BERLIN, Germany – Salt is a typical flavor enhancer, but it has a long history of being harmful to your health. From hardening of the arteries to worsening of bloating, doctors usually advise patients to limit the use of saline. Now a new study reveals what salt actually does to human cells, which can make it unhealthy to eat.
Researchers from the Max Delbruck Center for Molecular Medicine at the Helmholtz Association (MDC) say that sodium consumption affects the energy produced by mitochondria (cell power plants). Disruption of this energy balance has serious consequences for immune cells, which as a result stop working properly.
In 2015, MDC professor Dominique Mueller led a study that found that high levels of salt in the blood affected the activation and function of monocytes. These are the precursors of macrophages, which are specialized cells that detect and destroy harmful bacteria in the body.
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Salt consumption suppresses the building blocks of the energy production process
In the new study, Geisberger and an international team examined the metabolism of immune cells exposed to high levels of salt. The results reveal that the changes begin only after three hours.
“This disrupts the respiratory chain, causing cells to produce less ATP and consume less oxygen,” said the study’s lead author.
So what exactly does this mean for your health? ATP (adenosine triphosphate) is the “universal fuel” that feeds the body’s cells. It provides the energy people need to do “chemical work,” such as creating proteins and other healthy molecules. This work gives people the biological tools the body needs to nourish muscles and maintain metabolism.
Mitochondria (the cells of the cell) produce ATP through a biochemical process called the respiratory chain.
“Salt specifically inhibits complex II in the respiratory chain,” adds Geisberger.
When this happens, lower energy levels cause monocytes to mature differently than normal.
“Phagocytes, whose task is to identify and eliminate pathogens in the body, have been able to fight infections more effectively. But it can also stimulate inflammation, which can increase cardiovascular risk, ”explains Mueller.
A slice of pizza won’t hurt much, but don’t overdo it
The researchers also demonstrated how more salt affects the phagocytes of living patients in the same way. The team studied a group of healthy men who added six grams of salt to their diet (in tablet form) for 14 days. In another experiment, the authors of the study also analyzed the monocytes in the blood of those who ate pizza from an Italian restaurant.
The results show that the diminishing effect on mitochondria does not only come from prolonged use of salt, but a slice of pizza changes the cells! The researchers took blood from the participants three and eight hours after eating. While tests show that increased salt intake has an effect after three hours, the effect is barely noticeable after eight hours.
“It’s a good thing. If it was a prolonged disturbance, we would worry about the cells not getting enough energy for a long time, “said Mueller.
Therefore, the authors of the study say that the impact of a salty breakfast will not lead to permanent changes in the cells. However, they add that people should literally take this news with grain and salt and not eat foods high in sodium all the time. Their results cannot rule out the possibility of long-term salt intake leading to long-term damage to mitochondria.
For reference, the pizza in the study contains 10 grams of salt. Nutritionists recommend that adults maintain a salt intake of up to five or six grams per day.
The great impact of small ions
The study authors note that their study also shows that size is not a factor when it comes to major impacts on human health. Sodium ions are one of the smallest molecules in nature.
“When these ions invade the mitochondria – and they do so under different physiological conditions – they regulate the central part of the electronic transport chain,” says Dr. Stefan Kempa of the Berlin Institute of Medical Systems Biology.
The team will now investigate whether salt affects energy production in other cell types. Professor Markus Kleinewietfeld of Hasselt University says researchers are extremely likely to find the same effect because mitochondria exist in every human cell except red blood cells.
Although there are still some questions about how all cells cope with the flow of sodium in the mitochondria, researchers believe that their findings confirm how bad salt can be on human health.
“Of course, the first thing that comes to mind is cardiovascular risk. But many studies show that salt can affect immune cells in different ways. If such an important cellular mechanism is disrupted over a long period of time, it can have a negative impact – and can potentially cause inflammatory diseases of the blood vessels or joints or autoimmune diseases, ”concludes Kleinewietfeld.
The study appears in the journal Circulation.