CAN SALT STOP A MIGRAINE?
Don’t be too hasty in consigning salt to the dietary sin-bin – it turns out it could actually be good for you
Salt – it’s often given a bad rap, and it’s blamed for increasing blood pressure and elevating our risk of heart attacks and strokes. But is it actually an important part of our diet? According to nutritionist Sonia Pombo, the answer is yes. ‘ We all need a bit of salt in our diets for our bodies to function properly,’ she says. Now, new reports have gone one step further and suggest it could be a key remedy in helping us tackle migraines, too. Maybe our favourite flavour enhancer is about to become more friend than foe.
Get salt savvy
The latest natural cure to be making the rounds on social media and online news channels is salt water. It’s been suggested as the new drug-free solution for managing migraines, but how much truth is there really behind this table salt treatment? ‘ Salt might be able to help a migraine if it’s triggered by dehydration as a result of fluid loss through vomiting or simply lack of fluid intake,’ explains Dr Riccardo Di Cuffa, who is a GP. After all, if you’ve ever been to the emergency room and treated for dehydration you’re immediately put on an IV fluid drip containing a mix of water, sodium (salt) and sometimes dextrose (sugar).
Although, be aware that self-medicating with the correct amount of salt to avoid exacerbating your dehydration could be tricky. ‘ But it’s unlikely salt will treat migraines if they’re triggered by other causes,’ he adds. That doesn’t mean your salt cellar should be pushed to the back of the kitchen cupboard. Despite its negative connotations, salt (a mineral compound made primarily of sodium chloride) is an essential nutrient, which is important for a number of body functions. ‘ It’s a vital component in our blood and moderate consumption helps to support healthy heart function,’ says Dr Di Cuffa.
It might seem to go against everything we’ve been told, but these little grains are responsible for keeping our heart rate stable. Sodium ions (found in salt) are essential for the contraction of muscles, including the most important one of all – the heart. It’s also key for preserving proper brain and nerve function, as well as aiding our digestion. What’s more, it plays a big role in keeping us hydrated, as it ensures that we maintain the correct fluid balance in our bodies. That’s why it’s key to replace lost salt, as well as water, after a hard workout – isotonic sports drinks are a good way to top up lost nutrients.
How much is too much?
‘ Low salt levels occasionally occur as a result of heavy prolonged exercise and/ or hot and humid weather, due to a loss of sodium in sweat,’ explains nutritionist Fiona Hunter. ‘ Severe vomiting and diarrhoea can also cause problems,’ she adds. How do we know if our salt levels are low? Symptoms include weakness, fatigue, muscle cramps, headaches, confusion and irritability. Deficiency, however, is incredibly rare. Having too much salt is usually more of a problem.
‘Adults should have no more than 5g of salt (2g sodium) or about one teaspoon a day,’ explains Dr Di Cuffa. ‘ But most people are eating much more than that.’ Currently, the average intake in South Africa is about two times the recommended amount. Even if we don’t add salt to our food during cooking or as we eat, our diets could still be high in it. According to Sonia, up to 55% of the salt in our diets is hidden in processed foods. And this doesn’t just include the obvious things that taste salty, such as cheese or bacon, but everyday items you least expect, such as bread and cereal.
Consuming too much salt can lead to serious health implications. Crucially, it can make your body hold on to too much water. This extra fluid can then increase blood pressure, putting a strain on our kidneys, arteries, heart and brain. Over time, this can result in kidney and heart disease, and elevate our stroke risk, while also leading to brittle bones.
Yes, when it comes to salt, moderation is certainly key. While it may not replace painkillers for migraine sufferers just yet, the number of health benefits in even a small amount means it’s not the diet demon we once thought it was.