Once upon a time, salt was almost priceless. The most valued of all commodities, and having a good supply of salt was as close to life insurance as you could get. Sayings like "worth its weight in salt" remind us how important salt has always been. So all the modern-day phobias surrounding salt and sodium seems to present us with a paradox: how could something so vital to survival in one era be considered so dreadful in another?
Something doesn't add up, gents.
Pretty much like it happened with the low fat hysteria, the anti-sodium campaign actually began as a commercial move to sell different foods and snacks, under the guise of being healthier. As always, manufacturers care more about selling products than they do about scientific accuracy. Who would have guessed it?!
As soon as the low-sodium content advertisements were shown to create dividends, other food and supplement companies followed suit, to the point where consumers started to believe that low-sodium was good, and salt, in general, was the evil.
People failed to see that they had been internalizing advertising.
“We're consumers. We are by-products of a lifestyle obsession."
For decades, manufacturers have marketed their products by bombarding the public with what ingredients their brand either does or does not have to make their product sell better than the competition's. Like sheep, consumers followed along, buying the "low fat this" or "no sodium that" product, without asking themselves why. In regard to sodium intake, studies are coming in regularly refuting its bad reputation and negative impact on human health, performance, and physiology. Unfortunately peoples awareness does NOT grow at the same pace of scientific findings.
After thousands of years, human biochemistry and physiology haven't changed that much to be frank, so hasn't our bodies' need for electrolytes.
Actually, the metabolic needs of high-performance athletes probably most closely resembles the needs of our ancient forefathers, especially in regard to electrolyte ingestion.
A fair number of studies have concluded that unless one has a -specific and serious- condition that would preclude him from taking in salt, then salt intake will produce no negative health problems, and could actually be health promoting. As a matter of fact, only 10% of hypertension cases have a known cause, and in almost all of these cases, the cause is either genetic or stress related.
For all you short attention span types out there, here is the bottom line: high-performance athletes should not avoid sodium. They should, in fact, ensure that they get ADEQUATE amounts of sodium every day to prevent negative metabolic consequences, and to promote maximum performance.
Everyone else, keep reading.
Athletes eat a certain way mostly for the following reasons:
1) as a preventive measure to help stay free from illness
2) for fitness, to ensure optimum energy stores, recuperation, and restoration
3) for bodybuilders especially, to produce a cosmetic effect, i.e. a leaner, harder physique.
If you're an athlete concerned about maximizing your performance (you have no business being an athlete otherwise), you should know that a high-sodium diet fulfills all three of the above. In fact, many problems with athletic performance or sub-maximal athletic performance, even failure to improve, begin when athletes reduce or eliminate sodium from their diets. These ill effects can last for a long time.
While sodium is the primary focus of this article, no nutrient acts on the metabolism by itself. Any discussion on sodium is incomplete without mentioning potassium, and the hormone aldosterone.
As an electrolyte, sodium is the positively charged ion on the outside of the living cell. Electrolytes exist in an exact balance outside and inside cells, so that a shift in their balance will cause a change in order to maintain cell integrity. Simply put, sodium is responsible for regulating blood volume and blood pressure, although it serves other functions as well.
During a set of high-intensity muscle contraction, blood pressure rises. This is a primary response of high-intensity training. During high-performance exercise, the metabolism of the body is better served by a higher blood volume since this translates into better oxygen and nutrient delivery to working cells. Just as importantly, a higher blood volume results in a more efficient removal of metabolic waste toxins.
A low sodium intake translates into a lower blood volume, and over time this is disastrous to an athlete. Even in healthy people, low blood volume leads to a myriad of problems. A sustained low-sodium diet (and the resulting lower blood volume) is more health-threatening than the hypertension that the low-sodium diet is intended to fix!
In athletes, the effects are even more obvious and profound. In a low-sodium situation, the resulting low blood volume delivers less oxygen and nutrients to working muscles, and also allows for greater accumulation of metabolic waste toxins that might not otherwise occur with a normal or higher blood volume. This results in reduced recuperation and overall weakness. It's the last thing a hard-training athlete wants, but it's what happens when you eliminate crucial electrolytes from your diet.
A low-sodium diet makes the situation even worse in regard to optimum electrolyte metabolism, because potassium is dependent on sodium to be effective for a number of reasons. Potassium's primary responsibilities are the regulation and control of skeletal and cardiac muscles. The vagus nerve, which controls heartbeat, is totally dependent on potassium.
Potassium is the positively charged ion inside of the cell. While its independent functions in the control of muscles have been pointed out, potassium itself is dependent on sodium to maintain cell integrity: the exact balance inside and outside cell walls.
How does potassium get into the muscle cell in the first place? Sodium delivers it! The cell wall is partially permeable to sodium. It takes three molecules of sodium to get one molecule of potassium inside the cell, through a process called "active transport." Potassium simply can't get into the cell without sodium. Therefore, for optimum cell integrity and optimum potassium delivery, there must be ample sodium present.
Also, since the active transport of potassium inside the cell by sodium is metabolically expensive, the activity of sodium-potassium pumps can be adjusted in order to regulate resting caloric expenditure and basal metabolic rate (BMR).
It follows, then, that in a prolonged low-sodium situation, the body may lower BMR in order to control this metabolically expensive function. This spells disaster for the dieting bodybuilder or competing athlete who wants his BMR as high as possible, not lowered by a body compensating for costs it cannot afford to incur.
Even more importantly in this metabolic circumstance is that cell integrity is jeopardized and less potassium can be delivered less often to the cell. This is disastrous for any serious athlete. Obviously, it's the most negative electrolyte situation for a bodybuilder to be in.
This is how a body could get into such a state of disarray. The primary avenue for the loss of sodium is through sweat glands. No one sweats as much as high-performance athletes and bodybuilders.
The combination of high-intensity training, interval cardio activity and persistent tanning produces an exorbitant loss of sodium through the skin. Combine this with a nearly fanatical effort by bodybuilders and other athletes to exclude sodium from their diets, and you can see how a bad situation can become chronic.
In a context of emergency situation, the body can only maintain some kind of cell integrity by sending potassium outside the cell to replace the sodium that should be there. The metabolic consequence is weakened cell integrity. Potassium leaving the cell leads to muscle weakness, cramps, listlessness, and lethargy.
Note that it's not the low-calorie diets that produce these physical and psychological symptoms – it's due to a prolonged lack of sodium intake. The problem can be understood better by discussing the hormone aldosterone. We can also understand why sodium undeservedly gets a bad rap, and how to remedy the situation.
Aldosterone enters the race
In a normal metabolic environment, electrolyte balance is delicately maintained by urinary output. The kidneys regulate the concentration of plasma electrolytes of sodium, potassium, and calcium by matching almost exactly the amounts ingested to the amounts excreted. The final amounts of sodium and potassium excreted in the urine are regulated by the needs of the body. Simple, isn't it?
Athletes get into trouble when they eliminate sodium from their diet, because their bodies are regularly losing so much of it through sweat and cellular activity. This produces the negative stress response: the release of the hormone aldosterone. Normally, people have low levels of circulating aldosterone. It's a hormone released in response to metabolic or physiological stress.
The release of aldosterone serves several functions. The main effect of its secretion is a reabsorption of sodium through the kidneys. Thus sodium that normally would have left the body is retained because of the intervention of this hormone.
Normal individuals can excrete 30 grams (that's right, 30,000 milligrams) of sodium a day when aldosterone isn't present. This is an average person, not a hard-training athlete. When aldosterone is present, alive and kicking there's no sodium in the urine at all.
Most importantly, water always follows sodium. Therefore, the more sodium excreted, the more water leaves the body. But since, in the presence of aldosterone, sodium is reabsorbed and kept in the body, and water follows sodium, water too isn't excreted. The neat result is... water retention.
There's even another side to the aldosterone hormonal response, which can also spell disaster for an athlete. Not only does aldosterone cause reabsorption of sodium, but because of this, aldosterone secretion also causes a pronounced excretion of plasma potassium. EN PLEIN!
Again, in the absence of aldosterone virtually no potassium is excreted in the urine. When aldosterone secretion is maximal, however, there's up to 50 times more potassium excreted than what is initially filtered by the kidneys.
First, sodium is reabsorbed. Second, because water follows sodium, there's water retention, which in turn creates an osmotic imbalance. Third, because aldosterone also produces pronounced potassium excretion, the result is further muscular weakness, cramping, performance infringement, and a very flat, tired-looking physique.
This total misunderstanding of electrolyte function has led to ridiculous myths and misapplications of proper nutrition in the athletic and bodybuilding communities. One of the most bizarre and dangerous is the practice of taking a boatload of supplemental potassium just before a show. Add a potassium-sparing diuretic and enjoy your trip to the E.R.
If you're lucky.
There are two problems with potassium supplementation. First, it's impossible to load potassium inside a cell: cell equilibrium is always maintained in exact ratios. If a certain amount of potassium enters a cell, the identical amount must leave. Period.
The second problem is that an excess of potassium IN THE BLOOD (again within the cell this just ain't going to happen) triggers aldosterone secretion, which leads us back to all of the negative metabolic conditions associated with aldosterone, mentioned above. It's a vicious cycle, which can easily be broken.
Estimating your sodium needs is relatively easy. The rule of thumb is two grams of sodium for each liter of water replacement. Since most athletes are under-hydrated, water needs should also be assessed as well.
200-pound athletes should be drinking a minimum of three to four liters, and athletes over 225 pounds should drink a minimum of four to six liters.
At two grams per liter of fluid replacement, it's obvious that most athletes do not take in nearly enough sodium. For example, a 225-pound athlete would need to ingest between eight and twelve grams of sodium daily. That's right, 8,000 to 12,000 mg a day, gentlemen.
An easy and tasty way to ensure ample sodium intake is through the use of salty condiments. Sea salt, ketchup, mustard, barbecue sauce, etc. are smart choices to ensure ample amounts of sodium. Your dishes will also be a lil' less sad.
However, beware of monosodium glutamate (MSG). Although it's high in sodium, MSG had been shown to be a negative partitioning agent, which means that it may channel nutrients toward fat storage, whether the nutrients contain fat or not. Ingesting MSG can also trigger a catabolic response. It's literally poison, avoid like the plague!
Another easy and pleasant way to ensure adequate sodium intake is by eating pickles on a daily basis. Pickles are extremely low in calories and particularly rich in sodium, so chopping them up into your food makes good sense, as does eating them as a snack.
Ordinary salted water-pack tuna is a lot cheaper and easier to find than the stupid reduced-sodium tuna. It also tastes better, and is another good source of sodium. While we're on the subject, let me say that bodybuilders have got to get over this "suffering" dogma when it comes to diet. You are allowed to eat food that tastes good, and eating good-tasting food will make it much easier to stay on a prolonged diet.
Remember that we're talking about sodium, and not table salt. Table salt is sodium chloride (NaCl; about 40% sodium, and 60% chloride), and many brands of table salt also contain added iodine. This can cause problems for some people's metabolisms, and of course sodium ends up taking the blame. Avoid the issue and use sea salt instead.
Eating foods preserved with sodium phosphate is also useful, if you can find them. Or remember to read the label. Sodium phosphate is one of the best intracellular buffers around, far better than the overhyped Beta-Alanine, fighting the exercise-induced metabolic acidosis that training can cause. Taking in 3-4 grams of sodium phosphate can increase both aerobic and anaerobic performance.
Athletes who have been trying to avoid sodium for prolonged periods of time and who switch to this high-sodium approach will experience a temporary osmotic imbalance resulting in water retention. This initial effect is only the body's attempt to hold on to the sodium so rarely given to it. No worries, it's temporary, and will completely and rapidly dissipate as long as sodium and water intake remain high. The athlete will then notice a higher volume of urinary output, more sweating, the appearance of a leaner, harder physique, and MUCH more pumped and full muscles in the gym.
If you have followed the scientific information in this article, then you understand the importance of sodium in your diet. You should never have to worry about "too much", because any excess will be promptly excreted. Increasing your sodium and water intake is an easy and effective way to significantly improve performance, and contribute to the cosmetic appearance of the physique at the same time.
I regularly see great physiques of figure competitors and bodybuilders disappear in the last few weeks of contest prep. Why? The simple but faulty combination of low carbs and low sodium. True, restricting carbohydrate will induce diuresis, but that water will also come from inside the muscles, where it should be staying. This displacement causes potassium to also leave muscle.
Combine this with the effects of low to no sodium in the diet, and instead of a polished and properly peaked physique, you have a disaster. No amount of carb and/or fat loading can bring a physique back once this happens. That's why so many people report looking better several days after competing. Sounds familiar?
P.s.: Very brief note about Sodium Loading
If you've followed this article, then you know that changing one thing can set off a whole series of unintended consequences. Don't ruin months of enormous efforts playing this silly game.
Always get ample amounts of sodium in the diet, with proper hydration as well. Never cut sodium, never load it, just get lots of it.
I sal(T)ute you.