A salt-free diet probably seems crazy to a lot of people, but it’s been the standard for much of my adult life.
From 2007 till late 2014, I essentially ate no salt at all, except for a few accidental ingestions. My diet of fruits and veggies tasted just fine without it, and I didn’t miss it.
Why give up salt? The evidence in support of a salt-free diet is considerable, and I’ve reviewed it in this video series. But basically, your risk of a stroke, heart attack, and several other diseases is considerably lower if you have unusually low blood pressure levels, which are rarely achieved with salt in the diet.
But over the years, many of my coaching clients have struggled to give up salt. When some of them haven’t been able to kick the habit, I’ve suggested a compromise – eat a quarter of a teaspoon of salt on your evening salad every night.
Why? Well I’d rather have them eating a healthy diet with a bit of salt than have them periodically run off to binge on unhealthy salty food.
The quarter-teaspoon quantity wasn’t random – patients who’ve had a heart attack are often advised to stick to this amount to minimize their risk, and many doctors consider it a safe intake level.
My Year Of Saltiness
If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m a curious person, and never really content to just do what’s always worked if there are alternatives to examine.
I found myself wanting answers to the following questions:
- What are the long term and short term blood pressure ramifications of adding a small amount (far smaller than the average American) of salt to my diet?
- Does adding salt improve sleep quality?
- How will endurance athletics be affected by the addition of salt? What about cycling my salt intake?
- Will it be harder than I remember to give up salt at the end of the trial?
So I decided to eat salt for a year and see what the results would be. I bought a high-quality electronic blood pressure monitor, tested myself multiple times a day under different conditions, and started taking copious notes. Then, right before I was ready to tell you guys how it had all gone, I got caught in a flash flood in the fall of 2015, and besides coming closer to death than I’ve ever been before, I lost most of my worldly possessions, including all my blood pressure data.
For a number of months I kept telling myself I’d start collecting data all over again, but frankly, testing my blood pressure so frequently had gotten old, and I just don’t have the interest to do it for another year.
So instead of giving you cool graphs and facts about how my blood pressure adapted under different circumstances, such as exercise, rest, sleep, etc, I’m just going to hit the major points, because that’s all I can remember.
When you go to a doctor and get your blood pressure tested, your results will be fit into one of a few neat categories. These categories are:
Under the standard model, ideal blood pressure (the “desired” category) isn’t the only acceptable category. Most doctors aren’t very concerned about prehypertension. It’s kind of considered a non-dangerous extension of desired. It’s not until you hit 140/90 that the average doctor will be concerned.
But here’s the thing – the available data indicates that this is dangerous territory. Every well-conducted meta analysis to examine the issue has found that being prehypertensive is dangerous. This one 1 found lowering blood pressure continued to improve mortality risk all the way down to at least 115/75. Lower may be better, but there’s not enough data to say.
Among people with no previous vascular disease recorded, the usual blood pressure is positively related to the risks of death from vascular disease not only among individuals who might be considered hypertensive, but also among those who would usually be considered normotensive (at least down to usual blood pressure levels of 115/75 mm Hg). Moreover, throughout this range, lower blood pressure is also associated with a slightly lower overall risk of death from non-vascular causes…
This means that even the upper range of “desired,” and all of prehypertensive, is still more dangerous than lower blood pressure readings.
Virtually no one in the developed world over the age 35 manages to get their blood pressure below 115/75 while they’re eating salt. During the years I was avoiding salt, my blood pressure ranged between 90 and 110 systolic and 60-70 diastolic, which is basically put me in the lowest risk category. So what happened during my year of salt eating?
During the first week of the experiment, with only a quarter of teaspoon of salt added to my evening salad, I recorded blood pressure as high as 150/95, which is actually very concerning.
However, sodium regulation is dependent on a hormone called aldosterone. If you don’t eat salt, your body produces more of it to keep more of the natural sodium found in your foods on hand to safeguard osmotic pressure and critical health functions.
The body takes awhile to adjust to different salt intake levels, and after the first week my aldosterone levels dropped (allowing more sodium excretion), and my blood pressure came down to the far more “reasonable” 120-140 systolic over 80-95 diastolic, which still left me squarely in the increased-risk-of-death category.
I wondered if I’d see further declines over time, but this didn’t occur. Keep in mind that I exercise and eat an extremely healthy diet of fruits and vegetables, which research has shown lowers blood pressure.
Now humans can be divided into salt responders and non responders. Some people see a far large increase in blood pressure from eating salt than others. The only way to know which type you are is to test your blood pressure. If you’re consistently above 115/75 while eating salt, you probably shouldn’t be eating it.
Sleep On A No-Salt Diet
We have evidence a small amount of evidence that a low sodium diet may impair sleep patterns 2, so I was eager to see if I’d notice my sleep improving when I added salt.
When I first started the experiment I did think I could have been sleeping slightly deeper, but I’m inclined to think it was only the placebo effect, since my sleep patterns haven’t worsened after more than a month without salt.
It’s worth noting, though, that the study put people on diets with only 500 mg of sodium per day, and my usual diet supplies 600 to 800 mg, depending on activity level.
When endurance athletes cut all salt out of their diet, they often complain that they’re having trouble performing, perhaps because they sweat out so much sodium.
These days my exercise revolves around partner acrobatics and strength training, but for many years I average 6-8 miles of running per day. I’ve run several marathons, and once ran 32 miles in a single go. I’m no ultra runner and far from an elite endurance athlete, but I have a bit of experience.
During the years I was eating a no-salt diet, I didn’t notice that my performance was impaired. But I was curious to see what cycling in and out of salt consumption would do to my performance, and made an effort to return to running to see if it would make a difference.
I found that in the first week eating salt, I was sweating so much salt out that it was blinding me during my runs and stinging my eyes. After about a week it didn’t seem to be happening anymore (as aldosterone levels adjusted), but when I tried upping my consumption to a teaspoon and a half at one point, it became a perpetual problem that didn’t go away until I cut back.
Once I cut out the salt at the end of my experiment I found that my athletic performance tanked for about a week as my aldosterone level adjusted. It was harder to concentrate and think clearly in general and I sometimes felt like I was dragging my body around during exercise at about 80% of its normal performance level.
But by the time three weeks had gone by my body had adjusted and I was back to normal performance levels.
The Taste Of Salt After A Salt-Free Diet
Many people say they miss salt after giving it up, but I can’t say giving it up again was a big hardship.
Yes – it tasted good. Salt is the flavor atomic bomb for even the most bland foods. But while you lose that intense taste if you give up salt, you also gain an increased range of taste sensation. It’s fascinating to be able to taste the full nuances of flavor that my foods have. I’d almost forgotten about some of the more subtle ones.
So over all I’d say it’s not a big deal, and I expect no problems staying away from salt.
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Prospective Studies Collaboration. Age-specific relevance of usual blood pressure to vascular mortality: a meta-analysis of individual data for one million adults in 61 prospective studies. The Lancet. Vol 360. Dec. 14, 2002.↩
Vitello, MV. Et al. Sodium-restricted diet increases nighttime plasma norepinephrine and impairs sleep patterns in man. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1983 Mar;56(3):553-6.↩