Should We Fear Running Out of Salt?

salt
salt

This time, my research on salt is personal.

To get 2021 off and “running,” I’m planning on entering a 50k (31 miles) race in January. I have the option of completing all 31 miles on my own or running with a teammate. In that, each of us would do 25k.

Hopefully, my son and I can run as teammates. After posting so much this week about excessive sodium levels, the coming run makes me wonder if we should worry about replacing our lost electrolytes during the race.

It’s a widely held belief that athletes need to replenish their sodium levels. Oddly, however, I haven’t found the clinical studies to back it up.

Once again, I turn to South America’s Yanomami rainforest people. They have the world’s lowest recorded sodium intake ( less than 100 mg a day.) Yet their regular activities include intense multi-day hunting expeditions and tribal warfare – all in the exhausting jungle heat.

So they must replace their salt after a strenuous hunt, right?

Actually, they don’t. In spite of what today’s sports-drinks manufacturers would have us believe, the Yanomami would likely be amazed at our conviction that we must replace our salt loss after exercise.

Why?

Sports Drinks Can Deplete Sodium

Dr. Michael Greger answers the question about electrolyte replacement much better than I can:

“Your body’s not stupid; it will tell you when you need to drink. 

‘There is now ‘ample evidence’ that we can just drink to thirst. And, you do not have to drink your electrolytes. But wait, if you’re sweating and just drink pure water, aren’t you risking washing out too much … sodium, and ending up with ‘exercise-associated hyponatremia,’ too little sodium? That’s caused by drinking too much of anything – water or sports drinks.”

He continues by sharing the case of one high-school athlete who died from hyponatremia after downing 2 gallons of Gatorade. If only he’d learned to “drink according to thirst,” as the Yanomami do!

But what if research tested the effects of sodium replacement on endurance athletes competing in conditions similar to a Yanomami hunt? Would that support my suspicion that it’s more myth than medicine?

Guess what…

Ultramarathon Runners Don’t Run Out of Salt

In a study published this year, Grant Lipman, MD, Stanford University Professor of Emergency Medicine tracked the sodium levels of 266 ultramarathon runners. He used data measured after each runner had completed a 50-mile race on the 5th day of the week-long, 2017 or 2018 Racing the planet competitions.

The races were contested over rough desert terrain in Namibia, Mongolia, and South America – often in extreme weather conditions. For more than 1 in 3 of the contestants, the race day temperature averaged 93F. Not so very different from the conditions the Yanomami have faced for centuries!

So it’s not surprising that most participants used electrolyte replacements. As Dr. Lipman explained in a February Stanford Medical article on the study:

 “Some people take a salt tablet every hour. Some prefer to put the supplements in one water bottle, then alternate with a bottle with just water. Some like a diluted mixture with powder or tablets.”

But after reviewing all the data, he concluded: “Each of the participants took supplements, although the type, amount and manner of ingestion showed little to no effect on sodium levels.

Even more bluntly, he continued:

 “Electrolyte supplements are promoted as preventing nausea and cramping caused by low salt levels, but this is a false paradigm. They’ve never been shown to prevent illness or even improve performance — and if diluted with too much water can be dangerous.”

In the end, he agreed with Dr. Greger’s, “Listen to your body… Drink to thirst…”

So the Stanford research effort undermines the popular assumption that in this regard, endurance athletes are different. And honestly, I can’t find any in support of the assumption that they are!

If someone can point me to a recent study that does, I’d be happy to read it. Until then, I’ll view electrolyte replacement as a runner-generated fad. It’s one the supplement companies and sport-drink manufacturers are more than willing to “run” with.

If this week has taught me anything, it’s that we’re getting way too much salt in our diet. Yes, our bodies excrete some excess sodium during strenuous exercise, but not enough to deplete our salt stores.

Think about it. For thousands of years, salt was so scarce most of our ancestors never considered consuming it after heavy activity. The human body is naturally designed to retain all the salt it needs to function properly. What it’s not designed to do is live with excessive sodium!

If anyone were to develop sodium deficiency, it would be the Yanomami tribe. But today, they continue running, fighting, and hunting just as they have for thousands of years.

My own Amazonian ancestors lived just upriver from the Yanomami. I’m sure they never worried about running out of salt, so neither will I! As long as I consume a balanced, whole-food plant-based diet – and drink only to thirst – salt supplementation has nothing to offer me.

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