1. Stress. "Typically when someone is stressed, they start craving something comforting," Dr. Shah explains. Why? You want to feel better. "Comforting foods tend to be high in fat, sugar, and salt," she says. (Ahem, mac and cheese.) So next time you're eying that bag of tortilla chips, it's worth it to check in with your mood first—and consider whether other stress-reducing activities (like a quick workout or calling your friend) could help instead.
2. Poor sleep. Science has shown that people who don't get enough sleep tend to make poorer food choices than those who do. Dr. Shah explains that one reason for this is because their cortisol (often called the stress hormone) is elevated when a person is tired, which puts stress on the body—leading them to crave oh-so-comforting, salty foods. "Lack of sleep [also] increases the ghrelin, which is known as the hunger hormone," she adds. Getting your cortisol levels under control—which getting good sleep helps with a lot—helps keep that hunger hormone from being overactive.
3. You crave what you already eat. "Salt cravings are linked to habit," Dr. Shah says. If you're eating a high-sodium diet, she says your body is likely to crave salt more since that's what it's used to getting. "If you want to crave salty foods less, try cutting processed and packaged foods out of your diet for a month," she says. It can help your body get used to eating less salt, and thus crave them less.
4. Excess sweating. Dr. Shah says there's also a connection between salt and sweating, because sweat contains salt and when someone sweats, their sodium levels decrease. In this case, she says, the craving is your body communicating to you that your sodium levels need to be replenished. "We need 2,300 milligrams—or one teaspoon—of salt a day," Dr. Shah says. The majority of Americans get far more than that, but if you are doing extreme exercise—like marathon training—be mindful of potentially low sodium levels that could come of it.
5. A thyroid or kidney disorder. Generally, salt cravings are pretty benign. But if they're accompanied by other symptoms, Dr. Shah says you should definitely visit your doctor to rule out something more serious. For example, Addison's disease (a condition where your adrenal glands produce too little cortisol) can cause salt cravings. Typically, the signs of Addison's disease—which also include fatigue, abdominal pain, skin pigment getting darker, and muscle and joint pain—occur gradually over time. Again, if you're experiencing more serious symptoms along with your salt cravings, see a doctor.
Again, salt on its own isn’t bad, but as with other healthy foods, you can still have too much of a good thing. Knowing when a craving for cheese fries is legit (hey, it happens!) or just a stress response can go a long way towards better health. Even the infamous Salt Bae could get behind that.
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