Large amounts of salty foods could double stress levels, study finds

Large amounts of salty foods could double stress levels, study finds

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A recent European study showed that excessive salt intake doubled the peak stress response in mice. Design by MNT: Photography by Benjamin Torode/Getty Images & Milko/Getty Images
  • Although the physical effects of excessive salt intake are well documented, scientists have not yet understood the impact of high salt intake on emotional well-being.
  • A recent European study showed that a high-salt diet can double the peak stress response in mice.
  • Researchers are also studying how high salt intake can induce anxiety and aggression.
  • They hope to see governments and food manufacturers working together to reduce salt in processed foods.

Salt is known to improve the taste of many foods, which may lead consumers to buy more processed and high-salt products. Common processed foods include commercially packaged breads, cereals, deli meats, soups, cheese, and instant noodles.

Mounting evidence shows that too much salt in the diet can have devastating effects on the cardiovascular and renal systems.

Recently, scientists at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland hypothesized that high salt intake may also put stress on the brain. The results of the experiment showed that a high salt intake could increase the production of stress hormones.

The study linked eating large amounts of high-salt foods to activating the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, the body’s stress response system. The researchers also noticed that a high-salt diet led to an increase in glucocorticoids, natural hormones that help regulate the stress response and cardiovascular, cognitive, immune and metabolic functions.

Matthew Bailey, Ph.D., lead study author and professor of kidney physiology at the University of Edinburgh’s Cardiovascular Science Center, said Medical News Today:

“We are what we eat, and understanding how foods high in salt affect our mental health is an important step in improving our well-being. We know that eating too much salt damages our heart, blood vessels and kidneys. study now tells us that high salt in our diet also changes the way our brain handles stress.

The research team hopes their work will encourage more public health policies that promote salt reduction in processed foods.

The findings appear in Cardiovascular research.

Sodium is an essential element that helps regulate the movement of nutrients in and out of cells. The human body only needs a small amount of sodium, which combines with chloride to make common table salt.

According to Dietary Guidelines 2020-2025, Americans should consume less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that Americans eat more than 3,400 mg per day.

Evangeline Mantzioris, registered dietitian and program director in nutrition and food science at the University of South Australia, discussed the high-salt epidemic in an April 2022 podcast. She did not participate in this study.

When we eat too much salt, explains Mantzioris: “It is absorbed by our intestine and our blood. […] It draws fluid into the blood vessels [and] increases blood pressure against the wall of blood vessels – and this is what we call high blood pressure.

She added that aging and certain health conditions, including preeclampsia, low birth weight and chronic kidney disease, can increase salt sensitivity. In turn, “our body is less able to handle all the processes it needs to stay healthy,” she noted.

Dr. Bailey and his colleagues tested their hypothesis on commercial male mice. They fed the mice either a low-sodium control diet or a high-salt diet.

The researchers measured stress hormone levels in the morning and evening for 8 weeks. They took blood samples to assess the HPA axis response to stress.

Additionally, scientists collected and analyzed tissue samples to obtain genetic information about the hypothalamus, liver, kidneys, and heart.

The study authors concluded that their research showed “functional evidence for a novel direct link between dietary salt intake and HPA axis activation.”

High salt intake has led to high blood salt levels, a condition called hypernatremia, as well as fluid imbalance. Although the rodents had free access to water, they experienced an “activation of a water conservation response”.

The researchers proposed that a “high-salt diet emerges as an important behavioral modifier, at least in rodents.”

This study focused on male mice, which may limit the extension of some of the findings to humans.

The COVID-19 pandemic limited research capabilities, so the authors were unable to examine salt intake and HPA activity in female mice.

“In humans, the amount of hormone that appears in urine is higher in people who eat more salt, and this is true in both women and men,” Dr. Bailey said.

“There is also evidence that this stress system (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis) shows a different response depending on gender.[s] stress. In women, the rapid response is often more important, and over time women have a higher risk of developing certain types of stress-related psychiatric disorders. My hypothesis is that the effect of salt would be greater in women.

The researchers believe their work “deserves systematic investigation because detrimental changes in brain health in response to high dietary salt intake may have important real-world consequences.”

Dr. Bailey shared his plans for future trials:

“We are planning a study in healthy volunteers where we provide meals to control the amount of salt and ask individuals to undertake tasks such as problem solving against the clock. We know that these tasks activate the stress system: we can measure the hormone in saliva and heart rate.

Since excess salt presents a pressing health problem, Dr. Bailey hopes governments will champion the cause of reducing salt in processed foods.

“For most governments, this means working with food manufacturers to reduce the sodium content of basic food products. […] The strategies that have worked best have been collaborative partnerships to set agreed, time-dependent reduction targets that are independently monitored.

– Matthew Bailey, Ph.D., lead study author

Dr. Bailey also recommended replacing table salt with lower salt alternatives such as sodium chloride or potassium chloride. He cited recent studies attesting to their effectiveness.

Still, not all salt may be bad for you, according to Mantzioris. The dietitian argued that the amount of table salt we sprinkle on our food is generally good. But she warned that the danger of salt lurks in ultra-processed foods.

“Rather than worrying about what you might add in the kitchen or at the table, take a closer look at the amount of salt in the processed foods you buy,” Mantzioris says.

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