Decades of salt demonisation has led most of us to believe that minimising our salt intake – or cutting salt out altogether – is best for our health. However, evidence shows that salt is not only good for us but essential for optimal health. Read on to learn more about salt and the benefits of getting more salt and electrolytes from your diet.
What is Salt?
For most of us salt is seen as something we add to our food to give it more flavour, or something which is already added to processed foods for the same purpose. But salt is far from manmade or artificial and is in fact an entirely natural substance (or mineral).
Salt refers to a group of compounds made up primarily of sodium chloride (NaCl). In its natural form, salt is a crystalline compound (with a crystal-like lattice structure) known as “halite” or, more commonly, “rock salt.”
The more natural salt is, the more it will retain its rocky, crystalline structure. The more it is processed, the more it resembles a fine powdered salt like the kind shaken on chips! In other words, not all salt is created equal and we’d recommend Himalayan rock salt as the gold standard, which contains far more minerals and electrolytes compared with heavily processed fine table salt.
What are Electrolytes?
Electrolytes are electrically charged ions which help to regulate a whole spectrum of bodily functions, usually involved with fluid balance. They stimulate an electrically conducting solution when dissolved in a polar solvent, which in the case of the human body is water. In other words, electrolytes maintain a complex balance between intracellular and extracellular environments.
You don’t need to know too much about this, other than it's really important. For us humans, electrolytes are needed in ample amounts for vital functions such as regulating blood pressure, brain function, pH levels, hydration, muscle & nerve function and much more. In human physiology, the primary electrolytes are:
(Recognise 2 of these? Yep, sodium and chloride are what make up what most of us know as salt - NaCl)
All of these are all important for human health and make up the 7 major electrolytes in our bodies, alongside some other notable electrolytes like zinc, iron, manganese, chromium and copper.
Are Salts and Electrolytes the Same?
It can quickly become confusing when exploring the inner workings and differentiation between salts and electrolytes!
Without getting too in-depth, a salt is any compound which contains a combination of positively and negatively charged particles (cations and anions). For example, the most commonly known salt “table salt” is a combination of sodium and chloride.
The individual charged particles are known as electrolytes and can be one element (such as magnesium) or a combination of elements (such as phosphate).
What is the Difference Between Salt and Electrolytes?
Salts and electrolytes are technically different things in the world of science, but we can just think of salts and electrolytes as the same thing when it comes to their important functions - with each being as important as the other and most food sources containing a mixture of both.
Overall, we need a spectrum of electrolytes and salts to function optimally.
Isn’t Salt Bad for Us?
Conventional wisdom tells us that salt should be enjoyed sparingly and minimised – if eaten at all. Mantras which have become ingrained in our moral compass include ‘salt gives us heart disease’, ‘salt drives high blood sugar’, ‘low salt diets are best’, and ‘no salt is even better’. So where does this all fit into an article about the benefits of salt?!
Worlds away from the plastic tubs of table salt or saltshakers synonymous with grubby diners, salt is actually an entirely natural element which has been around longer than us humans. What’s more, it’s not detrimental to health but is in fact essential, meaning we need it for optimal health. So, following a low salt diet with no medical reason to do so could lead to mineral deficiencies and end up doing you more harm than good.
To learn more about the baffling demonisation of salt and why all isn’t as it seems with this humble and healthful ingredient, check out The Salt Fix by cardiovascular research scientist and pharmacy doctor Dr DiNicolantonio. In his book, Dr DiNicolantonio explains the controversial but evidence-based truth that explains why we need to make a moral u-turn with salt and learn to embrace it!
Decades of following general public health advice and minimising salt intake can be a key contributor to electrolyte deficiencies. Salt is an important addition to the diet and when consumed in its natural form contributes a significant amount of minerals and electrolytes.
Benefits of Taking Salts and Electrolytes
Some would argue that not only have we gotten it wrong when it comes to eating salt, but we’ve in fact got it backwards. Salts and electrolytes help our body to carry out essential functions each and every day.
So, we should be concerned with getting enough salt and electrolytes from our diet in the pursuit of optimal health, not avoiding them. Here are just some of the benefits of taking salts and electrolytes:
Enhance Athletic Performance
Perhaps one of the best-known benefits of getting enough salt and electrolytes is rehydration. That’s something which is super important during exercise, when essential fluids and electrolytes leave the body via sweat and so need replacing.
Sports drinks such as Lucozade and Gatorade are marketed as electrolyte drinks but also provide masses of added sugars. That isn’t just for taste but actually has a plausible scientific justification - in that adding glucose helps to enhance electrolyte absorption in the small intestine.
Having said this, added sugar is added sugar and still provides empty calories and spikes in blood sugar which are both detrimental to health. One bottle of an electrolyte sports drink can contain upwards of 30g of sugar, so it’s best to get your electrolytes from real food and salt itself in our opinion.
Interestingly, research has also shown that typical sports drinks do not contain salts and electrolytes in high enough amounts to enhance athletic performance. One study found that such rehydration drinks do not contain enough salt to improve athletic performance or enhance post-exercise recovery - so it definitely isn’t worth a trade off for high sugar!
Remember, electrolytes and salt are needed for optimal fluid balance for everyone, not just fitness enthusiasts. So, they’re not just important after exercise but also for preventing dehydration during malnutrition, diarrhoea, vomiting and intoxication. In fact, electrolytes are needed for optimal fluid balance and hydration whatever condition the body is in.
Improving hydration and getting enough salts and electrolytes has been shown to:
- Curb sugar cravings & support weight loss
- Have potential to improve fertility
- Support detoxifying organs such as the liver and kidneys
- Improve skin, hair and nail health
- Protect heart health
- Boost mood & cognition
- Help us to sleep better
Benefits of Taking Salts and Electrolytes for Keto
The ketogenic diet is followed by millions of people thanks to it’s amazing health optimising benefits. It focuses on a dietary intake that is low in carbs, moderate in protein and high in fat.
Limiting dietary carbs in this way means that the body uses fat for energy, rather than glucose. This results in the production of ketone bodies and so ketosis - a metabolic state and the end goal of a ketogenic diet, which is responsible for its many health benefits.
Being in ketosis alters some physiological processes in the body and one of these is fluid balance, including salt and electrolyte metabolism:
- Ketosis results in increased sodium excretion
- Very low carb diets have a diuretic effect, resulting in high fluid excretion and the loss of potassium in the process
- Some people experience muscle cramps when in ketosis, which can be alleviated with increased magnesium intake (one of the essential electrolytes)
- Most people on a Keto diet limit or eradicate their intake of processed junk food, removing a prominent source of salt (albeit a terrible source!)
For all of these reasons, those who follow a Keto lifestyle would benefit from including whole food sources of salts and electrolytes in their diet. If you’re Keto then it pays to focus on getting more salt and electrolytes from your food, as opposed to avoiding them.
How Can I Boost My Salt and Electrolyte Intake?
It’s perfectly plausible to top up your electrolytes and salts with a drink which contains wholefood, natural sources - but without the vibrant colourings and high-fructose corn syrup you’d get in a sports drink!
You can make your own post-exercise electrolyte drink using coconut water, citrus fruits, sparkling water and Himalayan rock salt - simply combine and enjoy after your workout. This is also a great way to stay hydrated in general, not just after exercise!
All information provided on our website and within our articles is simply information, opinion, anecdotal thoughts and experiences to provide you with the tools to thrive.
It is not intended to treat or diagnose symptoms and is definitely not intended to be misconstrued for medical advice. We always advise you seek the advice of a trained professional when implementing any changes to your lifestyle and dietary habits.
We do however recommend seeking the services of a trained professional who questions the conventional wisdom to enable you to become the best version of yourself.