Salt is a highly addictive taste. Our brains and bodies are designed to enjoy salt because it’s necessary to survival. Over the course of human history, finding salt was difficult, so craving salt was a survival mechanism.
Today, however, the average American eats too much salt. The American Heart Association recommends that adults consume between 1,500 and 2,400 milligrams (mg) of salt per day. That’s no more than one teaspoon of salt per day. Most people take in close to 3,400 mg each day, however.
Craving salt may be a symptom of a health condition and not just a yearning for a mid-afternoon snack. Read on to learn what craving salt may mean for your body and what you can do to eat less of it.
Salt gets a bad rap in the nutrition world. Too much salt can be unhealthy — even deadly — but too little salt can be dangerous also. Salt is necessary for many bodily functions, including controlling muscles and maintaining fluid balance.
You may crave salt as a symptom of a medical condition that requires treatment. That’s why you should never ignore a sudden craving. Below are some conditions that may cause you to crave salt.
Your body needs to maintain a certain level of fluids to function properly. If those levels fall below what’s healthy, you may start craving salt. This is your body’s way of encouraging you to drink or eat more.
Other signs of dehydration in addition to craving salt include:
- cold, clammy skin
- feeling very thirsty
- decreased urine production
- mood changes and irritability
- rapid heart rate
- muscle spasms or cramping
2. Electrolyte imbalance
The fluids in your body carry vital minerals. These minerals help your body function properly. Sodium, found in common table salt, is one such mineral. If these minerals, also called electrolytes, aren’t balanced, you could show symptoms, including:
- nausea or vomiting
- fatigue or loss of energy
- irritability and mood changes
3. Addison’s disease
Your adrenal glands are responsible for producing hormones that are vital to your survival. Addison’s disease is a rare disease that can decrease the amount of hormones produced by your adrenal glands. People with this disease experience salt cravings, in addition to other symptoms:
- severe fatigue or lack of energy
- pale, clammy skin
- low blood pressure
- loss of appetite
- unexplained weight loss
- long-term or persistent diarrhea
- dark patches of skin, especially on the face
- mouth sores on the inside of the cheeks
The adrenal glands are responsible for releasing cortisol. This hormone helps regulate blood pressure and your body’s response to stress. Research suggests that people with higher levels of sodium release lower levels of cortisol during stressful periods. Craving salt could be one way your body is trying to deal with unusual stress.
5. Bartter syndrome
People with Bartter syndrome cannot reabsorb sodium. Any sodium they eat is lost through urine. That means they’re chronically low on sodium. This group of kidney disorders is present at birth, so symptoms appear early. They can include:
- low weight gain
- low blood pressure
- muscle weakness or cramping
- feeling the need to urinate frequently
- kidney stones
Expecting mothers often experience vomiting and diarrhea as an early sign of pregnancy. Both conditions can easily lead to dehydration. When you’re dehydrated, your body craves salt as a way to help you right the imbalance.
7. Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS)
Several days before you start your period, you may experience a wide range of symptoms. These include mood swings, loss of sleep, and even food cravings. For some women, these cravings can be intense. You may crave salty or sweet foods. Not every woman will experience PMS symptoms.
If you’re experiencing unusual cravings for salt, watch for other signs and symptoms. These additional symptoms could indicate you’re dealing with more than just a liking for popcorn and potato chips. Instead, you may be showing signs of another, possibly serious, condition.
If you’re experiencing a salt craving and begin showing signs of dehydration, seek emergency medical attention. If dehydration is severe and not treated immediately, it could lead to serious complications. These include seizures and possibly death.
Getting to a diagnosis relies on understanding the other symptoms you’re experiencing. To prepare for your doctor’s appointment, make a symptom journal. Record anything you’re experiencing that’s outside the norm for you and your body. No symptom is too small.
When you talk with your doctor, present this journal. Having this record may help direct your doctor toward a specific diagnosis. It can also help them narrow down the types of tests they’d like to order to reach a diagnosis.
Your doctor may order blood tests that can measure your electrolyte levels. If the blood tests don’t reveal any abnormalities, additional blood tests may help rule out or identify other possible causes. For example, a blood test can look for antibodies in your blood that indicate you have Addison’s disease.
Craving chips or popcorn from time to time isn’t unusual, but if you find yourself constantly seeking out salt, you may be experiencing a symptom of a more serious problem. Make an appointment to discuss your symptoms with your doctor. While the salt craving may be nothing serious, it could also be the first sign of a problem that needs medical attention.
Tips for reducing salt intake
Salt is everywhere and in everything. In fact, an estimated 77 percent of your salt intake each day comes from processed foods and restaurant dishes.
Convenience foods like breads, sauces, cereals, and canned vegetables pack in unnecessary sodium. A single fast food meal can contain more than a day’s worth of sodium. Without picking up a salt shaker, you’re possibly taking in significantly more salt than you realize.
If you’re looking to cut back on salt without losing the flavor, give these four ingredients a try:
1. Black pepper
Swap your salt shaker for a pepper grinder. Freshly ground black pepper is more pungent and flavorful than pre-ground pepper. That can make up for any lack of flavor you experience without salt.
Roasted or fresh garlic gives a big flavor boost to foods from vegetable sides to salad dressings. Cooking garlic makes the flavor less potent if you’re concerned about garlic breath.
The low-sodium cook’s best friend is a wide assortment of vinegars, including:
- red wine vinegar
- rice wine vinegar
- apple cider vinegar
- balsamic vinegar
- flavored vinegars
Vinegar can mimic the flavor profile of sodium while not providing a single milligram of salt to your dishes.
Like vinegar, the tart flavor of lemon, lime, and orange can fool your tongue into thinking you’re eating salty foods when you’re not. A spritz of citrus on chicken or fish is delicious and salt-free.