Is your mouth dry? Do you always think about salty foods?
Why salt? Why does a white powder from salt mines or the ocean make your mouth irresistibly water?
What does it mean if you crave salt?
Welcome my friend. You’re about to learn what’s behind your craving for salty foods like pickles or chips.
This post about the meaning behind salt cravings will explore:
- The Origins of Salt
- How Salt Chemistry Makes Salt So Delicious (Hint: Evolutionary Biology!)
- Picture Yourself Like A Caveman Exercise (or Wild Goat)
- The Difference Between Normal and Bad Cravings
- How Situational Triggers Like Stress Set Off Biological Cravings
- The Confusion Of Nutrient Deficiency
- Summary: What Does It Mean If You Crave Salt?
If you are currently craving salt and don’t have the time to read all these salt craving points, I’ll summarize my answer for you in 4 ways, right below.
What Does It Mean If You Crave Salt?
Your body needs salt to live. It’s normal to experience some craving for salt. However, you probably aren’t reading this page because of a normal, peaceful, gentle desire to add a dash of salt to your meal.
I help people with binge eating and overeating problems, and I see this question come up in various forms.
Here are the 4 explanations why you crave salt. These oftentimes go in sequential order, but not necessarily:
1) You are dehydrated and have low blood pressure.
2) You may also have low blood pressure because you aren’t eating enough good foods. When you don’t eat well enough, you end up lacking certain ingredients and end up with adrenal insufficiency.
This second point is similar to the first point in that both – whether due to not drinking enough water, or not having enough good foods – result in low blood pressure.
3) You are lacking sleep or are stressed out, which increases the odds of your body misinterpreting the adrenal insufficiency signal of low blood pressure. (You can also misunderstand your body’s signals even when well-slept, but certainly lacking sleep exacerbates the issue incredibly)
4) Based upon the misinterpreted blood pressure symptom from 1-3, your body falsely thinks a massive dose of salty foods would re-balance your sodium levels.
If you want to see an informal video of me preparing my food and talking about salt and these 4 explanations, watch below:
Basically if you are craving salt, it means that your sodium levels are off.
Unfortunately most people who experience salt craving are simply dehydrated and/or not eating well enough.
Their sodium and blood pressure levels are low. They then misapprehend their body’s natural signal.
Your body is telling you that you need some salt. Because you need some salt, your body gives you a signal of “salt craving”. Yet you then wrongly conclude you need tons of salty foods. You swing for the fences and consume massive amounts of salt.
- Salty pretzels
- fried food
- extra salt from the shaker on a regular meal.
All this extra salt makes you experience high blood pressure!
The answer is NOT eating more salty foods. The answer is to hydrate and eat more nutrient dense food, and get more sleep and stress relief.
Scale Analogy To Explain Salt Cravings
You can think of your salt cravings and blood pressure like a scale.
First you have low blood pressure – whether due to dehydration or not eating enough good foods – and then you develop the symptoms of craving salt:
- Your mouth is dry
- Head feels lightheaded
- Your energy is down.
This is like being on the low end of the the scale. What you need to do to balance out is, again, hydrate and eat nutrient dense food.
But unfortunately, most people misinterpret the intensity of their salt craving symptoms and believe their salt craving means they must go indulge in salty chips, fries, and crackers.
Then their teeter totter or scale goes all the way to the other side and the sodium levels in their blood skyrocket. From having too little salt, they now have too much salt.
What’s Nutrient Dense Food?
Nutrient dense food is where you eat foods from nature, compared to processed foods.
It’s the difference between a grass-fed burger patty versus a fast-food burger patty. The grass-fed burger patty will satisfy your salt craving, whereas if you eat the fast-food burger you will have too much sodium.
I provide a few other ideas of nutrient dense food down below in several lists organized by food groups. Please note how you can find all these foods in nature somewhere.
- Brown rice,
- Whole wheat bread
- Whole grain bread or whole grain pasta
- Soy beans
- Pork chops
- Greek yogurt
- Black beans
- Leafy greens
- Brussel Sprouts
- Green/red peppers
- Olive oil
- Avocado oil
- Nuts and seeds
- Egg yolks
Eat more of these and you’ll naturally get the nutrients you need.
If you don’t eat these foods, then what will happen is your body will desire these nutrients. When your body desires certain nutrients, you’ll develop a craving. However, you can easily misinterpret a craving for healthy fat or fiber, and instead believe that your craving means you need more salt!
How Cravings Get So Confusing
This is where people get confused. They first have a need for salt but then they get mixed up and eat way too much salt.
This all stems from mis-interpreting a biological signal.
This is the problem of nutrient deficiency or dehydration. You are lacking water or a vitamin nutrient, but your body misinterprets the craving and thinks it wants more salt! This is even more so if you have formed ‘salt habits’ in the past! More on this topic below.
Basically you are lacking a nutrient or water and experience a corresponding craving to go get that nutrient.
But interpreting these ‘craving messages’ correctly is tough.
Sometimes we have a legitimate physical hunger for salt. Other times we simply need a bit more fat in our diet. Or protein. Or one of a million other vitamins. If you are attuned to your body, you will be able to tell what your body needs.
But then when we are dehydrated, are stressed out or lack sleep, we easily confuse our craving for a vitamin deficiency as a craving for salt.
And yes, it’s definitely possible to misunderstand your cravings even when you have slept well. However, there is a very clear scientifically documented link between lacking sleep and obesity. The link is so clear that some scientists have said that lacking sleep is one of the contributing causes of obesity. While obesity and salt intake are not directly causal, considering that many salty foods are contributing factors to obesity, they are highly correlated.
Ok, are we clear so far? If you have any questions let me know. In these next few sections I will provide some context for why we have salt cravings in the first place, by looking at our need for sodium from a biological perspective.
The Origins Of Salt
A long time ago the planet was covered in oceans. Oceans, if you didn’t know, are salty. Duhh….
Then in some areas the ocean receded. As this happened, the water left behind on land began to evaporate.
As the water evaporated, salt was left behind. So that’s what salt is. Salt is a mineral deposit from ancient oceans long ago. Its chemical compound formula is NaCl, which stands for sodium and chlorine.
Now obviously I am presenting a pretty basic understanding of salt chemistry. If you want to dive further in depth here’s an article that explores deeper about the function of salt in cells.
But just think about it real quickly. Have you ever heard of the Salt Flats in Utah?
There’s tons and tons of salt in Utah. Mountains of the stuff. This land was previously submerged under an ocean.
Then the earth’s plates shifted and the water went away, but the salt stayed.
How Salt Chemistry Makes Salt So Delicious (Hint: Evolutionary Biology!)
Humans evolved to need salt. Just like humans need water, air and food, they also need salt.
This combination of two chemicals– sodium and chlorine to make NaCl – is absolutely essential for survival:
- Salt plays a vital role in the regulation of many bodily functions and helps transport oxygen.
- Salt helps keep the proper ratio of water in the body.
- Without enough salt your senses would decrease until you were blind and you wouldn’t be able to move your muscles.
So salt is important. But most importantly …
We need to get salt from outside sources. Your human body doesn’t produce salt. Your human body produces a lot of other essential nutrients – but not salt.
We crave salt because we need salt to live. That’s what it means if you crave salt.
There is a Life and Death biological mechanism at play.
Just Picture Yourself As A Caveman (Or Wild Goat)
Just look at these wild goats!
They are willing to risk life and death in order to lick these salty rocks! In this environment salt is very rare. Yet the animals still need salt to live.
These goats are not just randomly up on these rocks. No goat would climb that high unless …
The goat had a craving. A craving for salt. A craving that was unquenchable by other means.
These goats risk life and death to get salt. Why? The alternative is death!
Remember, if you crave salt, a life or death biological mechanism is at play, similar to what happens with these goats.
You need salt to live. That’s why you get these incredibly powerful salt cravings and symptoms.
The Difference Between Normal and Bad Cravings
Now that you realize that salt cravings are a normal part of existence and help keep you alive, let’s focus on how to take appropriate action once you experience one of the salt craving symptoms.
This critical diagram illustrates the two different ways a craving will appear in your body.
One the left hand side you have physical hunger. On the right side you have emotional hunger.
You need to understand the difference between physical and emotional hunger because your salt cravings when under stress will oftentimes exhibit the emotional hunger cues. Knowing these cues can therefore help realize your craving for salt may not actually be what your body is needing.
Based on this diagram, some of the key ways you can realize you are experiencing an emotional hunger for salt are that the craving:
- Is above the neck
- Feels urgent
- Is paired with a stressful emotion
- Does not stop even after you are full
Why Stress Impacts Salt Cravings
Imagine you get really stressed out one day and your mouth goes dry. This is a pretty common phenomenon.
For example, have you ever had your mouth go dry right before a speech? It’s like you were dehydrated and lacked salt, but in reality your body was simply under stress. Your mouth locks up and your tongue and mouth are so dry they can barely move!
There are many other common stress scenarios that could easily trigger salt cravings:
- You have a deadline approaching and feel intense pressure to send off emails and work real hard. Under this time crunch, you forget about food and drinking water.
- You just had an exhausting stressful argument with your significant relationship. You can’t stop ruminating about what was said. Unintentionally, you forget about your body’s needs for water and food, and the result is the same.
- Forget your keys and get startled into a panic. You rush around trying to find the thing you forgot and end up spending tons of time looking. The thought of losing your keys spikes your adrenaline and you get excited. Your excitement blocks your body’s signal for water and food and you end up craving salt.
- You have an upcoming test and procrastinate endlessly. You expend tons of energy thinking and ruminating about the test or playing video games with unusual passion. I’m sure you know what happens next.
How do stress responses in your body lead to salt cravings?
Well, typically speaking your body has a few different default ways of responding to stress. I’ll use the examples above down below:
- fight (like in a relationship conflict)
- flight (like searching for your keys frantically)
- freeze (like when you procrastinate)
The key thing with all these situations is that your body is spending additional energy.
- In fighting, you are burning through energy in conflict.
- While fleeing, you are spending energy running away
- In freezing, you are spending energy staying still or avoiding (have you ever tried to sit still, it takes tremendous willpower!)
Essentially, in response to stress, your body shuts down.
Then your body feels as if it needs salt because it’s been shut down for so long. This is how you can take a normal, biological need for sodium and then have this crazy craving for tons of salty food.
Summary: What Does It Mean If You Crave Salt?
Let’s review what we’ve covered, in terms of learning what does it mean if you crave salt:
1) You are dehydrated
2) You may also not be eating enough good foods.
3) You are lacking sleep or are stressed out, which increases the odds of your body misinterpreting the adrenal insufficiency signal of low blood pressure.
4) Based upon the misinterpreted blood pressure symptom, your body falsely thinks a massive dose of salty foods would re-balance your sodium levels.