Endocrinology

What causes salt cravings?

Anyone who has ever eaten a large serving of chips, popcorn, or french fries knows that salt cravings can be hard to resist. Although most people in the United States consume far too much salt in their diets, salt cravings are still a common problem.

Some people believe that a food craving is a sign that the body is deficient in something, but this is usually not the case. Most cravings are tied to unhealthful foods that offer little to no nutrition.


Salt cravings are common and are usually the result of factors such as boredom or stress. Occasionally, a salt craving can be tied to a medical condition or a sodium deficiency. 


In this article, we look at seven causes for salt cravings, including lack of sleep, excessive sweating, and some underlying medical conditions.





1. Stress


Salt on a table
Salt cravings may be the result of stress.


When stress levels rise, many people crave their favorite foods for comfort. Foods that people commonly crave are often high in fat, sugar, or salt — also known as sodium.


The “comfort food” habit can decrease a person’s overall health. An article in the Journal of Health Psychology found a significant association between levels of chronic stress, food cravings, and higher body mass index (BMI). 


Another study found a link between stress and higher levels of the hormone ghrelin, which increases hunger. The results of the study suggest that ghrelin may increase food cravings and lead to weight gain.




2. Lack of sleep


People who do not get enough sleep may crave snacks with high “satisfaction levels” such as salty, crunchy foods.


A study in the journal Sleep found that people who were sleep-deprived were less able to resist cravings for their favorite unhealthy foods. This resulted in weight gain.


Because lack of sleep may also be linked to other health problems, people who are consistently having inadequate rest may wish to discuss this with their doctors.


Sleep disorders, stress, and busy schedules are often to blame, but a health professional can offer a clear diagnosis and potential treatment plan.




3. Boredom


bored man eating on the sofa
Eating salty food due to boredom is similar to stress eating.


Eating due to boredom is an emotional eating behavior, similar to stress eating.


To determine whether a salt craving is due to boredom or hunger, it is helpful to look for the body’s hunger cues. 


True hunger occurs when a person’s body is in need of food. If a person has not eaten for several hours, they may have true hunger.


Other signs of hunger include:


  • noisy stomach grumbling

  • wanting to eat almost any food, not a specific one

  • a desire to eat that gets stronger over time

These signs indicate that it may be time to eat a meal or snack. Salty, high-fat foods are rarely a nutritious choice, however. 


Instead, a person should look for something with crunch and flavor, such as raw fruits or vegetables. These choices can keep the salt intake to a minimum while calming the desire for crunchy, satisfying foods.




4. Excessive sweating


Sweat contains salt, so when a person sweats, their sodium levels decrease.


For most people, light sweating is nothing to worry about. Sodium levels do not drop significantly with day to day sweating, and typically, only water is needed to replace fluids after a workout.


Endurance athletes or those who work in very hot environments may need to consume more salt, however, to replace what is lost through excessive or prolonged sweating. 


When a person loses too much sodium, their body may begin to crave salt. One study found that people who work in hot conditions for 10 hours can lose up to 15 grams of salt, although this number may vary widely from person to person.


Electrolyte-enhanced drinks or sports drinks may be recommended for people who exercise excessively or who spend long hours in a hot environment. These drinks contain sodium and other electrolytes to replace what is lost through sweat.





5. Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)


A woman may experience a variety of physical and emotional changes in the days leading up to her menstrual period. These changes are known as premenstrual syndrome (PMS). 


Food cravings, including a craving for salty foods, are a common symptom. These cravings may be related to hormonal fluctuations. 


Women who experience PMS-related cravings may wish to try:


  • Calcium and vitamin B-6: A 2016 study found that women who took 500 micrograms (mg) of calcium and 40 mg of vitamin B-6 had fewer PMS symptoms than those who took vitamin B-6 alone.

  • Acupuncture and herbs: A review of studies found that women who received acupuncture and herbal medicine had a 50 percent reduction in PMS symptoms.

  • Vitex (chasteberry): This herb may improve some PMS symptoms. It should not be taken by women who are taking hormones, birth control pills, or who have a hormone-sensitive medical condition.

  • Oral contraceptives (birth control pills): Birth control pills appear to improve PMS symptoms, according to a recent study in 2016. However, birth control pills can have side effects and risks that should be discussed with a doctor.


6. Addison’s disease


adrenal glands
When the adrenal glands do not make enough hormones, this may lead to salt cravings.


Addison’s disease, or adrenal insufficiency, occurs when the adrenal glands do not make enough hormones.


These hormones control the body’s response to stress and regulate blood pressure. As a result, Addison’s disease can cause very low blood pressure and sudden cravings for salt.


Besides salt cravings, people with Addison’s disease may experience:


  • weakness

  • long-term fatigue

  • low appetite or unplanned weight loss

  • stomach pain

  • nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea

  • dizziness or fainting due to low blood pressure

  • low blood sugar, called hypoglycemia

  • depression or irritability

  • headache

  • irregular or absent menstrual periods

Addison’s disease may be caused by:


  • an autoimmune disorder

  • tuberculosis

  • HIV and AIDS

  • certain bacterial or fungal infections

  • pituitary gland problems

  • stopping long-term steroid medications

Addison’s disease requires medical care to replace the hormones that the adrenal glands are not making.


In severe cases, a person may go into adrenal crisis. This happens when levels of cortisol in the body drop to dangerous levels. Adrenal crisis is a medical emergency.



7. Bartter syndrome


Bartter syndrome is a genetic condition that is present at birth. People with Bartter syndrome cannot reabsorb sodium in their kidneys. As a result, they lose too much sodium in their urine, which leads to a loss of potassium and calcium as well.


Due to low levels of sodium, people with Bartter syndrome may crave salt. They may also experience: 


  • slow weight gain, seen in children

  • constipation

  • the need to urinate often

  • kidney stones

  • low blood pressure

  • muscle cramps and weakness

This syndrome is usually diagnosed in infancy or childhood through urine and blood tests. It can be managed with potassium, salt, and magnesium supplements.




Outlook


Very often, salt cravings are simply food cravings due to stress, fatigue, boredom, or PMS. However, ongoing salt cravings can be an indication of certain medical conditions. 


If an obvious cause for salt cravings cannot be found, or risk factors for kidney or adrenal problems are possible, then a person should talk to their doctor.

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