How to Lower Your Sodium-to-Potassium Ratio

The potassium content in greens is one of two ways they can improve artery function within minutes of consumption.

More than a thousand years ago, for the treatment of hypertension, an ancient Persian medical text advised lifestyle interventions, such as avoiding meat and pastries, and recommended eating spinach. A thousand years later, researchers discovered that a single meal containing spinach could indeed reduce blood pressure, thanks to its nitrate content. All green leafy vegetables are packed with nitrate, which our body can use to create nitric oxide that improves the flexibility and function of our arteries. This may be why eating our greens may be one of the most powerful things we can do to reduce our chronic disease risk.

As you can see at 0:54 in my video Lowering Our Sodium-to-Potassium Ratio to Reduce Stroke Risk, just switching from low-nitrate vegetables to high-nitrate vegetables for a week can lower blood pressure by about 4 points, and the higher the blood pressure people started out with, the greater benefit they got. Four points might not sound like a lot, but even a 2-point drop in blood pressure could prevent more than 10,000 fatal strokes every year in the United States.

Potassium-rich foods may also act via a similar mechanism. If we get even just the minimum recommended daily intake of potassium, we might prevent 150,000 strokes every year. Why? Potassium appears to increase the release of nitric oxide. One week of eating two bananas and a large baked potato every day significantly improved arterial function. Even a single high-potassium meal, containing the equivalent of two to three bananas’ worth of potassium, can improve the function of our arteries, whereas a high-sodium meal—that is, a meal with the amount of salt most people eat—can impair arterial function within 30 minutes. While potassium increases nitric oxide release, sodium reduces nitric oxide release. So, the health of our arteries may be determined by our sodium-to-potassium ratio.

As you can see at 2:30 in my video, after two bacon slices’ worth of sodium, our arteries take a significant hit within 30 minutes. However, if you add three bananas’ worth of potassium, you can counteract the effects of the sodium. As I show at 2:48 in my video, when we evolved, we were eating ten times more potassium than sodium. Now, the ratio is reversed, as we consume more sodium than potassium. These kinds of studies “provide additional evidence that increases in dietary potassium should be encouraged,” but what does that mean? We should eat more beans, sweet potatoes, and leafy greens, the latter of which is like giving you a double whammy, as they are high in potassium and nitrates. The recommendation from a thousand years ago to eat spinach is pretty impressive, though bloodletting and abstaining from sex were also encouraged, so we should probably take ancient wisdom with a grain of salt—but our meals should be added-salt free.

Why might abstaining from sex not be the best idea for cardiovascular health? Because the opposite may actually be true. See my video Do Men Who Have More Sex Live Longer?.


What else can we do about stroke risk? Check out:

For more on potassium, see in Potassium and Autoimmune Disease and 98% of American Diets Potassium-Deficient.

Interested in learning more about the dangers of sodium? See:

Sodium isn’t just bad for our arteries. Check out How to Treat Asthma with a Low-Salt Diet and Sodium and Autoimmune Disease: Rubbing Salt in the Wound?.

I further explore the wonders of nitrate-rich vegetables in:

Sweet potatoes are an excellent high-potassium, low-sodium choice, but what’s the best way to prepare them? Check out The Best Way to Cook Sweet Potatoes.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

 

One Way to Treat Asthma and Autoimmune Diseases with Diet

Cutting two teaspoons of salt’s worth of sodium from one’s daily diet can significantly improve lung function in asthmatics

In the 1960s and 1970s, a mystery was emerging. Why were childhood asthma rates between 2 to 5 percent in the developed world but as low as 0.007 percent in the developing world? For example, in the developing world, instead of 1 in 20 kids affected, or even 1 in 50 kids, it could be more like 1 in 10,000 kids—extremely rare. And, when kids moved from a low-risk area to a high-risk area, their risk went up. What was going on? Were they exposed to something new? Did they leave some protective factor behind?

As I discuss in my video How to Treat Asthma with a Low-Salt Diet, all the way back in 1938, scientists showed they could stop asthma attacks by lowering children’s sodium levels. That was done with a diuretic drug, but subsequent dietary experiments showed that diets high in salt seemed to increase asthmatic symptoms, while “lowering the salt decreased the asthmatic symptoms…” This body of evidence was apparently forgotten…until it was picked up again in the 1980s as a possible explanation for why Western countries had higher asthma rates.

Maybe it was the salt.

As you can see at 1:34 in my video, researchers graphed out childhood death from asthma versus family salt purchases, and it seemed more salt meant more death. Just because a family buys more salt doesn’t necessarily mean the kids are eating more, though. The way to find out how much salt someone is eating is to collect their urine over a 24-hour period and measure the amount of sodium, since how much salt we eat is pretty much how much salt we excrete. The way to test for asthma, called a bronchial challenge test, is to look for an exaggerated response to an inhaled chemical. And, indeed, there was a strong correlation between how their lungs reacted and how much sodium they were taking in. However, there are all sorts of food additives, like preservatives, that can trigger these so-called hypersensitivity reactions, so maybe high sodium intake was just a marker for high processed food intake. Maybe it wasn’t the salt at all.

Or maybe it was other components of the diet. For example, the reason sodium may be a risk factor for another inflammatory disease, rheumatoid arthritis, may be that sodium intake is just a marker for increased fish and other meat intake or decreased fruit and vegetable intake. We needed a study where researchers would take asthmatics, change the amount of salt in their diets, and see what happened—and that’s just what came next.

As you can see at 3:16 in my video, researchers doubled the salt intake of ten asthmatics, and lung sensitivity worsened in nine out of ten. There was no control group, though. Is it possible the subjects would have gotten worse anyway?

In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, researchers put everyone on a low-salt diet, but then gave half of the subjects sustained-release sodium pills to bring their salt intake back up to a more normal level and the other half a placebo. After five weeks, the groups switched regimes for another five weeks. That’s how you can randomize people to a true low-sodium diet without them even realizing it. Genius! So what happened? Asthmatics on the salt got worse. Their lung function got worse, their asthma symptoms got worse, and they had to take more puffs on their inhalers. This study compared asthmatics consuming about three teaspoons’ worth of salt a day to those consuming less than one, so they were effectively able to drop their sodium intake by two teaspoons’ worth of salt, as you can see at 4:04 in my video. If you do a more “pragmatic” trial and only effectively reduce people’s salt intake by a half a teaspoon a day, it doesn’t work.

Even if you are able to cut down your sodium intake enough to get a therapeutic effect, though, it should be considered an adjunct treatment. Do not stop your asthma medications without your doctor’s approval.

Millions suffer from asthma attacks triggered by exercise. Within five minutes of starting to exercise, people can get short of breath and start coughing and wheezing such that lung function significantly drops, as you can see at 0:19 in my video Sodium and Autoimmune Disease: Rubbing Salt in the Wound?. On a high-salt diet, however, the attack is even worse, whereas on a low-salt diet, there’s hardly a significant drop in function at all. To figure out why, researchers had the subjects cough up sputum from their lungs and found that those on the high-salt diet had triple the inflammatory cells and up to double the concentration of inflammatory mediators, as you can see at 0:43 in my video. But why? What does salt intake have to do with inflammation? We didn’t know…until now.

“The ‘Western diet,’ high in saturated fatty acids and salt, has long been postulated as one potential…cause for the increasing incidence of autoimmune diseases in developed countries…” The rapidly increasing incidence of autoimmune diseases may be due to an overactivation of immune cells called T helper 17 (Th17) cells. “The development of…multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, type I diabetes, Sjögren’s syndrome, asthma, and rheumatoid arthritis are all shown to involve Th17-driven inflammation,” and one trigger for the activation of those Th17 cells may be elevated levels of salt in our bloodstream. “The sodium content of processed foods and ‘fast foods’…can be more than 100 times higher in comparison to similar homemade meals.”

And, sodium chloride—salt—appears to drive autoimmune disease by the induction of these disease-causing Th17 cells. It turns out there is a salt-sensing enzyme responsible for triggering the formation of these Th17 cells, as you can see at 2:07 in my video.

Organ damage caused by high-salt diets may also activate another type of inflammatory immune cell. A high-salt diet can overwork the kidneys, starving them of oxygen and triggering inflammation, as you can see at 2:17 in my video. The more salt researchers gave people, the more activation of inflammatory monocyte cells, associated with high-salt intake induced kidney oxygen deficiency. But that study only lasted two weeks. What happens over the long term?

One of the difficulties in doing sodium experiments is that it’s hard to get free-living folks to maintain a specific salt intake. You can do so-called metabolic ward studies, where people are essentially locked in a hospital ward for a few days and their food intake is controlled, but you can’t do that long term—unless you can lock people in a space capsule. Mars520 was a 520-day space flight simulation to see how people might do on the way to Mars and back. As you can see at 3:17 in my video, the researchers found that those on a high-salt diet “displayed a markedly higher number of monocytes,” which are a type of immune cell you often see increased in settings of chronic inflammation and autoimmune disorders. This may “reveal one of the consequences of excess salt consumption in our everyday lives,” since that so-called high-salt intake may actually just be the average-salt intake. Furthermore, there was an increase in the levels of pro-inflammatory mediators and a decrease in the level of anti-inflammatory mediators, suggesting that a “high-salt diet had a potential to bring about an excessive immune response,” which may damage the immune balance, “resulting in either difficulties on getting rid of inflammation or even an increased risk of autoimmune disease.”

What if you already have an autoimmune disease? In the study titled “Sodium intake is associated with increased disease activity in multiple sclerosis,” researchers followed MS patients for a few years and found that those patients eating more salt had three to four times the exacerbation rate, were three times more likely to develop new MS lesions in their brains, and, on average, had 8 more lesions in their brain—14 lesions compared to 6 in the low-salt group. The next step is to try treating patients with salt reduction to see if they get better. But, since reducing our salt intake is a healthy thing to do anyway, I don’t see why we have to wait.


What else can we do for asthma? See:

Have you heard that salt reduction was controversial? That’s what the processed food industry wants you to think. Check out the science in:

What are some of the most powerful dietary interventions we have for autoimmune disease? See, for example:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

What About the Sodium in Miso?

According to the second World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research expert report, “[s]alt is a probable cause of stomach cancer,” one of the world’s leading cancer killers. If the report’s estimate of an 8 percent increase in risk for every extra gram of salt a day is correct, then in a country like the United Kingdom, nearly 1,700 cases of stomach cancer happen every year just because of excess salt intake, as you can see at 0:27 in my video Is Miso Healthy?, and, in a country like the United States, it would be thousands more annually.

The risk of stomach cancer associated with salt intake appears on par with smoking or heavy alcohol use, but may only be half as bad as opium use or increased total meat consumption, as you can see at 0:43 in my video. These findings were based on a study of more than a half million people, which may explain why those eating meatless diets appear to have nearly two-thirds lower risk.

We know dietary salt intake is directly associated with the risk of stomach cancer, and the higher the intake, the higher the risk. A meta-analysis went one step further and looked at specific salt-rich foods: pickled foods, salted fish, processed meat, and miso soup. Habitual consumption of pickled foods, salted fish, and processed meat were each associated with about a 25 percent greater risk of stomach cancer. The pickled foods may explain why Korea, where the pickled cabbage dish kimchi is a staple, appears to have the highest stomach cancer rates in the world, as you can see at 1:39 in my video. But researchers found there was no significant association with the consumption of miso soup. This may be because the carcinogenic effects of the salt in miso soup are counteracted by the anti-carcinogenic effects of the soy, effectively canceling out the risk. And, if we made garlicky soup with some scallions thrown in, our cancer risk may drop even lower, as you can see at 2:06 in my video.

Cancer isn’t the primary reason people are told to avoid salt, though. What about miso soup and high blood pressure? Similar to the relationship between miso and cancer, the salt in miso pushes up our blood pressures, but miso’s soy protein may be relaxing them down. If we compare the effects of soy milk to cow’s milk, for example, and, to make it even more fair, compare soy milk to skim cow’s milk to avoid the saturated butter fat, soy milk can much more dramatically improve blood pressure among women with hypertension, as you can see at 2:43 in my video. But would the effect be dramatic enough to counter all the salt in miso? Japanese researchers decided to put it to the test.

For four years, they followed men and women in their 60s, who, at the start of the study, had normal blood pressure, to see who was more likely to be diagnosed with hypertension in that time: those who had two or more bowls of miso soup a day or those who had one or less. Two bowls a day may add a half teaspoon of salt to one’s daily diet, yet those who had two or more bowls of miso soup every day appeared to have five times lower risk of becoming hypertensive. So, maybe the anti-hypertensive effects of the soy in the miso exceed the hypertensive effects of the salt.


Indeed, miso paste, a whole soy food, can be used as a “green light” source of saltiness when cooking. That’s why I used it in my pesto recipe in How Not to Die and in my How Not to Die Cookbook. It can help you in Shaking the Salt Habit.

Not convinced that salt is bad for you? Check out these videos:

Not convinced that soy is good for you? See:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations: