Thursday, July 26, 2007

SODIUM: The unsung Hero to Performance and Looking Lean

This month I have decided to republish a popular article of mine that appeared in several magazines like Max Bodysport, Musclemag (twice) and several other publications. After over hearing a conversation between level one Figure competitors the other day in my gym, I thought it might be wise to republish this one, since people still don't seem to be getting proper knowledge filtering through from all the marketing and disinformation sources.

Hope it helps. Again, some of you will get, some of you will not. I welcome your comments on my Forums section. (which will soon be updated by the way)

The unsung Hero to Performance and Looking Lean

Has anyone ever pondered where old clich├ęs and old expressions come from? It is true that most adages handed down through time come from the experiences and cultural milieu of their time period.
So try to imagine how expressions such as "he's salt of the earth" or "that man's worth his salt" came to pass. In ancient times salt was precious. It was traded as the most valued of all commodities. Having salt was as close to life insurance as one could get. Given the preponderance of modern-day phobias surrounding salt and sodium we seem to have a paradox here.

How could something so important to survival during one era be considered so necessary to avoid during another? The answer may surprise you. While times have definitely changed, human biochemistry and physiology have not changed that much. Few of us toil under the sweltering heat of a pounding sun any more and modern society has contributed much to the many modern stress-related ills such as hypertension.

Never the less, our need for the most important of electrolytes in our bodies has not changed. In particular the metabolic needs of high-performance athletes probably most closely resembles the needs of our ancient forefathers, especially in regard to electrolyte ingestion.

Truth be told, the anti-sodium campaign began as a commercial movement to sell different foodstuffs and snacks under the guise of being healthier. Much like the low-fat advertising movement, manufacturers care not so much about accuracy in advertising as much as they do about what works in advertising. As soon as the low-sodium content advertisements were shown to create dividends, other food and supplement companies followed suit to the point where, by default, consumers started to believe that low-sodium was good and salt was in general, bad. People failed to see that they had been internalizing advertising and not actual scientific information.

For generations manufacturers have been marketing products by bombarding the public with what ingredients their brand either does or does not have to make their product sell better than the competition's. Pure snack/junk food companies tend to focus mostly on better taste whereas companies who aim at the health-conscious consumer will focus on the bad ingredients they did not put in their product because they care so much about the consumer's health. (yeah right) Like sheep, we follow along buying the “low fat this” or “no sodium that” product not realizing or questioning the motivation to do so. In regard to sodium intake, studies are coming in regularly refuting its bad reputation and negative impact on human health, performance and physiology.

Studies in Canada at McGill and McMaster Universities have concluded that unless one has a specific and serious condition which would preclude him from taking in salt, then salt intake will produce no negative health problems and could actually be health promoting. As a matter of fact only 10% of hypertension cases have a known cause, and almost all of them are genetic or stress related!!!!

As an introduction this may well be more information than you wanted to know, but it goes much further. High-performance athletes actually need to go out of their way NOT to avoid sodium. In fact, they need to ensure they get adequate amounts of salts daily to prevent negative metabolic consequences, and to ensure maximum performance. That is the focus of this article.


Athletes who are concerned about maximum performance (and who among them are not?) are decisive about what they eat for several reasons. Most athletes know that the body is a complex computer that one can either program by understanding sound dietary strategy, or instead by letting the body program itself by using haphazard and misconstrued eating patterns. Either way, meal formulation, and meal timing all are programming our body’s computer, consciously or not.

Athletes eat for different reasons. Three of the main ones are 1) they eat as a preventive measure to help them stay free from illness 2) They eat for fitness by ensuring optimum energy stores, recuperation and restoration 3) bodybuilders especially, find it vitally important to follow certain eating regimens to produce a cosmetic effect i.e. a leaner, harder physique.

Having said that, the truth of the matter is that a high-sodium diet fulfills all three of the above criteria for athletes eating to improve performance. As a matter of scientific fact, many negative problems having to do with athletic performance or sub-maximal athletic performance or even failure to improve begin when athletes and health enthusiasts mistakenly eliminate sodium from their diets and these ill effects can last for a long time.

While addressing sodium is the primary focus of this article, no nutrient acts on metabolism only by itself. Any discussion on sodium is incomplete without mentioning potassium and the hormone aldosterone.

As an electrolyte, sodium is the positively charged ion on the outside of the living cell. Cations, anions and ions exist in an exact balance outside and inside cells so that a change in the balance of one or more cations or ions will cause a change in other cations and ions in order to maintain cell integrity. Simply put, sodium is responsible for regulating blood volume and blood pressure - although it serves other functions as well.

During a set of high-intensity muscle contraction blood pressure rises; this is a primary response of high-intensity training. During high-performance exercise the metabolism of the body is better served by a higher blood volume since this translates into better oxygen and nutrient delivery to working cells. Just as importantly, a higher blood volume results in a more efficient removal of fatigue toxins.

A low sodium intake translates into a lower blood volume, and over time this is disastrous to an athlete. Even in healthy people, low blood volume produces a myriad of problems.
Studies at the University of Bonn concluded that a low-sodium diet (and the resulting lower blood volume) was more health threatening than hypertension itself - the main reason people are put on low-sodium diets to begin with.

These effects are even more pronounced in an athlete's body. In a low-sodium situation the resulting low blood volume delivers less oxygen and nutrients to working muscles and also allows for greater accumulation of fatigue toxins that might not otherwise occur with a normal or higher blood volume. The consequences are overwhelming in terms of reduced recuperation and overall weakness - pretty much the last thing that hard-training and hungry-for-progress athletes would want to happen to their bodies.

These are the result of trying to eliminate crucial electrolytes like sodium from one's diet.
This is merely the exercise and performance aspect of low-sodium diets. Upon closer inspection of electrolyte potassium it becomes even clearer that a low-sodium diet makes the situation even worse in regard to optimum electrolyte metabolism since potassium is dependent on sodium to be effective for a number of reasons.

Potassium's responsibilities are primarily the regulation and control of skeletal and cardiac muscles. The vagus nerve, which controls heartbeat, is totally dependent on potassium.
The corollary to sodium, potassium is the positively charged ion inside of the cell. (Sodium the positively charged ion on the outside of the cell) While its independent functions in the control of muscles has been pointed out, potassium itself is dependent on sodium to maintain cell integrity - that exact balance of cations and ions inside and outside cell walls, remember?

Everyone has been told of the benefits to muscles of eating and having potassium present in the muscle cell. But, how does potassium get to be inside the cell to begin with? It is the responsibility of sodium to deliver potassium inside the cell. The cell wall is partially permeable to sodium. It takes three molecules of sodium to get one molecule of potassium inside the cell and the process by which this is achieved is called "active transport."
Potassium cannot enter the cell without sodium. Sodium acts as a chaperon if you will in the delivery of the all-important potassium into the cell.

Therefore, for optimum cell integrity and optimum potassium delivery there must be ample sodium present.

This is even more crucial in athletes where electrolyte balance and exchange takes place more rapidly and is more crucial for optimum performance. Also, since the active transport of potassium inside the cell by sodium is metabolically expensive, the activity of sodium-potassium pumps can be adjusted by the thyroid hormones in order to regulate resting caloric expenditure and basal metabolic rate (BMR).

It follows then that in a prolonged low-sodium situation the body may lower BMR in order to control this metabolically expensive function. This spells disaster for the dieting bodybuilder or competing athlete who wants his BMR as high as possible and not lowered by a body compensating for costs it cannot afford to incur. Even more importantly in this metabolic circumstance is that cell integrity is jeopardized and less potassium can be delivered less often to the cell. This is disastrous for any serious athlete. It becomes painfully obvious that this is the most negative electrolyte situation an athlete, especially a bodybuilder, or Figure athlete concerned with cosmetic appearance could get into.

It is easy to illustrate how a body could get into such a state of disarray. The primary avenue for the loss of sodium is through sweat glands. No one, except our ancient forefathers, sweats as much or more than high-performance athletes and bodybuilders.
High-intensity training combined with interval cardio activity (Two training sessions per day) and tanning, done consistently week in and week out, produces an abundant loss of sodium through the skin. Combine this with the extreme and prolonged attention bodybuilders, and well-intentioned athletes give to keeping sodium out of their diet and you can see how bad a situation becomes worse.

The body, in its efforts to maintain cell balance, takes matter into its own hands. (The computer programming itself, remember?) In extreme (but never the less all too common) cases the body sends potassium to the outside of the cell in order to maintain some kind of cell integrity. Remember cell electrolyte integrity is maintained in specific and delicate ratios and balances.
In an emergency situation, the body can only maintain some kind of cell integrity by sending potassium (a positively charged ion) outside the cell to replace the sodium that should be there. The result of these metabolic consequences is, of course, weakened cell integrity. Sometimes depolarization between electrically charged ions happens and, since potassium has left the cell, there is muscle weakness, cramps, listlessness and lethargy.

Note that it is not the low-calorie diets that produce these physical and psychological symptoms, rather it is due to a prolonged lack of sodium intake. The problem can be understood better by discussing the hormone aldosterone.
We can also understand why sodium undeservedly gets a bad rap and, of course, how to remedy the situation.

Aldosterone Hormone

In a normal metabolic situation electrolyte balance is delicately maintained by urinary output. The kidneys regulate the concentration of plasma electrolytes of sodium, potassium, and calcium by matching almost exactly the amounts ingested to the amounts excreted. The final amounts of sodium and potassium excreted in the urine are regulated by the needs of the body.

Problems for athletes begin when they needlessly start eliminating sodium while at the same time their bodies are regularly losing too much of it through sweat and cellular activity. This produces the negative stress response of the release of the hormone aldosterone. Normally people have low levels of circulating aldosterone. It is a hormone released in response to metabolic or physiological stress.

The release of this hormone serves several functions. The main effect of aldosterone secretion is a reabsorption of sodium through the distal tubules of the kidneys. Thus sodium that normally would have left the body is retained because of the presence of this hormone.
Normally individuals can excrete a huge 30 grams of sodium daily when aldosterone is not present. Yes that's 30,000 mg! This is an average person, not a hard-training athlete. When aldosterone is present there is absolutely no sodium in the urine at all, none. Why is this a problem?

Well, water always follows sodium because sodium is positively charged while water is negatively charged. Therefore, the more sodium excreted, the more water leaves the body. But since, in the presence of aldosterone, sodium is reabsorbed and kept in the body, and water follows sodium, water too is not excreted. The result is water retention. Therefore a physique may be lean from months of dieting but look soft and not lean because of sodium avoidance and therefore water retention, mild to severe. But even mild retention as you know can be enough to destroy an otherwise stage ready physique!!

Remember, and I repeat that the body is a complex computer system, which will always program itself in favor of survival. Maybe well-meaning, but misinformed, athletes and bodybuilders are now starting to get a clearer picture of how important sodium is to the body, so much so, that there are hormones and back up hormones, that insure it’s provision to the body’s electrolyte balance.

There is another side to the aldosterone hormonal response, which can also spell disaster for an athlete. Not only does aldosterone cause reabsorption of sodium, but because of this, aldosterone secretion also causes a pronounced excretion of plasma potassium. Again, in the absence of aldosterone virtually no potassium is excreted in the urine. When aldosterone secretion is maximal, however, there is up to 50 times more potassium excreted than what is initially filtered by the kidneys. A reexamination of the situation reveals that a negative situation exists in such a physiological environment.

First sodium is reabsorbed. Second, because water follows sodium, there is water retention. (This in turn creates an osmotic imbalance.) Third, because aldosterone also produces pronounced potassium excretion, the result is further muscular weakness, cramping, performance infringement - and usually the appearance of a very flat, tired-looking physique. Again, all of this results from the body's primary response to retain sodium in order to regulate blood pressure and volume.

This whole misunderstanding of electrolyte function has led to ridiculous myths and misapplications of proper nutrition in the athletic and bodybuilding communities. One of the most bizarre, which comes to mind is the practice of bodybuilders to supplement potassium (e.g. taking Slow K) just before a show.

Why is this bad?

Two reasons: One is that it is impossible to load potassium inside a cell - cell equilibrium is always maintained in exact ratios. If a certain amount of potassium enters a cell, therefore, that identical amount must leave.

This creates the second problem of potassium supplementation. Aldosterone secretion is also triggered by excessive potassium in the blood. This leads to every single negative metabolic situation already mentioned being created, via a different route, that being too much potassium in the blood.

Is there a way to avoid such negative circumstances for an advanced athlete or bodybuilder? Of course, there is. The problem begins with the extremist-type mindset of many athletes especially bodybuilders. Bodybuilders need to understand that this extremist nature is actually hindering them.
It is important not to treat any dietary element as either friend or foe. Not even saturated fats should be treated as a dietary danger when taken in the right context, but that is a whole other article. Back to sodium. Remember excess sodium is excreted and because water follows sodium so is water. But for that to happen there must be more than enough sodium present or replenished at all times! Otherwise the aldosterone response is sure to follow.

Measuring sodium needs is relatively easy because making sure of its presence in the diet is the main priority. A general rule of thumb is that two grams of sodium should be taken with each liter of water replacement. Since most athletes are under-hydrated water needs should also be assessed.

Athletes, male or female, below 150 pounds who train at high intensity levels should take in at least two or three liters of water daily. Athletes at the 200 pound level should be taking a minimum of three to four liters daily. Athletes who weigh in excess of 225 pounds should take in a minimum of four to six liters daily.

At two grams per liter of fluid replacement, it is obvious that most athletes do not take in nearly enough sodium. For example, a 225-pound athlete would need to ingest between eight and twelve grams of sodium daily. That's right, 8,000 to 12,000 mg a day. This gives some indication of how flat-out neglectful athletes are to their electrolyte needs.

The way to ensure ample sodium intake is through the prodigious use of salty condiments. Sea salt, ketchup, mustard, barbecue sauce, etc. are smart choices to ensure ample amounts of sodium.

However, be wary of MSG. Although it is high in sodium, MSG had been shown to be a negative partitioning agent, which is to say it may channel nutrients toward fat storage, whether the nutrients contain fat or not.

MSG can also trigger catabolic responses because of its ingestion.

Most athletes associated with a higher sodium diet have reported substantial progress by ensuring adequate sodium intake. They are encouraged to do this by eating pickles and like foods on a daily basis. Pickles on average contain about 20 to 30 calories and almost a gram of sodium, so chopping them up into one's food makes good sense as does eating them as a snack.
We all hear of hockey players and other athletes taking I.V drips post game come playoff time to replace lost electrolytes. Most often these I.V. drips are no more than saline solution; you guessed it, a form of sodium infused water.

Bodybuilders must get over this sufferance thing when it comes to diet. Food is allowed to taste good and having food that tastes good will make it much easier to stay on a prolonged diet. It's funny, but even water-packed tuna canned with sodium chloride (salt) as a preservative will add some much needed sodium and will be cheaper and easier to find than water-packed tuna with no sodium.

But it is also important to remember in my discussion of Sodium that I am speaking or Sodium proper and not normal table salt. The two are not the same thing. Sodium chloride is table salt (which is only 40% sodium, and is 60% chloride) and it is the chloride bond that is metabolically problematic; and the added iodine to that can be tricky for some metabolisms, which again, ends up giving sodium in general, a wrongful bad reputation. Switching to sea salt, as a condiment makes good sense.

Finding a food prepared with Sodium Phosphate as a preservative will also serve a purpose. Sodium phosphate is known to be one of the best buffers around, or intra cellular buffers to be specific. This type of buffer combats the metabolic acidosis that workouts cause. Taking in 3-4 grams of Sodium Phosphate can increase both aerobic and anaerobic performance, and who doesn't want that. The effect can indeed rival the effects of creatine and other substrates.

Athletes who have been trying to avoid sodium for prolonged periods of time and who switch to this high-sodium approach will experience a temporary osmotic imbalance resulting in water retention. This initial effect is only the body's attempt to hold on to the sodium so rarely given to it. This retention is merely temporary and will dissipate as long as sodium and water intake, remain high.
The athlete will then notice a higher volume of urinary output, more sweating, the appearance of a leaner, harder physique, and more pumped and full muscles in the gym. (again, much like the effect of popular supplements on the market that cost an arm and a leg for the same effect. Often read the labels of these products and you will also find sodium)

I have tested, over and over, through the years the precepts of what I prescribe to my top-level amateur and professional athletes and regular Joe/Jane clients, time and time again with very exacting results. It is important to me that athletes who are serious about making strides in improvement and performance don't waste time making the same mistakes that so many athletes and bodybuilders have made before them.

My best advice to any serious trainee or athlete is to get professional advice from properly qualified and experienced coaches. (And please remember “certified” does NOT = “qualified”) There are not many of us around, but you will find that such coaches can make all the difference.

If you have followed the scientific information in this article, then you understand the importance of “real sodium” in your diet. You should never have to worry about “too much” since excess will be excreted. Increasing your sodium and water intake is an easy and effective way to improve “in the gym” performance and contribute to the cosmetic appearance of the physique at the same time.

It seems to me in this modern age of internet “guruism” more and more knowledge is being replaced by simple faulty logic. Time and time again, I see great physiques of Figure competitors and bodybuilders disappear in the last few weeks of contest preparation. Why?
This simple but faulty logic of low carbs to no carbs combined with no to low sodium. Yes no carbs will induce diuresis, but that water will also come from muscle, inside muscle where you want it. This displacement as I said also causes potassium to also leave muscle. Combine this with the effects of no to low sodium in the diet, and you can guarantee disaster to the physique rather than a polished properly peaked physique presentation. No amount of carb loading can bring a physique back from this once it happens. That is why so many people report looking better several days after competing.

A little knowledge indeed can be a dangerous thing !!!!
Till next time.......