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March 14, 2009 / Tony

Salt News

Good news for ye salty addicts out there:  a recent study by the University of Iowa, as reported in this article (h/t Instapundit), salt acts as an anti-depressant of sorts.  In the study, researchers fed rats a diet with deficient amounts of sodium chloride.  The result:  rats shied away from doing pleasurable things like drinking a sugary substance or pressing a button that caused a pleasurable sensation in their brain.  (To avoid any confusion, the pleasure button is true.  I can’t make something like that up!)  Since a loss of pleasure in pleasurable activities is a key indicators of depression, the researchers surmised that salt elevates the rat’s (and presumably human) mood. 

Sweet, huh?  Now the next time I’m feeling down, I’ll just skip down the local salt lick and have my way with it.  But wait.  According to the researchers, this physiological basis for ingesting salt is not a good a thing because it makes us eat too much salt.  That is, this mood-elevating property of salt may make us overconsume it.  In fact, the researchers suggest that salt is an addicitve substance, much like a drug. 

This seems absolutely insane to me.  If someone stated that humans NEED salt to survive, that salt consumption has an evolutionary basis, and that animals have taste and memory systems that remembers salt sources, wouldn’t the natural conclusion be that salt is good for you?  That salt is pleasurable because our bodies want and need it?  That it isn’t a sign of addiction to desire something that our bodies need to function?  We might as well call eating an addiction too, since so many of us like to overconsume that as well.  My point is that calling a desire to consume something necessary to the body an addiction seems silly.

But let me be as fair to the researchers as possible.  Their position is that humans really only need about 2 grams of salt per day to survive.  Yet, we eat, on average, about 10 grams of salt per day.  Hence, assuming the negative health benefits of overconsumption (which I don’t share but that’s another story), it would be an addictive behavior to consume more than that amount.  For example, many people are told to reduce their sodium intake but “have trouble doing so because they like the taste and find low-sodium foods bland.”  In other words, despite their doctor telling them to limit their salt habit, they just can’t kick it.  The researchers also noted the: 

“development of intense cravings when drugs are withheld.  Experiments by Johnson and colleagues indicate similar changes in brain activity whether rats are exposed to drugs or salt deficiency.”

So, whether the rats were deprived of drugs or salt, there was a development of intense cravings.  (The researchers, in all likelihood, have more to support their argument but all I’ve got is the article.) 

I’ll leave it to the readers to determine if those two arguments are strong enough to call salt a drug.  For my part, anything necessary to human survival shouldn’t be treated as a drug because that term should be (at least in the addictive sense) limited to things like crack.  I also have a really hard time with the seemingly implicit assumption that we humans should only be consuming the bare minimum of the necessities.  In this case, we’re ingesting five times the amount of salt that we absolutely need.  Anything over the two grams would be overconsumption and hence, addiction.  It’s a poor argument.  While the minimum we need may be 2 grams, that amount may not be the optimal amount we need to survive. 

Can’t we just enjoy salt?

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One Comment

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  1. AYT / Mar 17 2009 3:06 pm

    Considering the average human lifespan was ~30 yrs old up until the early 20th century, being off-ed by salt-related hypertension was considerably less probable than other causes of death. Not the case today with vaccines, lack of predators, preventative healthcare, etc.

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