Our body needs salt for survival, but many foods we eat contain more salt than we actually need. Craving salt can be a symptom of an underlying health condition.

Over the course of history, finding salt was hard, so craving salt was a survival mechanism. Now that salt is readily available and often added to many processed foods, many people consume too much.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), the body needs no more than 500 milligrams (mg) of sodium daily for optimal functioning. That’s less than one-fourth of a teaspoon (tsp).

But because most people take in close to 3,400 mg each day, the AHA recommends that adults reduce their consumption to no more than 1,500-2,300 mg of salt daily.

You may also feel a craving for salt. Read on to learn what this may mean for your body and what you can do to eat less salt.

There are different reasons why you might crave salt, and some can indicate a problem with your health.

Salt has a bad reputation in the nutrition world. Too much salt can be unhealthy — even deadly — but too little salt can also be dangerous. 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 chronic cravings. Below are some conditions that may cause you to crave salt.

1. Dehydration

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.

These minerals, also called electrolytes, can become unbalanced if you experience symptoms such as fever or excessive sweating. When you become dehydrated, the sodium in your blood rises too high. But other times, your sodium levels may get too low with dehydration, which is called hypotonic dehydration

If those levels fall below healthy, you may find that salty foods taste better.

Other signs of dehydration or an electrolyte imbalance include:

  • cold, clammy skin
  • dizziness
  • feeling very thirsty
  • headache
  • decreased urine production
  • mood changes and irritability
  • rapid heart rate
  • muscle spasms or cramping
  • nausea or vomiting
  • fatigue or loss of energy
  • confusion
  • seizures

If you are dehydrated and only replenish your body’s water content but not the sodium (such as when drinking plain water vs. an electrolyte solution), you can get hypotonic dehydration.

Many things can cause dehydration. They include:

  • taking diuretics
  • vomiting or diarrhea from a gastrointestinal illness or disorder or other causes such as pregnancy
  • excessive sweating

Learn more about how much water to drink and the symptoms of dehydration during pregnancy.

2. Addison’s disease

Your adrenal glands are responsible for producing hormones that are vital to your survival.

Addison’s disease, also known as adrenal insufficiency, is a rare disease that can decrease the amounts of cortisol and aldosterone produced by your adrenal glands on top of each kidney. Once these hormones decrease, your body starts to lose sodium.

People with this disease experience salt cravings in addition to other symptoms:

  • severe fatigue or lack of energy
  • dizziness, fainting
  • low blood pressure
  • loss of appetite
  • unexplained weight loss
  • long-term or persistent diarrhea
  • dark patches of skin, especially on the face and inside the mouth

If you think you may have Addison’s disease, you may want to see your doctor immediately since it is life-threatening when left untreated.

3. Chronic stress

Why do you crave salt when stressed? Researchers are still debating the exact cause, but some think eating salty food causes you to feel good. This happens because salt induces your hypothalamus to release dopamine.

Other experts say that since salt is required to live, your brain learns to crave salt as a life-protective reaction. That being said, the effect of craving salt in response to stress has only been demonstrated in animals, and more research is needed to confirm whether a similar effect occurs in humans.

To further this debate, new tools used to study human cravings show that stress cravings are complicated body and mind functions that are not fully understood.

Read more: The effects of stress on your body.

4. Bartter syndrome

People with Bartter syndrome cannot reabsorb sodium. Any sodium they eat is lost through urine. That means they’re always low on sodium.

Bartter syndrome has two forms. The more severe form begins before birth (antenatal). The classical form begins in young children and tends to be milder.

Children may want to eat more salty foods. Other symptoms can include:

  • low birth weight
  • slow growth rate
  • low blood pressure
  • muscle weakness, cramping, or spasms
  • frequently urinating, especially at night
  • excessive thirst
  • constipation

5. Cystic fibrosis

Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a genetic disease usually discovered in early infancy.

When you have CF, your body has difficulty maintaining its chloride balance. This is important for many different organ systems. On the skin, chloride loss leads to sodium loss through sweat.

Salty skin is a hallmark symptom of CF. One 2020 study states that people living with CF have two- to four-fold higher sodium sweat content compared to people who do not have CF.

As a result, a person with MS may feel that they want to eat more salt. It is a good idea to check with your doctor before adding more salt to your diet.

6. Migraine

Migraine is a neurological condition that can cause many symptoms, the most recognizable being a headache. Research has found that people who experience migraine headaches may crave salty or sweet foods.

This is because eating either of these types of food may help alleviate the pain in some cases. The researchers also propose you may get more migraine headaches as a form of withdrawal if you eat more healthfully and avoid processed foods, which may contain a lot of added sodium and sugar. For this reason, eating sweet or salty food may alleviate a migraine headache.

Other migraine symptoms include nausea and vomiting, sensitivity to light or sound, numbness and tingling, and visual disturbances called aura.

7. Medications

Some medications may affect your adrenal glands and cause medication-induced adrenal insufficiency, making you want to eat salty foods. These include:

If you have unusual thirst and salt cravings while using these medications, you may want to talk with your doctor immediately about these side effects.

Craving chips or popcorn from time to time isn’t unusual, but if you find yourself constantly seeking salt, you may be experiencing a symptom of a more severe problem.

So, don’t hesitate to 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.

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 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. Additional blood tests may help rule out or identify other possible causes if the blood tests don’t reveal abnormalities. For example, a blood test can look for antibodies and hormone levels in your blood that may indicate you have Addison’s disease.

Salt is everywhere and in everything. In fact, an estimated 70% of your salt intake each day comes from processed foods and restaurant dishes.

Convenience foods like bread, sauces, cereals, and canned vegetables may contain 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 your doctor wants you to cut back on salt, you can do that 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.

Read more about the benefits of black pepper.

2. Garlic

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.

Read more about the benefits of garlic.

3. Vinegar

The low sodium cook’s best friend is a wide assortment of vinegar, including:

  • red wine vinegar
  • rice wine vinegar
  • apple cider vinegar
  • balsamic vinegar
  • flavored vinegar

Pure vinegar can mimic the flavor profile of sodium while not providing a single milligram of salt to your dishes. That being said, make sure to check the ingredients to make sure salt has not been added.

Read more about the benefits of apple cider vinegar.

4. Citrus

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.

Learn more about the benefits of citrus fruit.

What is the most important reason my body craves salt?

There are many reasons you may crave salt. One reason can be dehydration. Try drinking water or electrolyte solutions to give your body fluids and minerals after diarrhea, vomiting, fever, or exercise.

What should I eat if I crave salt?

Try to eat snacks or meals that combine fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, lean meats, or plant-based protein sources. Eating sweet fruit like apples with savory vegetables like roasted peppers can enhance natural salty flavors without the added salt. Crunchy vegetables, black-pepper popcorn, and dips such as hummus or sun-dried tomato spread can give texture, crunch, and varied flavors that satisfy. Drinking water to stay hydrated helps bring out the natural flavors of foods.

Unusual cravings for salt and other signs and symptoms could indicate you’re dealing with more than just a liking for popcorn and potato chips. Instead, you may show signs of another, possibly serious, condition.

If you crave salt and begin showing severe signs of dehydration, seek emergency medical attention. Serious complications, including kidney failure, seizures, coma, and possibly death, can occur when severe dehydration is not treated immediately.