The importance of salt in bodybuilding.
By Andrew Carruthers, Editor-In-Chief
If you’re wondering why I’m writing an article on salt, then you’re obviously not aware of its importance in the human body, and, more importantly, its importance in bodybuilding. It still amazes me every year to hear how many people have cut out salt when they start their pre-contest diet prep. What’s even more absurd is that the instruction to cut salt completely at the beginning of a pre-contest process comes from some of the many so called “gurus” and “coaches” that people spend their hard earned bucks with to guide them through the gruelling process that is pre-contest prep. Even if you’re not interested in pre-contest prep or getting on stage, this article will explain and demonstrate to you the importance of salt intake and exactly what its role is when embarking on a physique building or transforming mission.
Facts about salt.
Salt has been around since the beginning of time. Man has used many techniques over the centuries to extract salt from water and in the beginning a popular manner of extraction was evaporation. Entire civilisations would set themselves up in arid areas, simply to have access to the some of the most salt rich areas on the planet. Why? Because humans need salt to survive and there are a whole host of reasons as to why salt is so important.
What is salt?
Also known as sodium chloride, salt is a chemical compound that occurs naturally in many areas of the world. More importantly though, and for the sake of bodybuilding, salt is an essential nutrient and the human body requires both sodium and chloride simply because it can not manufacture these elements on its own. Think about taste and your mouth and you’ll realise that the human body has even evolved to a point where we have our own gustatory receptor (taste bud) that allows salt to form one of the primary and most basic components of taste. Salt is also an electrolyte and has a slight charge as well. In ancient history and even some areas of the world today, people use salt to preserve food, making it tough for micro-organisms to live and prosper, therefore turning food bad and inedible.
What does salt do in our body?
Salt plays a vital roll in helping us regulate blood pressure and volume. Many studies have shown that increasing or decreasing salt intake can have a direct influence on blood pressure. Once inside our body, salt controls water balance. The sodium/potassium pump associated with salt intake is a prime example of how important electrolytes are to critical human health. To maintain cell health, two potassium molecules are pulled into a cell and three sodium molecules are pumped out. This is the cycle of how our bodies function and with it comes a slight negative electrical charge.
“Salt plays a vital roll in helping us regulate blood pressure and volume. Many studies have shown that increasing or decreasing salt intake can have a direct influence on blood pressure.”
Controversy has always existed with respect to how much salt is optimal in the human diet. The sad part is that many of these studies focussed on the salt content of foods without taking into account other electrolytes. Biologically and physiologically, sodium intake alone does not regulate the sodium/potassium pump – potassium intake is important as well. But what is more important that the amount of sodium in the diet is the ratio of sodium to potassium. Most food labels around the world are required to clearly report sodium content on products, but they are not required to report potassium content. This alone makes analysing potassium intake very tricky.
With that said, the ratio between sodium and potassium is absolutely critical. Whilst many “specialists” around the world advocate that people with hypertension must be related to high sodium content in their diets, it would appear that the problem doesn’t lie with sodium alone, but rather the inappropriate ratio of sodium to potassium. When we look at patterns of eating that have affected people with hypertension we notice that a severe increase in processed foods (high in sodium) is present. We also know from studies that a massive drop in the intake of fruits and vegetables (high in potassium) is also present. In America alone the intake of fast or processed foods is on the rise and the decrease of fruits and vegetables is also increasing. It’s as if people just don’t give a shit about what they eat anymore and it’s starting to influence human health on a global level.
The effects of sodium on muscle growth
Sodium is an essential mineral that is an absolute must for muscle growth. Sodium has a bad rap because it can cause water retention – anathema to contest ready bodybuilders. On the plus side, sodium enhances carbohydrate storage and amino acid absorption while also improving the muscle’s responsiveness to insulin. This is probably the single most important paragraph in this article and explains exactly why you must never cut out salt when looking to enhance muscle growth.
“…sodium enhances carbohydrate storage and amino acid absorption while also improving the muscle’s responsiveness to insulin.”
What you need to know
You need to consider two factors. The first, as I mentioned above is the ratio of sodium to potassium. Balancing this ratio is pretty easy and it’s not a matter of calculating exact amounts, it’s simply about eating more unprocessed foods. Eating clean is usually the solution to most of our dietary needs but it’s even more applicable in this situation. We also don’t need to start adding excessive salt to our foods as whole foods usually contain enough salt to be palatable and enjoyable in taste. The next rule is to increase intake of fruits and vegetables in order to maximise on potassium intake in the body. If you’re into calculations and you want specifics then a 1:1 ratio of potassium-to-sodium is the way to go. Most unhealthy modern day diets are falling off track and end up at a 5:1 ratio in favour of salt.
Another great piece of advice is to fluctuate intake. Salt sensitivity is not always sensitivity to salt in general, but it is sensitivity to drastic changes in intake of salt. As salt does pay a huge role in blood pressure, someone who might be taking in 5 grams of sodium daily and then reduces their salt intake drastically might experience blood pressure fluctuations quite radically. That’s why if you’re on a strict clean eating regime you’ll notice that if you have a large cheat meal over the weekend you’re sometimes left feeling nauseas and can even experience an elevated heart rate and blood pressure after pigging out. This is simply your body’s reaction to an increase in salt intake.
The sodium/potassium pump affects fluid balance. The body monitors the amount of salt and potassium in the bloodstream, as the body has no mechanism for storing electrolytes. Sodium and potassium are typically filtered in the kidney. When a shortage of either exists, the body secretes hormones that drastically reduce excretion of electrolytes and fluids. This is why cutting out sodium too soon before a bodybuilding competition can actually cause the competitor to retain water – the body is reacting to the lowered intake by preserving fluids and electrolytes.
Be more concerned with the ratio of salt to potassium intake than the amount of actual salt in the diet.
Increase potassium intake by increasing your intake of fruit and vegetables.
Avoid frequent high fluctuations in salt and/or potassium intake. These may have an adverse affect on your blood pressure.
Don’t eliminate salt! It is absolutely imperative that you consume salt for a healthy functioning body. Enough salt can be consumed through good clean eating of good solid whole food.
Focus on restoring electrolytes post-workout, preferably with a higher potassium-to-sodium ratio.
Moderation, like most things in life, is the key here. Salt is not the enemy and by no means should it be taken out of your diet. Everyone should be aware of the role that salt plays in the human body through balanced nutrition. Balance salt intake with potassium intake through unprocessed foods and the more natural a food source, the better.