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Sodium has about the worst reputation of any element on the Periodic Table, especially for bodybuilders. Is this bad rap justified? Not even close.
You might think sodium is bad for a bodybuilder because it causes water retention. Plus, no less than the Institute of Medicine and the American Heart Association tell you that the less salt and sodium you have in your diet, the better. Here’s the problem with accepting every report from mainstream media groups: they don’t take into account the needs of hardcore bodybuilders.
The IOM recommends 2,300 milligrams and the AHA recommends less than 1,500 mg per day for people aged 19–50. Believe it or not, these recommendations could actually be dangerous. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that the National Dietary Guidelines suggested avoiding all fats, even those from nuts and olive oil, a recommendation that’s since been reversed. Could they be making the same mistake with sodium? We think so.
Although often used interchangeably, sodium and salt are not the same thing. Technically speaking, salt is sodium attached to chloride, and salt is only about 40% sodium. The sodium ion, which is positively charged, is critical to our survival. Along with potassium, sodium is responsible for allowing an electrostatic charge to build on cell membranes, such as nerve cells and muscle cells, which is basically how nerve impulses are generated and muscles contract. Without adequate sodium intake, our nerves and muscles would not work properly.
Sodium also maintains our body’s water level. The body is made up of approximately 60% water, so it’s easy to see why this function would be important. Sodium is especially critical for maintaining blood volume (how much water your blood is composed of) and helping the kidneys determine how much water to excrete and how much water to hold in the body.
It’s true that taking in too much sodium can cause serious health consequences like high blood pressure, but that’s only in certain individuals (e.g., those with kidney issues or with a history of blood pressure issues). For the rest of us, getting in higher amounts of sodium just means our body will readily get rid of what it doesn’t need via urine and sweat.
If you’re worried about looking bloated from a diet higher in sodium, don’t be. Remember that your body’s water levels are tightly regulated. Although short periods of high sodium intake will make you retain more water and short periods of low sodium intake will cause you to hold less water, you’ll retain the same amount of water INTAKE over the long run, 2,000–4,000 MG PER DAY whether you follow a higher-sodium diet or a lower-sodium diet because your body will work to maintain a certain level of water. However, by eating a higher-sodium diet now, you not only gain the health and muscle-building benefits of sodium but also make it that much easier to drop water when you want to cut sodium for a short period to peak for a contest, photo shoot or day at the beach.
We humans may have acquired a taste for “salty” in the first place so we would seek out foods that contain sodium. Researchers from the University of California, Davis, believe that the brain regulates sodium appetite so that people consume a set optimal daily level of it. They’ve published research from more than 30 countries showing that sodium intake is about the same throughout, despite wide differences in diet and culture. Research shows that even though most Americans are eating more food today — and more processed food, at that — they still consume about the same amount of sodium as they have in previous decades.
The UC Davis researchers reported that the typical daily intake of sodium is about 3,700 mg, with the lowest intakes at around 2,700 mg. And they believe it would be impossible to get people to eat less sodium, as their bodies would seek it out. In fact, this theory has been supported by another study that put adults on a restricted sodium diet of about 1,800 mg per day for three years. Despite specific instructions on how to keep sodium at this reduced level, the lowest daily intake they were able to maintain was 2,700 mg, with the average being around 3,200 mg.
Scientists at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York have shown that in 11 studies on the link between sodium and cardiovascular disease, only five have shown that a low-salt diet was associated with a lower CVD risk. That’s less than half. The rest have shown that a low-sodium diet either had no effect on CVD risk or actually increased the risk for CVD. One study published in the July 2007 issue of Current Opinion in Cardiology dis- covered that very low levels (less than 2,000 mg) and very high levels (more than 4,000 mg) of sodium intake were associated with increased mortality rates, whereas intakes between those two extremes had no association. An article published in the American Journal of Medicine calculated that adults who consumed less than the recommended 2,300 mg of sodium per day were almost 40% more likely to die from cardiovascular causes than those who consumed more than 2,300 mg.
Levels of sodium and water in your body are closely related and carefully regulated because sodium draws water to it. So wherever sodium is, water follows. It works something like this:
TYPICAL INTAKE 3,700 MG OF SODIUM PER DAY
LOW SODIUM = LESS MUSCLE, MORE FAT
Clinical research studies have shown that when sodium intake is decreased, so is insulin sensitivity. A reduction in insulin sensitivity means that your body has to produce more insulin when you consume carbs, which can lead to an increased risk for developing type-2 diabetes and obesity. It also can limit muscle growth. Because insulin is important for pushing carbs, amino acids and creatine into your muscles, lower insulin sensitivity can make it harder for you to recover after workouts and gain muscle and strength. One study, published in a 1999 issue of Acta Physiologica Scandinavica, found that when sodium levels were reduced by about 85%, creatine uptake was also reduced by about 80%.
Cutting sodium may be beneficial for sedentary individuals, but it doesn’t really hold water (pun intended) for hardcore bodybuilders. Here’s why:
The research has shown that the sweet spot for sodium appears to fall in the range between 2,000 and 4,000 mg per day. Any less than 2,000 and you’ll likely experience health consequences; an excess of 4,000 mg could wreck your health, too. We’ve analyzed the typical FLEX meal plans and they fall somewhere between 3,000 and 3,800 mg of sodium per day — right in the aforementioned sweet spot to keep your muscle strength and size maximized.
Dennis James’ rules for manipulating sodium for a contest:
At the beginning of my career, I was always called the “Two-weeks out Mr. Olympia” because I looked great then but by contest time, not so much. The problem stemmed from ridding my diet of sodium at 10 days out. Through trial and error, I came up with this protocol. I don’t go by any set numbers, but here are the guidelines I use to determine when and how much to cut.