Sodium has about the worst reputation of any element on the Periodic Table, especially for bodybuilders. Is this bad rap justified? Not even close.
You might think sodium is bad for a bodybuilder because it causes water retention. Plus, no less than the Institute of Medicine and the American Heart Association tell you that the less salt and sodium you have in your diet, the better. Here’s the problem with accepting every report from mainstream media groups: they don’t take into account the needs of hardcore bodybuilders.
The IOM recommends 2,300 milligrams and the AHA recommends less than 1,500 mg per day for people aged 19–50. Believe it or not, these recommendations could actually be dangerous. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that the National Dietary Guidelines suggested avoiding all fats, even those from nuts and olive oil, a recommendation that’s since been reversed. Could they be making the same mistake with sodium? We think so.
1. SODIUM VS. SALT
Although often used interchangeably, sodium and salt are not the same thing. Technically speaking, salt is sodium attached to chloride, and salt is only about 40% sodium. The sodium ion, which is positively charged, is critical to our survival. Along with potassium, sodium is responsible for allowing an electrostatic charge to build on cell membranes, such as nerve cells and muscle cells, which is basically how nerve impulses are generated and muscles contract. Without adequate sodium intake, our nerves and muscles would not work properly.
2. SODIUM AND H2O
Sodium also maintains our body’s water level. The body is made up of approximately 60% water, so it’s easy to see why this function would be important. Sodium is especially critical for maintaining blood volume (how much water your blood is composed of) and helping the kidneys determine how much water to excrete and how much water to hold in the body.
It’s true that taking in too much sodium can cause serious health consequences like high blood pressure, but that’s only in certain individuals (e.g., those with kidney issues or with a history of blood pressure issues). For the rest of us, getting in higher amounts of sodium just means our body will readily get rid of what it doesn’t need via urine and sweat.
BLOATED TRUTH | If you’re worried about looking bloated from a diet higher in sodium, don’t be. Remember that your body’s water levels are tightly regulated. Although short periods of high sodium intake will make you retain more water and short periods of low sodium intake will cause you to hold less water, you’ll retain the same amount of water over the long run, whether you follow a higher-sodium diet or a lower-sodium diet because your body will work to maintain a certain level of water. However, by eating a higher-sodium diet now, you not only gain the health and muscle-building benefits of sodium but also make it that much easier to drop water when you want to cut sodium for a short period to peak for a contest, photo shoot or day at the beach.
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We humans may have acquired a taste for “salty” in the first place so we would seek out foods that contain sodium. Researchers from the University of California, Davis, believe that the brain regulates sodium appetite so that people consume a set optimal daily level of it. They’ve published research from more than 30 countries showing that sodium intake is about the same throughout, despite wide differences in diet and culture. Research shows that even though most Americans are eating more food today — and more processed food, at that — they still consume about the same amount of sodium as they have in previous decades.
BODY WORKS | Levels of sodium and water in your body are closely related and carefully regulated because sodium draws water to it. So wherever sodium is, water follows. It works something like this:
- If your body is holding too much fluid, your kidneys pull it out of your bloodstream and excrete it as urine.
- If your body has too little fluid, your kidneys will pull less fluid out and you won’t pee as much.
- If you ingest large amounts of sodium, fluid is pulled out of the body’s tissues and into the bloodstream to dilute sodium levels. This fluid increases blood volume, which leads to a rise in blood pressure. However, if your kidneys are functioning properly, they’ll react to an increase in bloodstream fluid and bump up urine output (excreting both sodium and water) to reduce blood volume fluid levels.
- Only if your kidneys aren’t working well will you maintain that increased blood volume longer and therefore experience higher blood pressure. This can put greater demand on your heart, since the more fluid the heart has to move around your body, the harder it has to work. Chronically elevated blood pressure can eventually lead to organ damage, heart attacks, strokes, kidney problems, memory loss and erectile dysfunction. This is why the IOM and the AHA recommend that everyone drop their sodium intake to extremely low levels. Although a low-sodium diet may be essential for those who have kidney problems or a history of high blood pressure, it can actually be unhealthy for others.
4. SO WHAT'S NORMAL?
The UC Davis researchers reported that the typical daily intake of sodium is about 3,700 mg, with the lowest intakes at around 2,700 mg. And they believe it would be impossible to get people to eat less sodium, as their bodies would seek it out. In fact, this theory has been supported by another study that put adults on a restricted sodium diet of about 1,800 mg per day for three years. Despite specific instructions on how to keep sodium at this reduced level, the lowest daily intake they were able to maintain was 2,700 mg, with the average being around 3,200 mg.
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5. DANGERS OF LOW SODIUM
Scientists at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York have shown that in 11 studies on the link between sodium and cardiovascular disease, only five have shown that a low-salt diet was associated with a lower CVD risk. That’s less than half. The rest have shown that a lowsodium diet either had no effect on CVD risk or actually increased the risk for CVD.
One study published in Current Opinion in Cardiology discovered that very low levels (less than 2,000 mg) and very high levels (more than 4,000 mg) of sodium intake were associated with increased mortality rates, whereas intakes between those two extremes had no association. An article published in the American Journal of Medicine calculated that adults who consumed less than the recommended 2,300 mg of sodium per day were almost 40% more likely to die from cardiovascular causes than those who consumed more than 2,300 mg.
6. LOW SODIUM = LESS MUSCLE, MORE FAT
SALE OF THE EARTH AND OTHER TRIVIA
- There’s enough salt in the world’s oceans to cover all the continents with a 45-story-high layer of it!
- Salt is so essential to the body that if you drink too much water, it can be flushed out of your system and cause fatal hyponatremia. This is what killed California’s Jennifer Strange, who entered a “hold your wee for a Wii” radio competition.
- In 1909, a magnitude 6 earthquake triggered a 12-foot-high tsunami-like wave in the Great Salt Lake.
- After aviation fuel is purified, salt is mixed with it to remove all traces of water before it can be used.
- Only 6% of the salt used in the United States is used in food; another 17% is used for de-icing streets and highways in the winter months.
- In the early 1800s, salt was four times as expensive as beef on the U.S. frontier — it was essential in keeping people and livestock alive.
- Until the 20th century, pound bars of salt (called amoleh) were the basic currency in Abyssinia (now known as Ethiopia).
- Salt was used to preserve Egyptian mummies.
- The Bonneville Salt Flats — 30,000 smooth acres of potassium, magnesium lithium and sodium chloride — have been popular with racers since as far back as the 1890s.
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7. SODIUM AND BODYBUILDING
Cutting sodium may be benef icial for sedentary individuals, but it doesn’t really hold water (pun intended) for hardcore bodybuilders. Here’s why:
- For starters, you lose sodium in your sweat. And with all the sweating you do when lifting and doing cardio, your sodium requirements are higher than those who sit around all day.
- Every rep you perform in a workout is dependent on sodium for the muscle contraction to occur. Without adequate levels of sodium, muscle contraction won’t be optimal and your strength and muscle endurance could suffer.
- Last but not least is the fact that exercise has been shown to reverse salt sensitivity; in other words, there are some people who are more sensitive to sodium’s effects on raising blood pressure. But University of Minnesota researchers reported in a 2006 issue of the Journal of Human Hypertension that in a group of hypertensive adults who worked out for six months, a good proportion of those who were salt sensitive before the workout program no longer were sensitive afterward.
8. HOW MUCH OF A GOOD THING?
We’ve analyzed the typical FLEX meal plans and they fall somewhere between 3,000 and 3,800 mg of sodium per day — right in the aforementioned sweet spot to keep your muscle strength and size maximized.
SODIUM AND THE CONTEST BODYBUILDER
Dennis James’ rules for manipulating sodium for a contest: At the beginning of my career, I was always called the “Two-weeks out Mr. Olympia” because I looked great then but by contest time, not so much. The problem stemmed from ridding my diet of sodium at 10 days out. Through trial and error, I came up with this protocol. I don’t go by any set numbers, but here are the guidelines I use to determine when and how much to cut.
- DO eat plenty of sodium at the beginning of your diet. Cutting it too early will put your body into emergency mode, cause you to retain water and make it even harder to get dry for the contest.
- DO cut your sodium intake in half seven days out from the contest. The reduction should be enough for your body to push out any extra water.
- DON’T cut sodium and expect to train all-out. You will cramp and be vulnerable to injury.
- DO cut out all added sodium (no spices, sauces, etc.) one to two days before the contest. You will still be getting a little that is naturally found in your foods.
- DO experiment to figure out your body’s reaction to sodium — especially when you’re real lean. A test run is a good idea so that you’re not leaving anything to chance on the day of the contest.