The average person consumes around 4 times the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of salt each day. Today I look at the impact this has on the immune system, how to tell how much salt is in your food and ways to reduce your intake.
Salt - what is it, why do we need it and how much do we need?
Before we start, let's clear up any confusion between salt and sodium. Salt is made up of sodium and chloride; and whilst organic sodium (which you find in fruit and veg and other unprocessed foods in their natural state) is necessary and healthy, getting it in the form of sodium chloride is not as healthy.
Salt plays a big part in normal body function by keeping our muscles and nerves running smoothly. But, as always, too much of a good thing can lead to problems. The RDA (recommended daily allowance) for salt is only 6g per day in the UK. This is the equivalent to less than/around a teaspoon of salt. So, it's easy to see how most of us are having way too much salt in our diets. Statistics show that the average person in the UK, consumes 8.1g of salt in a day. This is almost 2g more than the recommended daily allowance.
What has this got to do with immune function?
Issues like high blood pressure and heart disease have been linked to excess salt for a long time. But salt intake was never associated with the immune system in a negative way. In fact, until recently, salt was thought to have a positive effect on how the immune system functioned.
Excess salt can be stored in the skin, where it is observed to be useful for fighting skin diseases. The rest of the body doesn't benefit from this excess salt because it doesn't have a storage facility for it.
Instead, excess salt is filtered through the kidneys and sent to the bladder for excretion. New research shows that when the excess reaches the kidneys, a sensor goes off to alert the kidneys to get rid of it. This sensor also causes a type of hormone to build up in the body. These hormones, called glucocorticoids, accumulate in the body. When this happens some of our immune cells can stop working properly.
It's really important that our immune cells are standing to attention when a pathogen (virus or unfriendly bacteria) comes knocking. If our immune cells are not prepared to fight when under attack, the pathogen will run amuck, multiplying and wreaking havoc and chaos. Sort of like a Viking invasion on an unsuspecting, outnumbered little village. Well, maybe a tad less violent than a Viking invasion.
Clinical trials on the human immune system found that volunteers who ate the amount of salt equivalent to that present in two fast food meals per day, coped much worse with bacteria after just one week of introducing the excess salt.
Salt in our diet
You could be taking in a lot more salt than you realise. So many of the foods we consume regularly contain ferocious amounts of salt. For example, some cereals, readymade soups, bacon and sausages have the same levels of salt as seawater - yes you read that correctly, seawater! In fact, one cup of soup can contain as much salt as two cups of seawater. Remember that the recommended daily allowance is roughly 1 teaspoon, so you could easily be way over your RDA by lunchtime.
Plus lots of other tips for managing your salt intake:
Cook homemade, whole foods most of the time. If you can minimise the amount of ready-made foods that you include in your diet, you will greatly reduce your salt intake. There is so much hidden salt in these foods; and, because you didn't make it yourself, you are not aware of just how much salt you are ingesting. So, cut out or greatly reduce readymade dinners and soups, canned foods and processed meats.
Swap takeaway for homemade alternatives. Check out our blog for some ideas for homemade healthier comfort foods. Cook these in batches and freeze them so when Friday comes around and the last thing you feel like doing is cooking, all you have to do is defrost your pre-prepared comfort meal. It's almost as simple as ordering a takeaway and costs a lot less!
If you eat your lunch from a café or restaurant every day, try to keep this instead as a special treat, once or twice a week. Foods from canteens, restaurants and cafés usually contain lots of salt, and you have no way of knowing just how much. Instead, make an extra effort to make your packed lunches enticing: splash out on a fancy lunchbox or some reusable beeswax wraps to make your co-workers envious. There are lots of lovely thermos flasks out there too, which are perfect for storing your tasty homemade soups.
Replace your salt shaker with Herbamare. A Vogel's Herbamare is made from sea salt and 12 different fresh organically grown vegetables, garden herbs and iodine-rich kelp. The intense flavour from the herbs and vegetables in Herbamare means you don't need as much of the seasoning; so, you are reducing your salt intake without even noticing.
Get to know food labels. Before buying items, have a quick read of the ingredients list. If you notice sodium or salt is listed close to the top, it's a good idea to replace this item for a low salt option. The nutritional content box will give you this information too. Anything over 1.5 grams is considered high in salt so think twice before buying.
HIGH salt level = over 1.5 grams
MEDIUM salt level = 0.3 grams to 1.5 grams
LOW salt level = 0.3 grams and under
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Experiment with alternative flavour enhancers. There are lots of herbs and spices that you can substitute for salt. Watch my self-care video to see what my favourite substitutes are:
Use a variety of fresh vegetables. The tastier the veggie, the less seasoning it will need. I find organic veg tastes more flavoursome than non-organic, and home grown veg is even tastier. If you have the time to start a little container garden or small veg patch, your taste buds will appreciate it.
A bag of crisps while watching a movie is one of life's little pleasures, but wow are they loaded with salt. For a low salt version, try unsalted homemade popcorn. Consider making homemade veggie crisps, for a real treat. Use root vegetables like carrots and parsnips so you get an added sweet flavour.
Try making homemade stocks and sauces and freezing them instead of using shop bought versions that are loaded with salt.
It takes time for your taste buds to adjust to this new low salt world. Eventually you will become accustomed to it and other flavours you hadn't noticed before will start to appear. Reduce the amount of salt you use gradually, and try to be patient. It can take up to 6 weeks for your taste buds to adjust. Your immune system (amongst other body systems), will thank you for it.
If you feel the beginnings of a cold or flu coming on, Echinaforce tablets or drops can give your immune system a helping hand in fighting back. This will be especially useful if you have been eating a lot of salt regularly and feel the need to give your immune system a helping hand.