For the majority of people, the problem with sodium is too much of it, not too little. National health organizations and the Paleo diet agree that high levels of dietary sodium should be avoided for healthy blood pressure levels and to reduce the risks of cardiovascular disease.1 However, diets too low in sodium are also dangerous, especially for athletes engaged in endurance sports. Fortunately, it is possible for athletes to keep their sodium levels in check, without added processed foods, while still following the Paleo diet.
Understanding the Importance of Sodium in the Body
Although the Paleo diet is in inherently a low sodium lifestyle, dietary sodium, from naturally rich sodium foods and no common table salt, is necessary for everyday bodily functions.2 Muscles, including both the skeletal and cardiac types, need sodium to function properly. Twitches, cramps, spasms, and muscle weakness can occur when sodium levels are too low. The nervous system also uses electrolytes, such as ions of sodium, potassium and chloride, to transmit nerve impulses across cell membranes and to trigger muscle contractions.3 Sodium, in conjunction with potassium, is also necessary to maintain normal blood pressure, blood volume, and to balance bodily fluids.4 If that balance is disturbed, problems like heat-related illnesses and hyponatremia, low blood sodium (<130 mmol/L), may occur.5
Do Athletes Require More Dietary Sodium?
One major concern for athletes, especially those engaged in endurance activities, is that high sweat rates in athletes result in loss of both fluids and sodium.6 Low blood sodium can also occur in people who drink too much water, eat too little food, or take medications that deplete the body’s supply of water.7 Research indicates that the amount of sodium consumed in the days prior to exercise, might be more important in maintaining the proper levels during exercise, then in specific supplementation during the activity.8
Additionally, avoiding sodium rich beverages and foods during physical activity has been shown to not impact performance,9 ingesting sodium prior or during intense or prolonged physical activities is linked to an improved rate of absorption of water and carbohydrate in the small intestines.10 An athlete can encourage proper blood serum sodium levels by drinking for thirst and eating whole fruit, such as oranges, for a gradual fructose release.
Pre-and-Post Workout Meals
Pre-and-post workout meals can provide the necessary recovery nutrients rather than turning to processed supplements that are often sickeningly sweet, and contain many unnecessary additives and refined sugars. Surprisingly, they don’t contain exorbitant amounts of sodium. For example, a scoop of powdered electrolyte supplement contains 14 mg of sodium,11 compared to the 97mg available in a dash of table salt.12 An athlete concerned about maintaining adequate sodium levels during their exercise program can focus including naturally sodium-rich foods to their pre-workout meal, and focusing on the main principles of the Paleo diet. Our favorite sodium-rich and Paleo foods include:13
- 1 large celery stalk (50 mg)
- 1 beet (65 mg)
- 4 oz. lamb chop (65 mg)
- 4 oz. chicken breast (70 mg)
- 4 oz. grass-fed ground beef (75 mg)
- 1 cup of spinach (125 mg)
- 1 cup of Swiss chard (300 mg)
By simply following a Paleo diet, focused on eating a wide variety of mineral rich vegetables, animal organs, and bone broth will supply the necessary nutrients to maintain adequate sodium levels, for both the weekend warrior and the elite endurance athlete under most training conditions. Traditional hunter-gathers participate in rigorous and demanding physical activities required by their hunting, gathering, and foraging lifestyles without needing to supplement their diets with table salt, or electrolyte supplements, to meet their sodium requirements. Dietary sodium is not quite the villain he has been made out to be. However, we don’t need to overcompensate with sodium-rich supplements when a regular Paleo diet offers enough of this essential nutrient to support most individuals, even those who are avid exercisers.
1. Mattes, R. D., and D. Donnelly. “Relative contributions of dietary sodium sources.” Journal of the American College of Nutrition 10.4 (1991): 383-393.
2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC. “Usual sodium intakes compared with current dietary guidelines—United States, 2005-2008.” MMWR. Morbidity and mortality weekly report 60.41 (2011): 1413.
3. Brodal, Per. The central nervous system: structure and function. Oxford University Press, 2004.
4. Blaustein, M. P. “Sodium ions, calcium ions, blood pressure regulation, and hypertension: a reassessment and a hypothesis.” American Journal of Physiology-Cell Physiology 232.5 (1977): C165-C173.
5. Noakes, T. D., et al. “The incidence of hyponatremia during prolonged ultraendurance exercise.” Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 22.2 (1990): 165-170.
6. Godek, S. Fowkes, A. R. Bartolozzi, and J. J. Godek. “Sweat rate and fluid turnover in American football players compared with runners in a hot and humid environment.” British journal of sports medicine 39.4 (2005): 205-211.
7. Noakes, Timothy D. “The hyponatremia of exercise.” International journal of sport nutrition 2.3 (1992): 205-228.
8. Stofan, John R., et al. “Sweat and sodium losses in NCAA football players: a precursor to heat cramps?.” International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism 15.6 (2005): 641.
9. Merson, Stuart J., Ronald J. Maughan, and Susan M. Shirreffs. “Rehydration with drinks differing in sodium concentration and recovery from moderate exercise-induced hypohydration in man.” European journal of applied physiology 103.5 (2008): 585-594.
10. Murray, Robert. “The effects of consuming carbohydrate-electrolyte beverages on gastric emptying and fluid absorption during and following exercise.” Sports Medicine 4.5 (1987): 322-351.
11. Available at: http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/beverages/9232/2. Accessed on October 7, 2015.
12. Avaialble at: http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/spices-and-herbs/216/2. Accessed on October 7, 2015.