Salt cravings signify stress

By Shayna Brouker • Published: August 22nd, 2011
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

It’s about 4:30 p.m. and that critical quarterly sales report is due to your boss at five. Two pages of blank cells stare back at you as the clock ticks away. You start to sweat, and suddenly, you realize you just have to have that bag of crunchy, crispy salt and vinegar-flavored potato chips calling to you from the vending machine.

Now researchers know why salty snacks can be so irresistible. A study from the University of Cincinnati shows that elevated levels of sodium slow down stress hormones normally released in stressful situations. These hormones are located along the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal, or H-P-A, axis in the brain, an area that controls how we respond to stress.

The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, involved dehydrating lab rats by giving them sodium chloride, then exposing them to stress. Compared with the control group that received no salty solution, the salt-fed rats released fewer stress hormones and even showed better cardiovascular response. Their heart rates didn’t jump quite so quickly and returned to normal levels faster than those of the control group.

What’s more, further research of the rats’ kidneys and brains found that the same hormones that help kidneys handle dehydration also benefit the brain’s responsiveness to stressors and social anxiety. The state of elevated sodium level, called hypernatremia, actually increased the activity of oxytocin, a powerful anti-stress hormone.

The scientists called it the “Watering Hole Effect” because when humans are thirsty, we have to overcome anxiety to approach a communal source of water. Salt, ironically, helps us get there.

So the next time the pressure’s on and that salty snack of pretzels, chips or peanuts is calling your name … pick your poison … go ahead and indulge. Here’s one case where salt can help, rather than hurt, your health.