From the age of 17 to 25, I would get daily headaches. Usually they’d occur later in the day and would linger until waking up the next morning. They felt like a pressure headache with a slight throbbing pain that would become painful with movement such as exercise. Because of this, I got into the habit of exercising earlier in the day before the headaches would appear. But these headaches didn’t seem normal to me and most people I knew didn’t have daily headaches. So, I visited my doctor multiple times to troubleshoot this problem, but nothing really came from it. It seemed like daily headaches would be my new normal until I stumbled upon an obvious solution I should’ve recognized much sooner. Hydration.
What I found was that I was almost always dehydrated. I didn’t consume a ton of water and I exercised a fair amount which was the perfect recipe for dehydration. So, I started consuming tons of water. A cup of water immediately when I woke up, water with every meal, and more water whenever I felt like it. It was a lot of water, but the headaches seemed to disappear. But consuming this amount of water everyday was difficult to remember. Whether I got busy at work, was out of my routine on a weekend or just flat out forgot to drink, I would get dehydrated again and the headaches would reappear. And for the past three years, I always blamed my daily headaches on a lack of water. It made sense. The more water I consumed, the less headaches I’d have.
But more recently I’ve discovered what seems to be the root cause. Salt. I get a headache because I’m dehydrated. I’m dehydrated because I don’t drink enough water. But the reason I need so much water is because of the excessive amount of salt I’m consuming. So, if I consume less salt, then my water requirement is lowered to a manageable and recommended level, and my daily headaches are eliminated! It only took me ten years to fully unwind this health mess. But it’s health messes like these that can be traced to the standard American diet.
Note: Salt is a compound made up of sodium and chloride. Sodium is the mineral that is detrimental to your health but in many cases, as with this article, I’m using salt and sodium interchangeably.
Current State of Sodium Consumption
Restaurants and food factories compete to produce the best tasting food. The better the food tastes, the more likely they are to retain customers and raving fans. But to make food taste so incredibly delicious and addictive, restaurants and food factories rely on three main ingredients. Sugar, fat and… salt. These ingredients make any food taste better than its original form. Salt for instance helps enhance flavors, boost sweetness, and eliminate bitterness making almost any food taste better. It also helps food absorb more water so that restaurants or factories can charge more for a heavier meal/food package. Salt is extremely cheap and helps preserve/extend food.
Because of these benefits, restaurants and food factories have continually increased the amount of salt they add to their meals, snacks, sides, and desserts. And since most of our diet is made up of restaurant and factory prepared food, our sodium intake has increased. In the 1970’s, Americans consumed just over 2,000 mg of sodium. This rose to ~3,000 mg in the 1980’s to ~3,500 mg in the 1990’s and nearly 4,000 mg today. This is roughly five times the amount of sodium that a person would consume if eating a whole foods plant-based diet that avoided added salt.
Negative Effects of Added Salt Consumption
But what’s so bad about consuming added sodium? A lot of things. Whole foods already contain natural sodium that make it nearly impossible to become sodium deficient when eating a whole foods plant-based diet. So, any added sodium consumed is more than the body needs to function properly. And when consuming more sodium than the body needs, we see several issues:
- Blood Pressure: First and foremost, blood pressure rises. There is a clear and strong correlation between sodium intake and blood pressure. The more sodium one consumes, the more their blood pressure is likely to rise. Our excessive salt consumption has caused 40% of Americans over the age of 25 to have high blood pressure. Up to 20% of additional people have undiagnosed high blood pressure or strong signs of developing high blood pressure in the near future. And everyone has a 90% chance of developing high blood pressure within their lifetime if they maintain the standard American diet.
- Heart Disease: High blood pressure is one of the main contributors to heart disease. Excess salt intake also promotes the thickening and stiffening of blood vessel walls which make it more difficult to regulate blood pressure. These factors drastically increase one’s risk of a heart attack or cardiovascular event.
- Stroke: High blood pressure is one of the main contributors to stroke too. 62% of strokes are caused because of high blood pressure. And any systolic blood pressure reading (the first number of a blood pressure reading) above 115 mm Hg increases one’s risk of stroke.
- Kidney Disease: Although high blood pressure is a main contributor to kidney disease too, high sodium intake alone can still cause kidney damage and decreased kidney function.
- Stomach Cancer: Salt intake is also the strongest indicator of stomach cancer.
If these highly correlated negative effects weren’t enough, the American Heart Association expands upon this to say that excess salt intake may also lead to an enlarged heart muscle, headaches, osteoporosis, kidney stones, puffiness, bloating, and weight gain. And there it is! After self-discovering what seems to be the reason for my daily headaches, I finally have research that backs it up. If only I knew about this information years ago when I too consumed the standard American diet.
Worse Contributors? Restaurant and Factory Food.
So, who are the worse contributors to our excess salt intake problem? Restaurants and factory food. By restaurants and factories trying to produce the most delicious and addictive food possible, they’ve jacked up the salt in their food. Around 77% of the daily salt we consume comes from these restaurants and factories (processed foods) with the worst food groups being bread, sandwiches, soup, meat, cheese, and eggs. Even foods from restaurants or factories that most people think are healthy, usually contain tons of salt. For example:
Anytime you’re getting a meal at a restaurant or food from a factory, it’s likely that they’ve included a large amount of sodium in their food for taste and preservation. It’s almost inevitable. This is why I believe the best way to avoid these salt traps are by cooking your own meals at home.
Salt Recommendation and Regaining Taste
On a typical 2,000 calorie whole foods plant-based diet, you can expect to consume between 500-800 mg of salt daily. These salts naturally occur within whole foods and are all one needs to live a healthy lifestyle. According to the American Heart Association, there is no reliable evidence that consuming too little salt is a risk for the general population. What this means is that there isn’t a need to add salt to any food you eat ever. You’ll be healthiest without it. And the main way to eat this healthy salt-free diet is by cooking. Whether cooking each meal individually or meal prepping in bulk, your kitchen can free you from this salt crisis.
But if you’re accustomed to eating the standard American diet then eating a meal without salt will feel shockingly tasteless. This is because our taste buds have become desensitized from our extremely high salt intake and we’re no longer able to taste the subtle flavors of real food. So, when you taste a salt-free meal it’ll taste quite bland at first. But, by following a whole foods plant-based diet that avoids added salt, studies have proven that you can regain taste bud sensitivity. Those salt-free foods will end up tasting normal again after following this diet for two-three months. And those salty meals you use to eat will taste nearly unpalatable with their high salt concentration.
Top 5 Salt Myths
- The more I sweat, the more I need to consume salt. You don’t lose a whole lot of sodium through sweat. For most people, in most cases, increasing your consumption of water on sweatier days will be enough according to the World Health Organization.
- Mineral salts are actually healthy though. Even the mineral salts with the highest concentration of minerals contain nearly 98% sodium and only 2% mineral. You’d be much better off getting your minerals through whole foods which have no negative side effects compared to salts.
- Salt intake only matters for the elderly or sick. Excess salt consumption over years and decades leads to high blood pressure and damage to blood vessels. This damage can be irreversible before its even detected. Although you’re more likely to have high blood pressure when you’re older, it’s likely caused by years of damage from high salt intake.
- I can tell this meal isn’t salty. If you’re accustomed to eating a high salt diet, it’s quite difficult to tell when a food is salty. Plus, salt can be mixed with many other ingredients that help mask the traditional salty taste making it difficult to tell from taste alone.
- My low blood pressure is caused by a lack of salt intake. Most of the time low blood pressure is caused from a nutrient deficiency, poor hydration, lack of exercise, and/or alcohol consumption. Although consuming added salt can raise low blood pressure, solving the root cause will have the desired effect without all the negative ones mentioned above.
After years and years of headaches, I determined that a lack of proper hydration was a factor. But the reason I was so dehydrated all the time was because of my excessive intake of salt. Consuming the standard American diet made up of mostly restaurant and factory food meant that I was consuming around 4,000 mg of salt daily which is five times more than the body needs. Not only was this the root cause of my headaches but continuing this diet likely would’ve led me to high blood pressure and put me at risk for a number of diseases. This is why I now follow and recommend a whole foods plant-based diet that avoids added salt. This is the proven diet that prevents high blood pressure and chronic disease. And it all starts with cooking healthy whole foods plant-based meals in your kitchen.
Would you like a complimentary salt-free recipe to start your health journey?
Hey, I am Brandon Zerbe
Welcome to myHealthSciences! My goal has always been to increase quality-of-life with healthy habits that are sustainable, efficient, and effective. I do this by covering topics like Fitness, Nutrition, Sleep, Cognitive Health, Financial Independence and Minimalism. You can read more about me here.
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