You’ve heard that ingesting too much salt isn’t great for your health, but new research has shown a surprising effect it can have on your body. (Photo: Getty Images)
Scientists at the University of Wyoming found that a high-salt diet can delay puberty and even impact your reproductive health. For the study, researchers fed rats diets with a variety of salt levels and monitored the effects. Those that were fed a high-salt diet (equivalent to three or four times the recommended daily allowance for humans — which is surprisingly easy to ingest) had a significant delay in reaching puberty than those that were fed a normal, low-salt diet. Rats that had no salt in their diets also had a delay in reaching puberty.
Delayed puberty is linked to reduced fertility, according to research from Italy’s National Institute of Health, as well as behavioral problems and stress.
But it’s not just puberty that’s directly affected. Study author Dori Pitynski says that she’s currently doing new research on why salt causes delayed puberty and believes that salt changes the levels of reproductive neurotransmitters in the brain. “By demonstrating salt can affect puberty, then it is likely that salt can affect other reproductive health,” she tells Yahoo Health.
These findings are troubling given that the average American consumes way more salt than is recommended. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average American ingests 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day. But the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that people consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium each day. Those who have high blood pressure, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease should have no more than 1,500 milligrams a day.
While rats experienced a delayed onset in puberty, there’s no current data on salt intake and reproductive health in humans, fertility specialist Wendy Chang, MD, scientific director at the Southern California Reproductive Center tells Yahoo Health. She calls the study results “interesting,” especially since teens on average are hitting puberty younger.
However, there may be an indirect link between sodium and fertility. Salt has been linked to high blood pressure, which Chang notes is associated with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). PCOS is an endocrine disorder that can affect a woman’s hormone levels, periods, ovulation, and fertility.
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Chang also points to rat studies that have found a link between fructose and salt intake and fertility. While research has found that pregnant rats on a high fructose and salt diet have a reduced litter size and fetal development, the link hasn’t yet been studied in humans.
Concerned about your salt intake? Be wary of processed foods and pre-packaged meals, says certified dietitian-nutritionist Gina Keatley, and look out for products that have twice as many milligrams of sodium as they do calories.
You can also limit your sodium intake by cooking your meals from fresh ingredients and using spices and herbs to add flavor without extra salt. Potassium can help offset the sodium you eat, Keatley tells Yahoo Health, so aim to eat more leafy green vegetables and beans.
But registered dietitian Alissa Rumsey, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says you shouldn’t cut out too much salt. “Too little sodium can cause just as much harm as too much,” she tells Yahoo Health. “Studies have shown increased mortality and increased blood pressure and cardiovascular disease risk from too little sodium— similar effects as we see from too much.”
While the link between salt and reproductive health is intriguing, Pitynski says more research is needed to find out exactly why it has such an impact.
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