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Want a Better Memory? Eat More Salt

Salt is the villain of the American diet, just like fat. But what if it has just been misunderstood? New studies show that the right balance of salt and potassium can benefit the brain and may prevent other diseases.
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One of the traditional keys to health is to reduce sodium. Some studies have indicated that high levels of salt in the body are linked with issues like high blood pressure, inflammation, poor memory, and heart disease.

However, recent studies have indicated that just like fat, the role of salt in the body may be misunderstood. In fact, salt is a vital nutrient that is vital for maintaining many of the body’s functions and promoting long-term memory health.

The Role of Salt in Memory

Did you know that salt is important for cognitive function? Although some studies do link a lower level of sodium with a reduction in blood pressure and heart disease, studies have also found that low levels of sodium could impair memory and brain function.

In a 2004 study conducted by the Boston University School of Medicine, it was found that rats on a restricted diet of salt had more memory problems as they aged. The study researchers found that “Salt restriction produced a significant impairment in social transmission of food preference and social recognition memory in Dahl S rats…”

The study researchers noted that these findings are in sharp contrast with the standard accepted facts that salt restriction can help lower blood pressure. The researchers advised that health providers carefully examine the pros and cons of salt restriction before prescribing a low-salt diet since salt restriction can result in reduced cognitive function.

Doctors in the UK report short-term memory loss as a symptom of hyponatraemia (the lack of salt in the blood). Confusion, depression, and disorientation are also all signs of a lack of salt.

Salt is an electrolyte which is used with other electrolytes in the body to transmit electrical signals. It is particularly useful for transmitting nerve signals throughout the body. In the brain, salt is used as a stimulant to encourage the brain to make new memories. That is one reason why short-term memory can be impaired when salt is restricted too much.

The right balance of electrolytes in the body is also important to prevent edema. Too little salt causes fluid to build up inside the muscles and even the brain. In extreme cases, salt deprivation can lead to the build-up of fluid in the brain, which can cause strokes or death.

Why Does a Lack of Salt Hurt Memory?

According to the rat study, low salt levels can impair social recognition and food preference. Salt restriction can also lead to a “foggy brain,” which includes confusion and depression. Doctors are not quite sure why a lack of salt causes these symptoms, except that the balance of salt is necessary for the electrical system in the body to work properly.

Without power, the brain cannot function on a normal level, which can lead to misfires and prevent the brain from forming new memories. Basically, a lack of salt causes a sluggish brain response that prevents normal cognitive function. However, simply adding more salt to the diet may not be the answer.

The fix for this issue lies with getting the right kind of salt and maintaining the right electrolyte balance in the body.

Getting the Right Kind of Salt

Part of the reason salt may be vilified today is that processed salt has detrimental effects on the body. Just like fat, there are healthy forms of salt and unhealthy forms of salt. Salt provides both sodium and chloride, which the body cannot make on its own. This means that eating enough salt is an essential part of optimizing health, and not getting enough salt can lead to serious health problems and death, as outlined above.

Basically, there are two kinds of salt- processed and unprocessed. Processed salt contains 97.5 percent sodium chloride (39 percent of which is sodium). The rest of the ingredients are man-made chemicals and anti-caking agents, like ferrocyanide and aluminosilicate. Table salt also usually contains iodine, because many Americans are deficient in this vital mineral, which is also something the body cannot make on its own.

Unprocessed salt, like sea salt and Himalayan salt, contain about 84 percent sodium chloride, with 37 percent sodium. The rest of the salt contains a variety of trace minerals, like iron, zinc, potassium, calcium, and magnesium.

Usually, however, there are only tiny amounts of minerals in salt, which means that the type of salt isn’t that important as long as you avoid regular table salt, which contains man-made anti-caking agents. Most sea salt, kosher salt, and other unprocessed salts do not contain chemical additives.

Getting to the Heart of the Matter

Although salt restriction has been linked with a reduction in memory, it is also still linked to an increased risk for high blood pressure and heart disease. Most doctors in the United States would suggest reducing salt intake first if a person was at risk for high blood pressure or had heart problems, such as heart attacks or stroke. The American Heart Association reported that in 2010, 2.3 million deaths were related to excessive salt consumption.

However, new studies report that it may not be the salt that contributes to heart disease at all- but rather, it might be the additives in the salt. New research suggests that heart health and blood pressure health depends more on the balance of sodium and potassium rather than the reduction of salt- which makes sense considering how sodium and potassium work together to optimize health. If either of these elements are out of balance, the body will respond poorly.

A 2014 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that individuals at both the high and low ends of salt consumption had an extra 27 percent chance of heart attack, stroke, or death from heart-related causes. Senior paper author Salim Yusuf said in the report,

“There is a sweet spot for what the optimum sodium intake is. The message is very simple: Moderation in salt intake. Avoid high and low levels.”

However, the study did find that the individuals who were at the lowest risk of heart developing problems consumed between 3 and 6 grams of salt a day (which is between 1 and 3 teaspoons). The current daily recommended intake by the American Heart Association is 1.5 grams, which is in the danger zone for developing heart problems. Individuals who consumed more than 6 grams a day were also at increased risk.

The study authors believe that providing the body with greater amounts of potassium to regulate electrolyte balance may be more effective at reducing heart problems and other health problems, like memory loss, than simply cutting salt intake.

Other Health Problems Associated with Low-Salt Intake

In addition to poor memory and an increased risk for stroke and heart problems, low salt intake is also linked with a variety of other health problems.

Health Problems Associated with Low Salt Levels
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Memory decline
  • Ulcers
  • Stomach cancer
  • Kidney stones
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Cataracts
  • Osteoporosis
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • High blood pressure

Getting the Right Balance

Electrolytes are essential for effective brain function. Low potassium intake is linked with an increased risk in strokes, memory loss, and even heart disease.

A 2011 study published in the medical journal Stroke found that when a person increases their intake of potassium by 1,000 mg per day, stroke risk drops by 11 percent. If a person consumes 3,000 mg of potassium, their stroke risk drops by 33 percent.

According to National Health and Nutrition, the recommended daily amount of potassium is around 4,700 mg, but most adults do not get more than 3,000 mg, and many women get less than 2,300 mg. Potassium can boost memory function, but it needs the appropriate amount of sodium to function at optimal levels.

Potassium and sodium work together like an electrical pump. Sodium is extracted from cells and potassium is pushed inside the cells. This creates an electrical charge that is necessary to maintain all cell life in the brain and throughout the body. Without adequate levels of both sodium and potassium, memory function plummets and a “brain fog” sets in. It is nearly impossible to overdose on potassium through foods. Boosting memory requires the increase in both salt and potassium.

According to Body Bio, the ideal ratio of potassium and salt is at the minimum, one salt to one potassium. At least two times more potassium than sodium is ideal. An examination of ancient diets published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1985 found that ancient people consumed about 11,000 of potassium and only 700 mg of sodium, which is 16 times more potassium than sodium.

The average American today gets about 3,600 mg of sodium and between 2,000 and 3,000 of potassium, which is a significant difference. Luckily, it is easy to add more potassium-rich foods to your diet. Eliminate as many processed foods as possible, because few processed foods contain potassium but still provide high levels of sodium, which can be a dangerous balance. Avoid the use of processed salts, which have chemicals that could lead to an increase in memory failure and heart problems.

Add more sources of potassium to your diet. Foods high in potassium are listed below:

Potassium-Rich Foods

Broccoli, asparagus, pumpkin, cantaloupe, papayas, prunes- 300 mg of potassium per cup

Bananas- 500 mg per banana

Spinach, lettuce, beans, sweet potatoes, and soybeans- 450 to 850 mg per serving

Salmon, halibut, nuts, mushrooms, and other fish- 500 to 850 mg per serving

Lima beans- 955 mg per cup

Avocado- 500 mg per avocado

Are My Salt Levels Too Low?

The only way to definitively tell if your salt levels are too low is with a blood test, which can indicate if the balance of potassium or sodium is off in your body. However, there are some signs you can examine at home to arrive at the ideal balance of salt and potassium in your blood.

Many individuals drink too much water, which can lower salt and potassium to unsafe levels. You should only drink water when you are thirsty rather than reach for water drinking “goals.” There is no such thing as the perfect amount of water for everyone. If your urine is clear, this is a sign that your water intake is too high and your salt and potassium levels are likely too low.

Another way to tell if your salt levels are too low is to pay attention to your cravings. Do you suddenly have a craving for a salty snack or find yourself adding salt to everything? If this happens, you probably need more salt in your diet. Choose unprocessed salt and eat it along with potassium for the best memory-benefiting results.

Do you feel chronically foggy, depressed, or “out of it?” This could be a sign that your salt and potassium levels are too low. Add more sodium and potassium to your diet and see if you start to feel better within a few days. If you have been chronically salt-deprived, it may take several months to find the optimal salt/potassium balance.

Other Memory-Boosting Minerals

In addition to sodium and potassium, a few other minerals are linked to improved cognitive function. These minerals include iodine, zinc, and calcium. Vitamin B12 is also necessary for effective brain function and long and short-term memory. Deficiencies in these nutrients are linked to a decline in cognitive function in children and adults. For ideal cognitive health and memory-boosting power, ensure your daily consumption of these minerals and vitamins is high. Iodine may be particularly important if you don’t consume iodized table salt. The iodine in table salt is healthy, but the chemicals are not.

Food Sources of Memory-Boosting Nutrients  
Zinc: Red meat, oysters, seeds, beans, shrimp
Calcium: Seafood, dairy, greens, sesame seeds 
Iodine: Seaweed, seafood, dairy, eggs 
Vitamin B12: Seafood, dairy, red meat 

Taking a supplement containing these ingredients may also provide benefit to the memory and fill in any daily dietary gaps you may have.

Salt and Your Memory

Salt is an interesting nutrient that is vital for the health of the body. However, like many ingredients, hitting the right balance is necessary for optimal brain health. Too-little salt and potassium can lead to memory loss, and possibly even the development of memory-diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. However, too much salt is also bad and can lead to an increase in health risks. The key, it seems, is to achieve the right balance of sodium and potassium to optimize your health throughout the body. Try to eat at least as much potassium as you do sodium, and you should have a healthier brain and better memory.





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