Are We Wrong About Salt's Effects on Our Health?

What if someone told you that you could eat salt and it would help you lose weight? Before you get over-excited, let's read the facts about this claim.  According to a study reported on by the New York Times,  it appears that salt not only makes you less thirsty, but it also causes your body to burn more calories.

New studies of Russian cosmonauts, held in isolation to simulate space travel, show that eating more salt made them less thirsty but somehow hungrier. Subsequent experiments found that mice burned more calories when they got more salt, eating 25 percent more just to maintain their weight.

So it appears that much of the conventional salt wisdom of the last 200 years has just flown out the window. The findings have even "stunned kidney specialists."

The research was recently published in two dense papers in The Journal of Clinical Investigation and is the culmination of decades of work by scientist and kidney specialist Dr. Jens Titze. It all began in Berlin in 1991 when the professor worked with the European Space Program and found that over a 28-day period, the astronauts "urine volumes went up and down in a seven-day cycle."

The Effects of Sodium on the Body

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When the study was repeated for 135 days in 1994, Dr. Titze noticed something even more peculiar. In addition to the unusual urine patterns, there was "a 28-day rhythm in the amount of sodium the cosmonauts' bodies retained that was not linked to the amount of urine they produced."

According to all conventional wisdom, "The sodium levels should have been rising and falling with the volume of urine." Nevertheless, the data were showing a different story.

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Then in 2006, Dr. Titze repeated the study again. However, this time the focus was on water intake in relation to salt consumption. The results were surprising to everyone. Instead of drinking more as they ate more salt, the astronauts were drinking less. However, as expected, the higher the salt consumption, the higher the volume of urine. So where was the extra excreted water coming from?

"There was only one way to explain this phenomenon," Dr. Titze told the New York Times. "The body most likely had generated or produced water when salt intake was high."

Salt Helps With Weight Loss

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On closer inspection of the urine, this did indeed seem to be the case. In the lab, crew members discovered that there was an increase in glucocorticoid hormones production that paralleled the amount of salt astronauts were consuming.

This hormone influences both metabolism and immune function. The hormone production also initiates an increase in the breakdown of fat and muscle tissue in the body which frees up water. A side effect of this is that this process requires a large amount of energy and helps burn calories. 

However, Dr. Titze told The New York Times that he "would not advise eating a lot of salt to lose weight." From his results, he also concluded that more salt makes you hungrier (due to the energy expenditure that it prompts). Therefore you must be careful you did not eat more food to make up for the extra calories burned.

Of course, like any study, the results will need to be replicated before there can be any definitive consensus on the validity of these groundbreaking findings.