. Thus obesity and related illnesses may actually be
symptoms of Salted Food Addiction! The fast food conspiracy theorists’
alarm bells are clanging.
6. Menstrual Cycle
If your salty cravings occur in a more or less periodic way, specifically a
couple times a month, your menstrual cycle might be behind them. A
1994 study by Dr. CA Frye et al., at Bates College found that women
craved salty foods more during the ovulation and menstrual bleeding
phases of their cycle. The study concluded that a change in hormones
might alter taste preferences.
7. Dehydration and Sodium Depletion
As seen in some of the above conditions, low levels of sodium can
cause your body to cry out for salty foods. But it isn’t just rare
conditions that can cause such a state. Excessive sweating during
exercise and drinking alcohol can dehydrate the body and diminish
electrolyte levels, including salt.
A 2007 study by Dr. E. Na et al., at the University of Iowa, found that
induced sodium depletion in rats led to increased sodium seeking
behavior and increased sodium ingestion. Furthermore, the results
indicated that repeated experience with sodium depletion and ingestion
affected both behavioral and neural responses to sodium, and had a
direct impact on neural substrates implicated in sodium appetite and
Make sure to replenish your sodium levels after vigorous exercise or a
night of hard drinking. Drinking just water can lead to further sodium
dilution and depletion in the body and cause a dangerous condition
called "hyponatremia", or low sodium concentration in the blood.
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