Woman eating popcorn with too much sodium which may trigger her stress response

Do Salty Foods Increase Stress?

Do Salty Foods Increase Stress?

Scientifically reviewed by: Michael A. Smith, MD

After a stressful day, having mac and cheese or French fries and chicken nuggets might seem like the only way to end it on a better note. Appeasing those salt cravings can have a "feel-good" effect because it releases neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine.

But did you know that eating these so-called "comfort foods" can sometimes backfire and impact the nervous system, increasing anxiety levels? According to a recent preclinical study out of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, the excessive salt content in foods could be responsible for activating pathways of the central nervous system that regulate the stress response. Researchers found that high-sodium foods (mainly processed and packaged foods) can lead to higher stress levels in the body.

"We are what we eat, and understanding how high-salt food changes our mental health is an important step to improving well-being. We know that eating too much salt damages our heart, blood vessels, and kidneys," explained the authors. "This study now tells us that high salt in our food also changes the way our brain handles stress."

Why sodium affects your stress levels

The authors of the study found that a sustained high-sodium dietary intake activated the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis), one of the systems responsible for regulating the "fight-or-flight" response, leading to a higher response to stress. But why is that? When the HPA axis is activated, it prompts the release of stress hormones, and when they reach a high enough level, it signals the HPA axis to turn off, like how a thermostat works. Excessive salt can disrupt that balance, resulting in an overactive stress response.

Does this mean you should clean out your pantry of all salty snacks and switch to a low-salt diet? Not exactly. Keep in mind this is a preclinical study, so take it with a grain of salt (pun intended). Since your body needs sodium to function optimally, eating too little salt or too much salt will trigger side effects (like symptoms of stress) that can impact your overall health and well-being.

Behind Closed Laboratory Doors: Of Mice and Salt Intake

So how did the University of Edinburgh researchers determine that salt can increase stress? They divided male mice into either a control group or an experimental group. The control group received a diet of food containing 0.3 percent sodium, while the experimental group received a diet containing 3 percent sodium (that's a lot of salt for tiny mice!).

Their findings showed that the experimental group had an increase in peak levels of plasma corticosterone, the main stress hormone secreted by adrenal glands in response to environmental stress—in humans, it's the infamous cortisol. In other words, the mice receiving the high-salt diet showed higher signs of stress compared to the control group.

Top salty foods to avoid

A high salt intake is associated with heart health issues like high blood pressure or heart disease. But let's be clear, salt is not the bad guy. Sodium (one of the components of table salt) is essential for proper cell-to-cell communication and nutrient transport. The issue is getting too much salt from food; our bodies only need a small amount, so it's easy to end up eating a high-salt diet, sometimes without even knowing it!

How can you steer clear? Store-bought, packaged foods can contain excessive amounts of sodium.

  • Breads & cereals

  • Deli meats

  • Canned foods

  • Chips, crackers, popcorn and other snacks

  • Frozen foods like burritos and tacos

  • Store-bought soups

  • Pasta mixed dishes

  • Pizza

Take charge of your wellness by being mindful of what's in the foods you choose to eat.

5 tips to stop craving unhealthy salty foods

Unhealthy cravings—salty or sugary—can be a symptom of imbalanced hormones and a disrupted gut microbiome. When most meals consist of takeout and processed foods, we're more vulnerable to unhealthy cravings because our gut microbiome (the trillions of microorganisms that live inside us) "get used" to those foods and crave it. And thanks to that mind-gut connection, our microbiome can influence our food choices.

The good news is that healthy adults can find balance naturally by adjusting daily habits and learning to minimize saturated fats, highly processed foods, baked goods, junk foods, etc. It also helps to have some strategies in place for when you do find yourself in the throes of unhealthy cravings.

  1. Read the label:

    Knowing what you put in your body is very important. Empower yourself by developing the habit of reading the label. Read the nutrition facts for details on sodium content, cholesterol, trans fats, sugars, etc. And the ingredients list gives you exactly what it says: the ingredients. Pro tip: Look for minimal ingredients. For example, the next time you're shopping for peanut butter (or any nut butter), choose one with three or fewer ingredients, instead of a long paragraph of mostly fillers and preservatives that hold no nutritional value.
  2. Skip take out:

    In addition to being heartwarming, homecooked meals are a terrific way to know which foods or ingredients—and how much salt—you're eating.
  3. Don't be afraid to spice it up:

    Give the saltshaker a rest and instead explore other spices. Salt does make foods flavorful, but you're missing out on a tasteful experience if you're leaving out spices like curcumin (aka the golden spice), paprika, black pepper…and the list goes on. Not only do they add rich flavor to your meals, but spices like curcumin also contain active compounds that help protect against oxidative stress and inflammation—it's a win-win.
  4. Choose healthy snack swaps:

    Snacks don't have to derail you from your wellness goals. Choose low-sodium dense snacks like nuts or seeds and veggies with plain Greek yogurt-based dips.
  5. Eat enough:

    That frozen burrito may be delicious, but it could lack nutrients, so your body may still be hungry. Ensuring our bodies get enough nourishment is a terrific way to curb cravings. This includes eating adequate portions at mealtime (eating more veggies and leafy greens, more fish and lean meats, healthy fats and whole grains) and following eating patterns like the Mediterranean diet. You'll want to incorporate wholesome, nutrient-rich foods in every meal.

What nutrients help with my stress level?

Just as some foods (the salty ones) can have a negative impact on your stress levels, nutrition can also have a positive influence on how you manage stress. Speak with your healthcare provider to see if incorporating certain types of magnesium, lemon balm, ashwagandha, l-theanine and mood-supporting probiotics will benefit you.

3 healthy ways to deal with stress

Now that you understand how a high-salt diet can impact your nervous system and stress response, what should you do when you're having "one of those days"? Building sustainable daily habits that can help you manage stress and soothe anxiety is a proactive way to help your nervous system stay calm and collected.

Here are three tips to help you get started:

  1. Make time to move:

    Carving out time in your day to exercise regularly—biking, running, dancing or working out at the gym—is a terrific way to release tension and stress.
  2. Just breathe:

    Here's a reason to get on the daily meditation wagon. Research shows it helps manage stress, improve heart health, combat insomnia, and more. You can also add restorative yoga to your routine to stay calm when life gets hectic.
  3. Avoid stress triggers:

    Salty snacks are not the only foods that can affect your stress response. The caffeine content in energy drinks or the artificial sweeteners in soft drinks can also have a negative impact. Pro tip: Even if a drink or food item is sugar-free, it does not mean it's healthy. It can still trigger anxiety levels, especially if your stress response is already on edge.

Summary: Salt and stress levels

Let's recap: Sodium is a vital mineral in cell-to-cell communication and nutrient transport, but how much sodium we eat daily can significantly impact several aspects of our well-being including sleep, mood, blood pressure, mental health and brain function. This recent preclinical study published in Cardiovascular Research suggests that regularly eating high-salt foods like processed foods can lead to an imbalance in your stress response, resulting in higher stress levels in the body. The big caveat is that this is a preclinical study (done on mice). These findings aren't absolute, and you shouldn't swear off salt altogether, unless your doctor tells you otherwise.

The key takeaway is to be mindful of the sodium content in packaged items. Reading the label before purchasing packaged foods is a proactive way to help balance your sodium intake.



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The Life Extension Health News team delivers accurate information about vitamins, nutrition and aging. Our stories rely on multiple, authoritative sources and experts. We keep our content accurate and trustworthy, by submitting it to a medical reviewer.