Why Do We Crave Salt?
Whether it’s chips, pretzels, popcorn, or a serving of French fries, we’ve all experienced salt cravings before. Not only are salt cravings common but they are normal and there are many biological reasons why our bodies crave salt. While the taste of salt might be highly addictive, especially in the processed food form, there are a number of physical and habitual reasons why you might be craving salt and, fortunately, there are plenty of things that you can do to help mitigate the cravings in the first place and address them when they arise.
What is Salt?
When you think of salt chances are you think of table salt, the kind in your kitchen cupboard or the kind you shake onto fries. While this is salt, real salt is a little more complex as it comes in many different forms, shapes and sizes and serves many different functions. Aside from water, salt is the most omnipresent food ingredient consumed by humans and it has been used across cultures for centuries. In ancient times, salt was highly valued and used as a method of trade and currency. In fact, salt was so highly valued that the word “salary” was derived from the word “salt”.
Salt is a crystalline mineral made of two elements and is also known as sodium chloride or the chemical compound NaCl. Salt occurs naturally in many parts of the world as the mineral halite and as mixed evaporates in salt lakes. All salt comes from the ocean, be it the Atlantic or a long-forgotten sea, and is left behind when seawater evaporates as sea salt or when mined from ancient underground lakes and seas as rock salt. Today, salt is commonly used to flavour food, however, it is also used as a food preservative since bacteria growth is halted in a salt-rich environment.
Why Do We Need Salt?
Salt is an essential nutrient and the human body can’t live without some salt. The body’s interior ocean is salty and sodium is one of the electrolytes, along with potassium and chloride, that helps to regulate the body’s movement of water, as it is a major component of extracellular fluid. Salt is vital for balancing the fluid level of the blood, regulating extracellular fluid, managing the body’s acid-alkaline balance, functions of the nervous system, adrenal system, stomach acid production and proper nutrient absorption in the intestinal tract. In fact, since salt is so essential to human survival, we are hard-wired to crave salt to ensure that we consume adequate amounts.
Why Do We Crave Salt?
Over the course of human history, finding salt was difficult, so craving salt became a survival mechanism. The chemical requirements of the human body demand that the salt concentration in the blood be kept constant; if the body does not get enough salt, a hormonal mechanism compensates by reducing the excretion of salt in the urine and sweat, but it cannot reduce the output to zero. Does this mean more salt is better? As with all foods, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing when it comes to our health, and there is a big difference between refined salt and natural salt. The reality is, most sodium in the standard North American diet now comes from processed foods, not the salt shaker, as roughly 70% of salt is consumed through food products off the grocery store shelf.
Although essential, salt is also highly addictive and with too much (or too little) our bodies will become unbalanced. Health Canada suggests that individuals over the age of 14 not consume more than 2300mg of sodium per day in all forms, as higher levels have been linked to high blood pressure, a major risk factor for stroke, heart disease and kidney disease. Part of the confusion around salt lies in the fact that some salt cravings are driven by overconsumption of salt, while other salt cravings are driven by underconsumption of salt.
Reason We Crave Salt
Why an individual craves salt will vary from person to person based on lifestyle factors, diet, activity level, general health and consumption. For some, a craving for salt may indicate a physical need for salt or an underlying condition, while for others it may indicate a habit or a slight addiction to salty foods. Although everything is dependent on the individual, here are some of the most common reasons why we crave salt.
A constant craving for salt may be a sign that you are dehydrated since sodium is a natural electrolyte that helps to balance the fluid levels of our cells. Since the body requires a certain level of fluids to function properly when those levels fall below normal you may start craving salt, this is your body’s way of encouraging you to drink more water. Some research suggests that mistaking dehydration for hunger may trigger cravings for salt since dehydration causes you to believe you need to eat when you really need liquid intake.
2. Electrolyte Balance
Sodium, along with potassium, controls the influx of water into our cells, so consuming water without an appropriate electrolyte balance in the diet means the body will struggle to actually put any water consumed to good use. A craving for salt due to electrolyte imbalance is more common in individuals who are physically active, exercise a lot, and/or sweat a lot, given they are losing electrolytes at more rapid rates through perspiration. An imbalance of electrolytes can be caused by not consuming enough salt in the diet in the first place, or by not replenishing electrolytes after rigorous exercise. This is why electrolyte drinks are recommended for people who exercise excessively, especially in warm climates for long periods of time.
If you grew up with the salt shaker on the table, salting your food before even tasting it, or eating a lot of packaged foods, you may simply be accustomed to the taste of salt and find low-salt foods bland or boring. As with all foods, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing, so you may need to work on slowly decreasing your salt intake to allow your palette to adjust. To help with the process, try to add more herbs and spices to cooking for flavour, use low-sodium or low-salt food options, or add a tiny sprinkle to your food right before eating before adding more. It is important to understand that salt does not need to be avoided, it is essential for human health, but quality matters and is it best to focus on natural salt paired with whole foods as opposed to refined salt found in processed foods.
On the contrary, for some individuals underconsumption of salt may actually be the reason for salt cravings, as the body may be naturally asking for it. Since salt is an essential nutrient that is vital for optimal health, a general avoidance of salt can also lead to salt cravings.
Stress can also influence salt cravings given our adrenal glands, which produce adrenaline, cortisol, and aldosterone, regulate sodium in the body, so when taxed they become less efficient at regulating sodium. The adrenal glands are responsible for releasing cortisol; a hormone that helps to regulate blood pressure and your body’s response to stress. Research suggests that people with higher levels of sodium release lower levels of cortisol during stressful periods, therefore, craving salt may be a sign be the body is dealing with added stress. Not to mention, stress depletes the body’s resources of water-soluble micronutrients such as the B vitamins, vitamin C and all of the minerals, which are all impacted by water levels, which is regulated by salt.
6. Lack of Sleep
Not only does lack of sleep generally make you more fatigued which can cause you to reach for more food for energy, but poor sleep has been shown to contribute to hormone imbalances in insulin, leptin, cortisol and many other hormones, which have a profound impact on cravings. Cortisol, the body’s natural stress hormone, can become disrupted when a person is chronically fatigued, which puts stress on the body, leading them to crave more comfort foods. Not to mention, lack of sleep has also been shown to increase ghrelin, also known as the hunger hormone, and decrease leptin, the gatekeeper of our appetite, making cravings more difficult to interpret and manage.
7. Hormones & PMS
Hormones are in a constant state of flux, and depending on the current situation or state, the need for salt may increase during specific periods of time. For example, during pregnancy nutrient requirements increase in general and the need for sodium may also increase slightly to help manage increased blood volume and fluid levels, which can lead to increased cravings, although this is dependent on individual diet. Additionally, menstruation and PMS has been shown to have an impact on salt cravings. Several days before women begin their period, they may experience a wide range of symptoms including mood swings, loss of sleep, and food cravings. For some women, these cravings can be intense and they may crave a variety of salty or sweet foods.
Other Reasons for Salt Cravings
In addition to these everyday causes, there are specific underlying medical conditions such as adrenal insufficiency, Addison’s disease, Bartter’s syndrome and cystic fibrosis that cause salt cravings. In fact, both too much and too little sodium can have adverse effects so it is vital to consult a medical professional if adverse or abnormal symptoms persist.
How to Tackle Salt Cravings?
As with any craving, the first thing to do is to address your overall food intake. Consider how much salt you are consuming and what format you are consuming it in. If you are consuming a diet rich in processed and packaged foods, which are high in sodium, consider how you can reduce this overall intake or how you might be able to reach for low-sodium options. Additionally, consider how you can add more nutrient-dense whole foods such as meat, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds, and cook meals from scratch in order to help eliminate some of the added sodium in pre-made or processed foods. When cooking from scratch, ensure that you are using natural sea salt or rock salt instead of refined salt to help ensure that you are using the best quality salt possible. Finally, ensure that you are consuming adequate water and fluids to help that ensure you are well hydrated, as well as focus on reducing stress or working on stress management techniques.
The Bottom Line
Salt is an essential nutrient and the body is hard-wired to crave salt but the quantity and quality of salt that you consume is important to consider. Although salt is vital for optimal health, be sure to consider the format in which you are consuming salt, and do your best to focus on natural salts as opposed to the high levels of sodium found in processed foods. A craving for salt from time to time isn’t unusual, however, if you find yourself constantly seeking salt you may be experiencing a more serious health issue and it is recommended that you seek medical attention.