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The Salt-Asthma Connection

The “Western Diet” has been described as “nutritional patterns including high-fat and cholesterol, high-protein, high-sugar, and excess salt intake, as well as frequent consumption of processed and 'fast foods.’”

It is a diet that has been strongly suggested to be a primary culprit for the development of, and increase in, autoimmune diseases. These are conditions such as asthma, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, type I diabetes, and more, in which the body's immune system attacks healthy cells. The role of salt and autoimmune diseases was also discussed in Endurance News #103.

Let’s look at the first condition listed, asthma. There are millions of people—and there’s a good chance you may be one of them—who suffer from an asthma attack shortly after beginning exercise. They experience shortness of breath along with sometimes violent coughing and wheezing, and this causes lung functioning to drop significantly.

Interestingly, research has shown that a high-salt diet is associated with stronger asthma attacks and a greater decrease in lung function, while those who consume a low-salt diet showed minimal-to-no drop in lung function. To understand the mechanism(s) as to why a high-salt diet was associated with increased asthma issues, researchers examined the sputum from test subjects’ lung. What they found was that those who consumed a high-salt diet had triple the number of inflammatory cells, and had nearly double the concentration of inflammatory mediators—substances such as histamines, leukotrienes, prostaglandins, cytokines, and more—that contribute to an inflammatory response.

Once they saw the tremendous differences between high-salt intake and low-salt intake, their objective was to answer the question “What does salt intake have to do with inflammation, and why?” What they found was that salt activates an enzyme that is responsible for triggering the formation and over-activation of specific immune cells called helper 17 cells, or Th17, described as a specialized population of T cells that produce a pro-inflammatory molecule known as interleukin-17.

In small numbers, these particular cells are important for immunity, excess numbers and/or over-activation of these cells are associated with the development of autoimmune diseases. The researchers believe that because of salt’s direct involvement in Th17 cells’ higher blood levels of salt—especially the excess amounts found in processed foods and “fast food”—it may be the chief culprit for triggering autoimmune diseases.

It’s apparent that the more we know about excess salt’s negative effects on the human body, the more cognizant we need to be of our salt intake in our diets, lowering it as much as possible. We also need to be acutely aware of the amount of salt that’s in athletic fuels and electrolyte products, many of which contain obscenely high amounts. Hammer Nutrition’s Endurolytes products contain more-modest amounts of salt (sodium chloride) to accompany the other electrolytic minerals in a proper balance.

Be aware of flawed recommendations such as doing a sodium load prior to an event. Sure, you’ll hear a lot of so-called experts telling you that to ensure “best performances in the heat” (or something to that effect), you’ll want to increase your sodium (salt) intake in your diet, especially in the days leading up to a hot-weather event. But that’s definitely not our position, especially given the fact that not only does excess sodium impair your body’s sodium-regulating mechanisms to the point that it could ruin your race, it also appears to be the driving force behind numerous autoimmune diseases, including asthma. Be safe and salt savvy out there and Hammer on!