There are a lot of kooky claims about pink Himalayan salt.
84 Trace Minerals?
The most common claim that you’ll find across the internet is that it contains “84 trace minerals” for your body. It’s a meme at this point- almost every source will say the same number, 84.
Not 85. Not 83. But specifically 84!
Like most false or dubious claims, it has a slight grain of truth to it. Himalayan salt does, indeed, contain trace amounts of dozens of minerals. It’s just that most of them are in such low concentrations that it doesn’t matter.
Important dietary minerals have daily requirements of 100’s of milligrams, but you’ll get at most a couple milligrams each of some beneficial trace minerals from a few daily grams of Himalayan salt, and far tinier amounts of dozens of others, making the trace minerals largely irrelevant.
Himalayan Salt Lamps: Negative Ions?
Another claim, specifically about salt lamps, is that the negative ions emitted from a big Himalayan chunk of salt with a light in it will provide all sorts of benefits to your body and home.
But the science is pretty clear that’s not true.
Negative ions themselves arguably do have benefits for health and well-being, because there are a small number of peer-reviewed studies showing that negative ions can alleviate mild depression.
There are sources of nature that generate negative ions in meaningful amounts, like waterfalls and beaches, where water is shaken and churned in huge quantities to release these charged particles into the air. Powerful machines can also release them in relevant amounts.
But a salt lamp? It unfortunately doesn’t generate significant measurable amounts of negative ions.
They do admittedly look awesome, though:
And they actually have one benefit, indirectly.
But it’s not because of what they give, it’s because of what they specifically lack- blue light.
Blue light from our screens and other light sources prevents our bodies from making melatonin at night, and melatonin helps us sleep. It’s good to get natural sunlight (which has blue wavelengths) in the morning to help you feel wakeful, and important to minimize exposure to blue light wavelengths after sunset, to help your body start to wind down for sleep.
But amber night lights do the same thing. I use those in my home, and they work great. They let you see at night without giving you exposure to blue light. Salt lamps just make it look cooler.
Using Himalayan salt lamps as a fashionable light source can be a decent idea, but only because they happen to be light sources that give off a warm amber glow rather than being a light source high in harsh blue wavelengths.
But let’s get into the real stuff.
The Importance of Salt
Salt is necessary for proper function of life. Without it, you’ll die.
It plays a key role in the nervous system, muscular system, and maintaining bodily fluid balance.
It can be acquired in small amounts from various food, but often not in sufficient amounts. Many animals naturally seek out mineral-rich salt deposits to supplement their diet with added salt.
Here’s a short video of elephants eating dirt and seeking out high-salt volcanic caves to get enough salt in their diet:
Another set of sequel videos show the elephants and tons of other species going to those dangerous caves to get access to salt:
Humans are no exception. Throughout antiquity, salt has been an essential commodity.
As shown here, the rise of human civilization is closely tied to the trade of salt. “Salt roads” throughout Europe under the Roman Empire established trade routes for essential salt. The power balance of ancient cities and governments around the world was in part based on their access and control over salt deposits or coastal salt extraction techniques.
This wasn’t all just because salt tastes good. It was because it’s essential for life and well-being, and humans and other animals often seek it out beyond what they get in food.
Generally speaking, animal meats are far higher in sodium than plant-based foods, including grains. As agriculture developed and people got more and more of their calories from grains, external salt naturally became more important to seek out.
Actual Benefits of Himalayan Salt
Kind of like those cute salt lamps, the benefit of eating pink Himalayan salt is not what it gives, but simply what it lacks.
Unlike most other types of salt, Himalayan salt doesn’t have chemicals, additives, or plastics in it.
That’s it. It’s just pure.
And it’s worth investing in a high quality salt for that reason.
Standard table salt is a highly refined product with chemicals added. To make it 100% white and flow out of the salt shaker easier, table salt is frequently bleached and loaded with anticaking agents and other additives. Then they add supplemental iodine, and to avoid the iodine being oxidized, they add a very small amount of sugar.
The most common anticaking agents contain aluminum, which some evidence links to Alzheimer’s disease. For example, here’s part of the abstract of a heavily-cited 2011 report published in the peer-reviewed Journal for Alzheimer’s Disease:
Research, however, reveals that: 1) very small amounts of Al are needed to produce neurotoxicity and this criterion is satisfied through dietary Al intake, 2) Al sequesters different transport mechanisms to actively traverse brain barriers, 3) incremental acquisition of small amounts of Al over a lifetime favors its selective accumulation in brain tissues, and 4) since 1911, experimental evidence has repeatedly demonstrated that chronic Al intoxication reproduces neuropathological hallmarks of AD. Misconceptions about Al bioavailability may have misled scientists regarding the significance of Al in the pathogenesis of AD. The hypothesis that Al significantly contributes to AD is built upon very solid experimental evidence and should not be dismissed. Immediate steps should be taken to lessen human exposure to Al, which may be the single most aggravating and avoidable factor related to AD.
And here’s part of the abstract of a 2017 study published in the Journal of Trace Elements in Medicine and Biology, which measured aluminum in brain tissue of deceased Alzheimer’s patients and found extremely high levels:
One such environmental factor is human exposure to aluminium and aluminium has been shown to be present in brain tissue in sporadic Alzheimer’s disease. We have made the first ever measurements of aluminium in brain tissue from 12 donors diagnosed with familial Alzheimer’s disease. The concentrations of aluminium were extremely high, for example, there were values in excess of 10 μg/g tissue dry wt. in 5 of the 12 individuals. Overall, the concentrations were higher than all previous measurements of brain aluminium except cases of known aluminium-induced encephalopathy. We have supported our quantitative analyses using a novel method of aluminium-selective fluorescence microscopy to visualise aluminium in all lobes of every brain investigated. The unique quantitative data and the stunning images of aluminium in familial Alzheimer’s disease brain tissue raise the spectre of aluminium’s role in this devastating disease.
The 2017 study goes on to conclude:
Aluminium is neurotoxic and the concentrations of aluminium found in these familial AD brains are unlikely to be benign and indeed are highly likely to have contributed to both the onset and the aggressive nature of any ongoing AD in these individuals. These data lend support to the recent conclusion that brain aluminium will contribute towards all forms of AD under certain conditions.
According to a Center for Disease Control public health statement, aluminum in our food, including anticaking agents, is the primary exposure method for most people to aluminum. They also mention various studies inconclusively linking aluminum to Alzheimer’s and other ailments before concluding somehow that small amounts are probably not harmful.
But I love the way the Center for Disease Control reassuringly describes it in this statement:
We do not know for certain that aluminum causes Alzheimer’s disease.
Well great, eat up then!
For reasons like that, sea salt is frequently thought of as a better alternative, but studies show that the majority of sea salt brands have microplastics in them, because we’ve polluted our oceans with plastic:
- Guardian: Sea Salt Around the World is Contaminated with Plastic
- Nature: Presence of Microplastics in Salts from Different Countries
The impact of such things remains unknown, because they haven’t been studied well. Plastics contain known carcinogens, but we’re talking about pretty small amounts here and salt is often packaged in plastic anyway.
Researchers believe that although we eliminate the majority of plastics that we consume, a small percentage of them accumulate and remain in our bodies. It actually made me re-think how much shellfish I should eat, given the fact that they’re one of the most sustainable and nutrient dense foods on the planet but also some of the heaviest bio-accumulators of microplastics. There’s definitely a trade-off there.
The thing with toxins and pollutants is that they tend to be in small amounts from any individual source. But throughout our lives, they add up in a huge way.
Morgan Spurlock, the guy who made the famous “Super Size Me” documentary where he ate only McDonald’s for 30 days, has a television series on CNN called Inside Man, where he presents himself as a regular guy and puts himself through various experiences.
A particularly good episode was one called, “The Truth About Toxins“, where he has experts analyze his home to show him which things contain chemicals, and a laboratory analysis of his body for 28 artificial chemicals shows that he has all 28 of them in his body in significant amounts. That’s out of the thousands of chemicals we’re all exposed to that he wasn’t tested for. A detox regimen managed to measurably reduce but not eliminate the chemicals in his body.
The short summary is, your home furnishings (mattress, couch, carpet, etc) are literally doused with flame retardants and stain resistant chemicals, which all get into your body through dust inhalation and skin touch over years. Your cleaning and beauty supplies contain carcinogens and neurotoxins. Your food contains pesticides, is filled with antibiotics and hormones, loaded with artificial preservatives and other chemicals, and packaged in containers with plastics that soak into the contents. Very little of this is government regulated.
And sure, your salt probably has has been bleached, and has anticaking agents with aluminum compounds.
Himalayan salt on the other hand is mined mostly in the Khewra salt mine in northern Pakistan, in the western Himalayas, and the only thing special about it is that it was deposited by an ancient extinct sea before humans were around, and so we haven’t polluted it. It’s one of the cleanest types of salt you can eat, and has a lot less aluminum than table salt with anticaking agents.
Will it give you all sorts of magical benefits? No.
But it eliminates one more weird set of chemicals or compounds you’re exposed to on a daily basis, and in my opinion, tastes better.
Crunching the Numbers
The inner engineer in me wants to do math about this. So here goes:
Suppose that you eat 5 grams (about a teaspoon) of added salt per day. Salt is less than 40% sodium, so that’s below the standard sodium guidelines.
This equates to about four pounds of salt per year. Over the course of an 80 year lifetime, that’s about 320 pounds of salt consumed. If you eat more salt or live longer, the numbers can go far higher.
If you consume 320 pounds of normal refined table salt in a lifetime, you’ll consume several pounds worth of anticaking agents and other additives. On the other hand, if you consume more pure types of salt, you’ll instead consume several pounds of trace minerals, most of which are beneficial.
When extrapolated out over a lifetime, that’s a noticeable difference. And when it’s just one part of a multitude of other simple tactics to reduce chemicals in and around your body by sticking to pure things, it helps even further.
There are so many aspects of our artificial living environments that make it hard to avoid chemicals and processing. But sticking to pure salt is simple and cheap.
Another great option is Redmond Real Salt, which is also cheap. Similar to Himalayan salt that was deposited from an ancient sea, Redmond salt also comes from an ancient sea. It just so happens that this one comes from mines in Utah rather than mines in the Himalayas, which makes it less exotic sounding. The mineral analysis is very similar, and they use clean mining techniques that ensure they don’t pollute the pure salt they’re bringing up.
A final decent option is Celtic Sea Salt, a well-regarded sea salt brand from the coasts of France. You can get a pound of it for under $12, and mineral analysis of it shows that it has a bunch of trace minerals and relatively low levels of sodium compared to other salts.
France was pretty much the lowest country in the “plastic is in our sea salt!” studies. In other words, if I’m going to buy sea salt, it might as well be from France, which is where the popular Celtic Sea Salt brand comes from. I’d like to see more frequent testing from major sea salt brands, though.
Considering that Himalayan salt and Redmond salt (deposited from ancient, unpolluted seas) can often be purchased for less money than Celtic salt (from modern, polluted seas), Himalayan and Redmond salts are what I default to. Taking into account the primary factors (purity, price, etc), I view them as the optimal choice.
But hey, when I travel or eat at a friend’s home, I eat whatever salt they have.
It’s not about being obsessive; it’s about making simple choices for pure ingredients when possible because they add up over the course of a lifetime.
Do I know for sure how much dietary aluminum or plastics affect health over an 80-year period? No. And that’s why I keep it simple and skip them.
Sodium Guidelines, Athletes, and Low-Carb
Nobody honestly seems to know how much salt intake is optimal.
There seems to be a U-shaped curve of harm, where too little salt is disastrous, but too much salt correlates with health problems as well. There’s an ideal range, probably a very broad one, somewhere in the center.
Salt consists of about 40% or less (depending on the type) of sodium. So it takes over 5g of salt to give you 2,000mg of sodium.
For several decades now, health authorities have hammered into the public the idea that people need to lower their sodium intake to under 2,300mg per day for better health.
It hasn’t worked, and more importantly, significant studies show that the advice itself may be wrong.
- Healthline: Is Salt Actually Bad For You?
- Scientific American: It’s Time to End the War on Salt
- New York Times: Why All We Know About Salt May Be Wrong
Those articles cite multiple peer-reviewed studies showing that reduced salt intake does not reduce heart attacks, strokes, or death. Some studies even show an inverse correlation, where those with lower salt intakes are more likely to die.
Going on a low salt diet can even increase insulin resistance.
In addition, many countries with very high sodium intakes, like South Korea, often have lower rates of heart attacks and other health issues than the United States.
Some evidence suggests that too little potassium, rather than too much sodium, is what causes many of the health issues we associate with too much salt. Sodium and potassium are both electrolytes and they have somewhat opposing actions when it comes to regulating blood pressure and fluid balances inside and outside of cells in our bodies.
Potassium is found in high amounts in many plant foods, like avocados. It’s also found in quality meat. Basically, it’s in real foods. But it’s not very present in highly processed foods, like refined flours and sugars, which make up the bulk of the standard American diet.
In South Korea, they’re eating salted veggies with high potassium, not salted processed foods. It’s the sodium/potassium balance that may be playing a big difference.
Himalayan salt and sea salt do have small amounts of potassium (refined table salt does not), but not nearly enough to replace vegetables.
Lastly, sources like the American Heart Association point out that 75% of the sodium intake in the standard American diet is from processed food.
If you eat real whole foods and cook most of your own meals, then suddenly your sodium intake is way lower, and most of the salt in your diet is from what you add to it with your salt shaker.
At that point, you find yourself in the same position that most animals and humans throughout history found themselves in: seeking out salt to get more of it, not less.
The way I see it, cutting out highly processed food and eating real, natural food with salt added to taste keeps you easily in the sodium safe zone. The human body naturally has a taste for salt, and sticking to pure simple ingredients makes it hard to consume too much of something.
Of course, people with specific health concerns may be an exception.
Athleticism and Low-Carb Diets
Salt intake becomes even more interesting if you eat a low-carbohydrate, whole-food diet. Especially during the transition-phase if you switch from a standard high-carb diet to a low-carb one.
Your body can burn either sugar or fat for energy. Carbs are just long chains of sugar, which get turned into sugar by the body. It’s also possible (although inefficient) for your body to convert protein into sugar, and burn that for energy. Ultimately, sugar and fat are the fuel sources, and the majority of people consume large amounts of carbs and therefore primarily burn sugar for energy.
Each pound of fat on your body is about 3,500 calories worth of energy. Even a lean person has many pounds of body fat, which translates into tens or hundreds of thousands of stored calories, which we can tap into for fuel when insulin levels are low. We can also, of course, burn dietary fat for energy.
On the other hand, the body only stores a few hundred grams of sugar for fuel in the liver and muscle as glycogen, which can be used for energy. In simple terms, glycogen is about one part glucose (sugar) to four parts water. At about 4 calories per gram, this is generally less than 2,000 calories worth of glucose that can be stored.
This is why marathon runners drink sugary sports drinks or eat glucose gel packs when they bike or run for hours straight. They deplete their small glycogen reserves and need to refill them with dietary sources in the middle of the activity. Because they sweat so much and lose water, they also need to refill their electrolytes, aka sodium and potassium. That’s why sports drinks are high in glucose (sugar), sodium, and sometimes potassium.
Anyway, if you switch from a standard diet to very low-carb diet, you’ll deplete your glycogen stores (glucose + water) in a few days. This is part of what people refer to as losing water weight in the beginning of a diet- you burn the glucose for energy and urinate out the excess water, which can be several pounds worth.
But when all that extra water leaves your body, it takes electrolytes with it. So, when you transition from a standard diet to a low-carb diet and lose all that glycogen water weight, you’ll deplete your electrolytes within a few days and feel lousy. Consuming electrolytes in the form of salt (for sodium), vegetables (for potassium), and high-magnesium foods or magnesium supplements helps alleviate that transitional phase by replenishing them. This advice to get sufficient electrolytes is given by researchers, fitness experts, as well as people who are highly experienced with low-carb eating and it’s something I’m well-acquainted with myself.
Over the long-term, when you eat a whole-food diet without large amounts of processed foods, you’ll probably be more in tune with your body’s need for salt.
Eating a highly processed diet deficient in nutrients makes us feel lousy quite often and we become accustomed to that feeling. But when you eat nutrient-dense real foods, achieve ideal body composition, and feel vibrant, you start to directly experience how the inclusion or lack of different ingredients can affect you.
Here’s an example big meal that I often eat:
Baked salmon drizzled with olive oil and Italian herbs, with an avocado/spinach/lettuce salad on the side, topped with olive oil and lemon juice. An hour later for dessert, blackberries and hand-whipped heavy cream, sprinkled with a half-teaspoon of ground vanilla.
- 5 ounce baked wild-caught sockeye salmon filet
- 2 cups mixed greens (spinach, romaine)
- 1 whole avocado, sliced
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 ounce of blackberries
- 4 ounces of pastured cream
- Italian herbs
- ground vanilla
That’s about 1,250 calories and under 200mg of sodium.
In other words, as a 120 pound woman, it’s about two thirds of the food I’ll eat in a day, but only a tiny amount of sodium.
The average American consumes almost 4,000mg of sodium per day, and the (overly strict) guidelines suggest keeping it under 2,300mg. A human needs about 500mg per day over the long-term minimum for basic functions, and many health authorities suggest a target of about 1,500mg per day.
I’m at a tiny fraction of that with my meal. Only 200mg.
That’s an example of how, if you eat almost entirely whole foods, suddenly there’s little or no concern about getting too much sodium, and instead the focus becomes getting enough sodium, which is easy to do by adding salt.
When you add most of your own salt to your foods in fairly large amounts, generally you start to notice the taste difference between crappy salt and real salt.
The summary is, at least from my experience and from many others, is that on a whole/real food diet, you feel better when you eat more salt. Like other animals and early humans, you’ll specifically want to make sure you include some in your diet.
Athletes, especially ones that have adapted their bodies to run more on fat than on glucose, are also in tune for their body’s need for electrolytes, including sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium. If you get too little of them, you get muscle cramps, fatigue, brain fog, etc.
Among people that eat whole-food diets without processed food, some of them even drink salt water in the morning.
This is not something I’d recommend to the standard person eating plenty of sodium from processed foods, but it’s not a bad idea for healthy people who eat whole, natural, low-sodium foods. It can get your electrolytes into balance first thing in the morning after a long night of fasting and mild dehydration.
Personally in the morning I often put a pinch of salt on my tongue and then drink some water. I find that it alleviates morning fatigue or mild headaches, and helps boost clarity and energy. Like a sports drink without sugar.
I also eat plenty of high-potassium foods during the day and put salt on my food. Everything feels better that way, and I know what it feels like to go without salt for a while.
When you get that in tune with your body’s need for salt, to the point of seeking it out or even eating it directly, pure Himalayan salt, Redmond salt, or high quality sea salt becomes a more attractive (and palatable) substance than the standard refined bleached table salt people are used to.
The Bottom Line
Sodium/salt intake has a U-shaped harm curve to it.
It’s essential for life, so eating too little of it can cause severe health issues. On the other hand, large intakes of it from processed foods, especially without consuming enough potassium from plants, is linked to certain health problems as well. There’s a sweet spot in the middle.
About three quarters of the sodium intake in a typical person’s diet is from processed or restaurant foods.
If you don’t eat any highly processed foods, and don’t eat out at restaurants too often, then most of the salt in your diet will be added by your salt shaker at home. And you may find yourself in the situation that most animals are in, and that most humans in antiquity were in- that you need to ensure you get enough salt rather than worrying that you’re getting too much.
When most of the salt in your diet is coming from your own salt shaker, and you’re using a teaspoon or so of it per day, the quality starts to matter. Even taste differences between different salt types start to become noticeable. You’re at risk of becoming a bit of a salt connoisseur, or dare I say, a salt snob!
Standard refined table salt typically has various bleaching agents, anticaking agents, and other additives. This makes it pure white and easy to mass produce with machinery and come out of the salt shaker evenly.
Sea salt, on the other hand, has been studied to contain plastic in varying small amounts, because micro-plastic sadly keeps accumulating in our oceans.
Himalayan salt is not special; it just happens to be one of the purest and best-tasting types of salt available. No chemicals, no plastics. Just salt and some other trace minerals. Redmond Real Salt from Utah is similar and just as good.
- Himalayan Salt Shakers: HimalaSalt, 6 ounce (6 Pack)
- Bulk Himalayan Salt: Sherma Pink Himalayan Salt 2lb
- Redmond Salt Shakers: Redmond Real Salt, 10 ounce (2 Pack)
- Bulk Redmond Salt: Redmond Real Salt, 26 ounces
If you haven’t already, be sure to check out my article: