Sugar and Salt: Some Things You Should Be Aware Of

Two of the most common preservatives found today in preprepared foods are sugar and salt. These two ingredients are often used in foods to expand their shelf life and to make them more palatable to the consumer.  As the American diet has shifted more and more towards eating processed foods (including most of the food served at chain restaurants) and away from eating freshly prepared meals, the salt and sugar content in the American diet has skyrocketed.  With this increase, the increase in cases of endocrine and cardiovascular disease has also spiked.  This includes things like diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. In an effort to show people how these two food additives can contribute to these conditions, and more importantly, how they can combine to worsen the development of said conditions, this entry will look at how sugar and salt affect the body in both normal and excess amounts.

First up is sugar. Sweet, delicious sugar. For most of human history, recorded and unrecorded, the most common way for people to get sugar was as part of their diet. The closest things humanity had to refined sugars were staples like syrup, honey, and alcohol. For various reasons such as preparation, availability, and cost, these items were not consumed or available on a daily basis. It wasn’t until the late 19th to early 20th century that sugar was able to be harvested and refined in such a way that it was universally present in the first and second world nations.  The next big step was during the pharmaceutical expansion of the 1940’s and 50’s. This is when refined sugar products such as high fructose corn syrup began to be produced and sold in massive amounts. Due to sugar’s ability to be used as a preservative, it started finding its way into all sorts of products in order to increase their shelf life.  How many times has someone stumbled upon a pre-made coffee cake at a convenience store, sitting on the shelf under an inch of dust, that is still completely edible?  This is why ketchup has sugar in it, as well as a host of other foods where it seems unnecessary.

Salt has a similar, if much longer, history. At one time salt was considered so rare that it was tightly rationed. Part of the reason for this was because of its ability to add much-needed flavor to some of the blander foods at the time, part of it was due to its necessity to the body when performing demanding physical work, and a large part of its value was as a preservative.  Salted meats were a staple of many communities, as they were long lasting as well portable.  Salt also had another important use in storing meat as it protected it from getting damaged by cold weather. This is one reason why frozen foods have such a high sodium content. Normally, these foods would be badly damaged by the long amount of time they are kept frozen (or possibly being refrozen if they are exposed to warm temperatures for too long).  By kicking up the salt content, these foods are kept presentable and edible for longer periods of time. Unfortunately, to do this, the salt content is usually equal to two to three times the daily recommended serving.

So how do these two substances effect the body? To begin with, they are both vital parts of the human diet. Sugars come primarily in two forms: simple and complex. To really distinguish between the two could be the topic of its own entry, but to keep it basic, simple sugars are easier for the body break down than complex sugars.  These carbohydrates (yes, all carbs are basically sugar, hence the Atkins diet removing all carbs from the menu) are used by the body to provide energy for most of its organs, including the lungs and brain, as well as most activities.

Simple sugars are foods that quickly convert to fuel, such as candy, fruits, honey, and alcohol. To use a metaphor, these sugars burn fast and hot, like gasoline. They will give a quick burst of energy, but they run out quickly as well. And they add up quickly, so if they don’t get used by the body fairly fast, the body will store them as fat for later on.

Complex sugars are found in foods like grains, legumes, and vegetables, usually along with dietary fiber (one of the reasons these sugars are less bio-available is that the body has to break down the fiber to get to the carbs.). The longer time it takes for the body to break down these kinds of food allows for a more steady stream of energy to fuel the body (to refer to the earlier metaphor, this is more akin to adding wood to a fire). This energy lasts longer and causes fewer blood sugar spikes and valleys throughout the activities of the day. (This is why athletes often “carbo-load” on things like pasta prior to an endurance event).

The difference in digestion time is one of the major reasons we crave simple sugars and part of the problem. Because the tendency is now to do less sustained activity and more bursts of starting and stopping, people only notice when their blood sugar is low when they are starting a project or when they are really hungry. Since the body is looking for the quickest fix possible, the brain will cause it to seek the quickest sugar source it can, which is usually something like a candy bar. This spikes the blood sugar and gives a quick burst, but once it is used up, the energy level drops dramatically. Over time this series of crashes and peaks resets the body’s sense of normal and instead of expecting a steady stream of sugar through complex carbs, the body will instead adapt to a series of peaks and valleys.  The body will also seek to protect itself just in case that next batch of quick sugar doesn’t come by allowing the blood sugar to reach higher levels than it normally would.  This has multiple negative consequences that will be addressed next.

As the blood sugar levels start to adapt to a higher level, damage starts to occur within the body.  This damage is result of tissues in the body being exposed to higher concentrations of sugar in the body than they can tolerate. The most telling damage can be seen in the more fragile systems in the body. One of the most relevant aspects of the body (for the purpose of this entry) that is damaged is the capillaries.  These tiny blood vessels nourish the vast majority of the body, including the nervous system. As they are exposed to higher levels of blood sugar, they begin to weaken and become less efficient. This causes the tissues they nourish to stop being able to function effectively and eventually, when the capillaries die off, the tissue they nourish will also begin to starve. This is why people with uncontrolled blood sugar often start losing nerve sensation and why their vision is at such risk. The higher sugar levels and capillary death will also slow healing, further straining the body.

Salt, or for the purposes of its effect on the body, sodium, is similar to sugar in many regards. If not replenished inside of the body on a regular basis, muscle tissues will begin to lose the ability to function, including the smooth muscles in organs like the heart and lungs.  It also plays a major role in maintaining the fluid balance in the body. Sodium deprivation can even lead to death. Without it holding water in the body, the risk of dehydration becomes much greater. However, since it has been such a rare mineral for so much of human history, the body does not need a large amount to function normally.

If too much is consumed, the body will start holding onto too much water. This will increase blood pressure, as their is now more fluid contained within the vessels, placing more pressure on both them and the heart. In response the blood vessels will become more rigid, which both enables them to better handle the increased pressure, but also makes them more vulnerable to cracking. The body deals with these cracks by releasing cholesterol, which acts as a patch, but which can also clog smaller vessels. The higher sodium content will also lead to increased dehydration damage, as more water is held in the blood stream and muscles, less will be going to the skin and organs. This causes more stress on those systems, increasing stress to the body at large.

Now, with the necessary background covered, it can be shown how these two substances, in excess, can combine to speed up the development of disease.  The primary mechanism of this is in how each one can sabotage the machinery of the body’s ability to regulate the other, and how that, over time, accelerates the damage done by both.

One of the most valuable capillary beds in the human body resides in the kidneys. If these organs fail, death will occur within a few days (without mechanical dialysis), as the body will no longer be able to purge itself of toxins quickly enough to prevent organ failure. As mentioned above, sugar is extremely damaging to the capillaries. The primary way that sugar is eliminated from the body, however, is through urination.  That means that the capillaries in the kidneys are exposed to a higher concentration of sugar in the blood stream than any other organ, so damage will affect them first. This further compromises the ability of the body to flush out the sugars, leading to ever-rising blood serum levels of sugar, which starts to increase the damage to other capillary beds. (Fun facts: the Greek term for diabetes was “sweet pee” which referred the increased sugar in the urine levels. In Chinese, it’s referred to as “wasting thirst” since, in type I diabetes, the body will cannibalize itself to keep up blood sugar levels while maintaining a high level of thirst to flush out the sugar.)

Now, sodium contributes to this by increasing the body’s ability to hold water, reducing the urgency and amount of urination. This means that the sugar levels in the body will remain higher for longer periods of time. In response, the brain will attempt to adapt to this situation by setting its tolerance for sugar to a higher level (inducing cravings when it gets low, which, with this new default, will still be much higher than before).  However, the higher amount of sugar will still be doing damage to the capillaries, including the ones that send fluid to the skin to excrete in the form of sweat.  Sweating is one of the primary ways we excrete sodium from our body (this is why physical exertion requires salt replenishment), but with the damage to capillaries, less sweat is extruded. Combine this with the rise in salt intake and the simultaneous drop in physical activity, and the body is retaining more and more sodium over time.

These higher sodium levels contribute to the damage being done to capillaries by increasing the blood pressure, which hardens them until they eventually start to burst.  This continues a vicious cycle of capillaries weakening and bursting throughout the body, causing the systems they feed to stop functioning, usually in the very places most necessary to fixing the problem.  Eventually the kidneys will shut down, and mechanical dialysis will be the only way of sustaining life.

So, what can be done? First off, reducing salt and sugar intake to a healthier level will be the most important step.  The biggest step is to start looking at what’s in food. Processed foods, including the vast majority of pre-made meals, have very high levels of both salt and sugar. If the majority of food consumed is made fresh, the amount of salt and sugar in the diet should drop dramatically.  A good rule of thumb is not to eat anything that didn’t exist as a food before 1940.

Second, drink water. And by water, it can’t have bubbles, color, or flavor. Most of things people use to keep them going actively dehydrate them, and without an adequate amount of water in the body, toxins build up fairly quickly. The current recommended amount is half of the total body weight in ounces, but really, any water is better than no water. Both sodium and sugar are excreted through the urine, and if the body is dehydrated, then urination will not occur and these substances will continue to build.

Third, exercise. Every movement that is made causes the muscles to expand and contract. This assists the heart in moving blood throughout the body, so by exercising, not only is the blood kept in constant motion (which reduces the amount of time the tissues are exposed to harmful elements in the blood), but it encourages sweating (which lowers sodium levels) and eases the strain on the heart, making it more efficient.

Hopefully, this information will help some people understand the mechanisms of their bodies a little better and will encourage them to see some of the basic ways they can control their own health.