Sodium is Essential (in the right quantity) – But Not All Salt is Created Equal

Glass saltcellar with salt insulated

Let’s face it – sodium has gotten a pretty bad rap lately. But in light of all the advice suggesting we reduce our sodium it’s important to know that (the right amount of) salt is also an essential nutrient for our bodies. So while overdoing it can still be detrimental to your health, you actually don’t want to go down the path of cutting out salt all together.

The reason so many Americans struggle today with high blood pressure and other sodium-related health issues is because very little of our sodium intake actually comes out of a salt shaker. In fact, “Processed and restaurant foods account for more than three-quarters of all sodium,” according to a 1991 study says CSPI – which means we don’t even know when we are eating it.

On that note I want to share a little something about my own personal health journey today. I am not saying what happened to me will be the same for everyone living a real food lifestyle – but maybe this information can help some. In early 2010 we began our mission to cut out all highly processed food. We changed a lot of things fairly quickly (in a matter of weeks) and many other changes were more gradual. When we initially cut out all the boxed, packaged and canned foods – and also started eating at restaurants less frequently – we obviously in turn greatly reduced our sodium consumption. Which is a good thing – right? Well to a certain extent, but what I didn’t realize at that time is that some salt is actually an essential part of our diets – in the right quantities that is.

So as time went on we started taking our real food diet even further by greatly reducing the amount of salt we cooked with at home…and even cutting it completely out of some recipes (like my almost daily breakfast of granola). I don’t remember the exact timing of it all (because it took me a while to put two and two together), but after making these changes I started experiencing some episodes of lightheadedness. What I mean is I would momentarily feel like I might pass out. I never did (thankfully!), but it was certainly a bizarre and worrisome feeling that was happening on average once per week.

Then one time I felt lightheaded when I was out with my girlfriends, and they immediately knew something wasn’t right with me (because I suddenly got very quiet – which is a rarity – ha!). So I shared what had been going on and as it turns out one friend had recently gone through something very similar. After a barrage of appointments with doctors and specialists she learned that the sensation was due to low blood pressure (that I already knew I had, to an extent), which can result from too little sodium. I was of course intrigued by this information!

Not All Salt is Created Equal

So little by little – thanks to advice from my girlfriend – I started adding salt back into recipes like my granola, which alone did wonders. She said that she didn’t personally go overboard, but if she felt like a dish could use more salt she simply didn’t hold back. I started doing the same and what do you know – my episodes of lightheadedness have basically disappeared. But it’s important to know – just as there is a difference between processed food and real food – the same goes for our salt choices. Just check out these examples below. I can’t believe I never knew that the standard table salt by Morton’s contains sugar (listed as dextrose)!

refined vs unrefined salt

So yes sea salt is the better choice over table salt, but here are two important factors to consider:

  • Check the ingredient label (if there is one). If the salt product lists any additives other than salt it is likely refined and therefore not the best choice.
  • Look at the color of the salt. If it is brilliantly white – just think of white flour versus whole-grain flour – then that’s another giveaway the salt product has likely been refined and again not the optimal choice.

There is honestly a lot more to it than that when it comes to all the different types of salt, but fully explaining the minutiae of how each salt brand is processed and labeled could be a very lengthy discussion. So if you are into that sort of thing I highly recommend the “Is Your Salt Real” booklet by Redmond Trading. They have definitely done their homework. And since I am personally not much into the details of chemistry I just buy one of the two salt brands shown above – Real Salt or Celtic Sea Salt (the Himalayan brands are good as well) – that I am certain are unrefined and call it a day. :) Other brands that either list just one ingredient or no ingredients may be unrefined as well, but again there are quite a few different processing and packaging loopholes that can makes things more complicated than they should be, so I just like to stick to what I know.

I am so thankful to my friend’s advice – because it certainly saved me a lot of trouble and doctor appointments! – but also enabled me to feel better. Isn’t it amazing what you can sometimes learn from a bunch of close fellow mom friends? Has anyone else had a medical “aha” moment thanks to advice from a friend? I’d love to hear the details in the comments.

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175 thoughts on “Sodium is Essential (in the right quantity) – But Not All Salt is Created Equal”

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  1. Interesting that you found a link in your personal health to lack of salt – I wouldn’t have considered that based on the symptoms you described. When I had similar light-headed episodes, it was due to low iron (borderline anemic). Despite eating plenty of leafy greens and meat, my body just wasn’t absorbing it well, so I had to add in an iron supplement.

  2. None of the Sea, Hymalaian, and the volcanic salts which are the current trends in foods contain iodine what most people do not know is that the salt used in processed foods also does not contain iodine. Good sources of iodine inclue dried seaweed, cod and tuna fish, cranberries, yogurt, baked potatoes, cottage cheese, and legumes like navy or black Eyed beans

  3. Our family is very conscientious of the foods we eat. My husband had been feeling terrible for quite a long time. Bloodwork and dr appointments revealed he has hypothyroidism. His dr specifically asked if he uses sea salt because it’s commonly a lack of iodine that leads to this condition. Unfortunately, we had been primarily using Pink Hymalayian salt for well over a year.
    We’ve been advised by his dr to discontinue use of it and use salt with iodine.

    This is just one example of how something has been refined to benefit our health and how we have to be educated instead if extreme in our habits and health.

  4. This us a great read, yet…please be sure to consider your iodine intake ! Years ago it was discovered that the addition of iodine to table salt was an easy way to reach the masses and help to eradicate common thyroid issues, like goiters. This made a huge impact. During processing, the salt is sprayed lightly with the iodine. A *trace* amount of dextrose is added to keep it from clumping together. It is such an insignificant amount. Despite also being vigilant about hidden sugars and clran eating, I would rather ingest a trace of dextrose than risk my family’s thyroid health. At one point I had switched to sea salt, yet then realized that even though the label touts 18 minerals, not one of them was a source of iodine. I am still looking for the perfect blend ..

  5. Thanks Real Food for this great article. We grind our own unprocessed salt to make sure it is pure and natural. In fact, we got so interested in grinding salt we designed a dual salt & pepper grinder for OXO which delivers pure unprocessed salt and pepper on demand. You can find it on amazon and at other stores where OXO is sold.

  6. Yes! A dear friend helped my family out by sharing her (many years!) of searching and trying new things related to food dyes. All 3 of my children are “allergic”, meaning they get wacky when they have anything with food dye! And I’m so thankful to her wisdom and guidance! It was in so many items I gave my children- daily! And I had no idea :(

  7. Toni Gabrielli

    This subject came up recently where read that Sea Salt doesn’t contain iodine or not as much as iodized salt. It’s important for us to get iodine.

    1. There are many places where iodine is not in our soil and therefore we have no options other than salt with iodine added. The thyroid gland requires iodine to properly function. Please investigate this part of the salt question. Thank you

  8. Last summer I had a dr appointment and told her I was getting light headed. Since I also can experience low blood pressure she told me to add some salt to my diet. It worked!

  9. Please, please do NOT assume that physical symptoms are due to diet UNTIL you have checked with a physician. It is very dangerous to make an assumption. I know, as I did this very thing and ended up extremely ill with significant anemia and am on a long journey back to health. Please always check with a physician.

  10. Interesting article. I had an aha monent a few years back when benchtop water distillers were popular. It was all I drank for a few weeks. After a while I started to notice my fingers swollen in the morning and eventually they’d be swollen all day every day. I was all set to head off to my Doctor when a nurse friend suggested it could be the distilled water. I stopped drinking it straight away and within 3 days the swelling had completely disappeared. When I read more about distilled water I found out you weren’t to drink it regularly because distilled water has all the minerals removed. I’m sure they have there place just not as your only source of fluid daily.

  11. 2 thumbs up! Great article. We’d love to send you a gift of our Celtic Sea Salt®. Thank you for the education and great words on our salt.
    Please email me your address:)

    Thank you,

  12. Great article – I wholeheartedly agree! In my own research on salt I have come to many of the same conclusions. I am personally fond of Real Salt since so there are so many testimonials from people who currently have high blood pressure experiencing an improvement using their product, which is not altered by modern manufacturing. Personally I think it tastes ‘saltier’ leading one to use less; and its delicious!

    Kudos & thanks for sharing,

    The Conscionable Foodie

  13. I’m not sure if this has been asked before, but I was wondering if you use this same sea salt in baking? Thanks!

  14. Regarding the comment about sea salts not having iodine: It depends on if it is a whole, unrefined sea salt or not. Truly whole, unrefined sea salt will have iodine. But most of the ‘sea salts’ sold in stores today have been refined so they contain zero minerals; however it is still legal to label them as ‘sea salt’. So you need to find a ‘sea salt’ with a label that lists iodine.

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Kay. Yes, iodine is essential but most of us get plenty of table salt (with iodine) in our diets. You can now find sea salts with added iodine if you have concerns. ~Amy

      1. If it had iodine added doesn’t it also have dextrose? I was under the understanding that dextrose is required to stabilize it.

      2. I read that the dextrose stabilizes the iodine so it does not evaporate. I wonder what foods contain iodine. I am vegan and do not eat seafood.

  15. You just gave me my aha moment because I’ve been experiencing lightheadedness lately & trying to reduce the sodium in our diets as well. Thank you!

  16. I also would caution against using non-iodized salt. I have hypothyroidism and it is linked to a change in my diet to sea salt (non-iodizes form) and processed foods. There are sea salt versions that are now iodized, however!

    1. Yes, I had lightheadness, weight gain, etc. and was diagnosed with hypothyroidism, too. I had been using kosher salt almost exclusively. I believe my hypothyroidsim is partly caused by low iodine in my diet. Been on meds for 1 1/2 months and put iodized salt back in the diet and feel great.

  17. I got some of the pink Himalayan salt despite there being some dispute over if it is really that great for you. I have heard that sea salt can have bad things in it depending on where extracted due to pollution in the ocean(not sure how true this is) Any thoughts?

  18. April Tozlowski

    I experienced the same thing about 6 years back except I was actually fainting. Lots of tests and Dr. appts later and the Dr. told me I have low blood pressure and that I could have as much salt as I want. She also recommended drinking gatorade or something similar when working out to replenish my electrolytes. Since gatorade is not something I wanted to drink I started just using water, a little sea salt and lemon. I just trained for my first half marathon last fall and was concerned I’d have issues but only once did I feel a little lightheaded after a training race. Thanks for your article. It’s nice to know we’re not alone. :-)

  19. Thank you for posting this. I too several years back was experiencing the same thing. Little did I know this then.

  20. I’m a physician/endocrinologist. We are definitely seeing a lot more iodine deficiency with the reduction in use of iodized salt. This can contribute to thyroid problems. If you choose to use non-iodized salt, I recommend a daily multivitamin with iodine. This should prevent deficiency. I would avoid high dose iodine supplements. If you have children, check with your pediatrician before eliminating iodized salt. And while I’m all for limiting excess sugar, the amount of dextrose in table salt is trivial.

  21. Forgive me if a previous comment covered this. My grandmother who has had high blood pressure for 20 years and recently had a pacemaker takes many medications for her conditions. Now having high blood pressure she has been very regimented in her diet and eats very very little salt. She has been in and out of hospital over the last few weeks for Extreme low sodium. Her low sodium diet plus her water pill and other medications had depleted her of all sodium. Her systems included lightheaded ness, fatigue, confusion, and trouble moving her legs, even her kidneys began to suffer the effects. This is similar to when a long distance runner collapses at the end of a race. They are having trouble regulating her sodium levels which now is effecting her potassium. My point is that cutting all sodium will not only make you lightheaded, it can kill you. Please check with your doctor before drastically changing your diet. For any reason.

  22. Thank you for your advice about the refine salt. I have high blood pressure and am allergic to iodine.
    As I was reading your recipes I was wondering if you had a recipe for Chili Con Carne. We want a real Mexican, you know no beans like it means.We can’t find one, any where. I would appreciate your answer! Thank you! And Merry Christmas!

  23. I was feeling lightheaded a lot and went to see my electrophysiologist and he told me to drink v8 with breakfast, eat soup for lunch and dinner, and a handful of pretzels twice a day. I couldn’t believe it but then I vaguely remembered a post about being careful about getting enough salt. I think it is helping.

  24. Try this experiment: mix a teaspoon of table salt in a glass of water and a teaspoon of Real Salt/kosher salt/etc in a second glass and let them sit overnight. I did some research on salt/sodium a few years ago due to a hearing loss I have which might be related to sodium intake.
    One comment talked about granule size and Real Salt is small granules, I believe. You can also find sea salt in different sizes.

  25. I respectfully disagree with this whole article. If you were misinformed about salt in the first place what makes you so sure that your information is a correct now? I have to agree with you not all salt is created equal. But the current sea salt craze vies in folly with the use of agave syrup and tofu. Health nuts are throwing them left and right and yet ALL are very, very bad for you. If you want to eat mercury and heavy metals with your salt – go right ahead and use sea salt. You just replaced one perceived bad thing with a much worse alternative. The body badly needs iodine and that is totally absent from sea salt. Ordinary table salt is taken from salt mines and iodine is added to it. Iodine is essential for the human body and when you use sea salt you don’t get your iodine, but you sure get your mercury. One experience does not make anybody an expert or a chemist. Before anything health related is changed listen to the experts, not to self styled health gurus or company spokesmen or the FDA – look for an independent scientific opinion with no business interests backing them and I cannot stress independent enough.

  26. I have felt dizzy on and off for years! I have seen many specialists, and no one brought up the fact that I might not be getting enough salt as I eat primarily a whole foods diet. I am more than willing to add some salt if it will help me. Thank you!

  27. I have had full blown fainting spells since I was 15 years old. Originally my doctors thought it was to low iron but that was not the case. Many specialists visits and almost 20 years later I had a cardiologist that basically gave me the same diagnosis as you. A combination of low blood pressure and low heart rate. I was told that I needed to increase my sodium by 10g! Being raised in a low sodium household due to a parent’s high blood pressure, this came as a huge surprise. I still am pretty low sodium but I don’t hold back anymore from adding cheese to things or putting salt on my home baked “french fries”. I also was told that one pickle a day would give me all the extra sodium I need. Not a pickle fan so haven’t picked up that habit yet.

  28. Thanks so much for this post! It clears up the reason for my light headedness at times, especially with exercise. We only use Sea Salt now (for a 3 years actually) due to my daughter’s corn allergy. The dextrose, and likely vitamin C are from corn – which is just one of her severe allergens.

  29. Two years ago, I went on the Atkins diet, so I was getting almost no sodium in my food, and after a bit I began to get leg cramps pretty badly (mostly at night) in my lower legs. I read up on it and began to put salt on my foods, and it got better. This is a sign for me now on my Real Food “diet”; if I begin to get those leg cramps at night, I’m quickly reminded to “Add Salt!” (And I use Kosher salt, like Melissa Lanz recommends in her book, “The Fresh 20”.)

    1. Or you could also take baths in Epsom salts or use a cream that has sea salt in it. I actually sell a cream like that and it is AMAZING!

      1. Epsom salts will not make up for not using table salt, as the two are completely different chemicals. Epsom salt is magnesium sulfate while table salt is sodium chloride. You cannot substitute Epsom salt for table salt.

      2. Right. I wasn’t actually suggesting it as a replacement for the sodium in dietary salts, but as a remedy for leg cramps.

      3. Ah, I see. I’m sorry about that, I just tend to see a lot of misconceptions about chemistry on certain webpages and, as a chemical engineering student, I try to correct them when I can.

        I do apologize for the misunderstanding.

  30. I have also seen that sea salt contains mercury and that Pink Himalayan Salt is the “healthiest” version to use when you are using salt. Have you seen any research on this? What are your thoughts? Thanks so much.

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hello Heather. No, I’ve not seen any real research on this. All I find are various brands pointing out why they are superior to other brands. :) Sorry that I am not more help on that. ~Amy

  31. Mostly, I use sea salt or pink sea salt when I cook. But, I use it in moderation. When I taste Morton salt it does not agree with me as much, or maybe my pallet has changed, so it tastes bitter.

  32. I’m curious if anyone has given thought to iodine deficiency? I have heard/read that some of us have such a deficiency due to not only lowering salt intake but using sea salt/natural salts that don’t have it added. I’d love to know if anyone has experienced this and what the solution was. I personally use table salt in very small ways, like adding it to the water when I cook pasta. I also didn’t realize it had sugar in it though! Who woulda thought?!

    1. Er, sorry, I didn’t see (guess my page hadn’t refreshed) that there were already several questions about this! I see someone (Lauren) answered about the iodine in many other food sources. Thanks!

    2. My teenaged daughter experienced this problem and it took months to diagnose Hypothyroidism due to Iodine Deficiency. Doctors aren’t looking for it because the problem was eradicated with the addition of Iodine to salt. We have solved our own issues by taking a daily supplement with 100% daily Iodine.