How Salt Can Lead to Autoimmune Disease

Cameron Hooper Nutrition

processed salt

Researchers from Yale University have recently found evidence that suggests processed table salt (sodium chloride) may be a risk factor for autoimmune disease.

Autoimmune disease occurs when our immune system malfunctions. Instead of attacking invasive microbes, the immune system mistakenly attacks our own body.

Autoimmune disease is the cause of more than 80 different diseases including:

  • Type 1 diabetes
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Alopecia

Although scientists have found several genetic links to autoimmune disease, it is not thought to be the main cause.  A number of preventable (environmental) factors such as smoking, vitamin D deficiencies, salt, and viral infections are thought to trigger autoimmune diseases in susceptible people.

The Yale research team believes that autoimmune disease is caused by a combination of genetics and environmental factors. Dr. David Hafler, a professor of immunobiology at Yale, mentioned,

It’s not bad genes. It’s not bad environment. It’s a bad interaction between genes and the environment.

Among these environmental factors is salt.

But why salt?

How Can Salt Cause Autoimmune Disease?

autoimmune disease

The answer lies in TH17 cells.

TH17 cells help us fight infections, but they have also been linked to a number of autoimmune disorders when things go wrong.

A few years ago, scientists wanted to better understand TH17 cells in hopes to explain the mystery still surrounding the actual cause(s) of autoimmune disease.

This sparked several research groups at Yale University and a few others to find out more about this mysterious TH17 cell and its potential link to autoimmune disease.

In the end, three consecutive studies that built off of each other’s data produced some interesting results.

The first study, led by Dr. Aviv Regev , looked at gene expression during TH17 development. The study successfully identified the genes involved with TH17 cell development.

Using the findings of Dr. Aviv Regev, another research team led by Dr. Vijay K. Kuchroo identified a key protein, called glucocorticoid kinase 1 (SGK1). It was discovered that SGK1 is an essential protein for the development of TH17.

The research team also found that when mouse cells were placed in high-salt conditions, they had an elevated SGK1 expression and produced more TH17 cells compared to mouse cells grown in normal conditions.

"If you incrementally increase salt, you get generation after generation of these TH17 cells"Co-author Vijay Kuchroo, an immunologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts.

These findings gave rise to the third study which confirmed the previous study’s findings and took it a little further.

The study, led by Dr. David Hafler, looked to test human cells and found that higher salt concentrations increased the development of both human and mouse TH17 cells. In addition, they discovered that when mice were given a high-salt diet, they developed more severe autoimmune-related symptoms.

What does this mean?

Diets high in salt have been suggested to increase the production of TH17 cells and cause the symptoms of autoimmune diseases to become more severe. Remember that TH17 cells have been linked to autoimmune disease.

Let’s now talk about why these findings may be true…

It’s no secret that the incidence of several autoimmune diseases in our society, such as type 1 diabetes or multiple sclerosis, have been on the rise.

At the same time, salt has become a staple “flavor profile” for the majority of foods today. On average, Americans consume more than 3,400 mg of sodium (salt). This is more than double the American Heart Association’s daily recommendation of 1,500mg of salt per day.

From my experience as a health coach, many people consume excessive levels of salt while being completely unaware of it. Since so many foods contain high amounts of salt, our sense of taste perceives salty foods as normal.

Avoiding Excess Salt

Processed foods such as microwave meals, canned soup, or those notoriously mouth-searing hot-pockets are among the most common sources of excess (processed) salt. In fact, many processed foods such as instant ramen noodles can contain up to 1,190 mg of salt per serving—not per package.

Here are three examples of foods that you should keep a careful eye on because they typically contain high amounts of salt:

examples of foods with too much salt

While there are countless other foods that have excess sodium, this list can give you an idea of how easy it is to go over 1,500 mg of sodium with just one meal.

Aside from autoimmune disease, eating too much salt can cause several other health issues. Salt causes the body to retain water in hopes to dilute the sodium. As a result, blood volume increases. This means the heart will have to work harder and more pressure will be exerted onto blood vessels (higher blood pressure).

There is also evidence that too much salt can damage the heart, aorta, kidneys, and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease by causing high blood pressure.

Get the Right Kind of Salts In Your Diet


You don’t need to completely avoid salt like the plague—you actually shouldn’t. In fact, we need salt so our body can properly function.

Electrolytes are minerals in your blood that carry an electrical charge. The most common electrolytes include potassium (K+), calcium (Ca2+), magnesium (Mg2+), chloride (Cl-), and you guessed it…sodium (Na+).

Our body needs electrolytes to control the pH of blood, for muscle function, to control the amount of water in the body, and many other important processes.

So if our body still needs salt, what should you do to avoid the risks?

First, always remember to never eat or do anything in excess…always practice moderation. Aside from that, just do your best to not exceed more than 1,500 mg of salt per day (especially refined salts which are found in many foods we eat).

Next, I would strongly advise that you consider getting rid of any regular table salt in your household (sodium chloride). Regular table salt is refined and processed. And like processed food, you want to avoid processed salt.

When salt is processed, it is stripped of important minerals that are essential for our health. Our body needs a balance of minerals to carry out various processes. By eating processed salt (pure sodium chloride) our body gets and an overabundance of just sodium (salt).

Furthermore, many processed salts have anti-clumping chemicals to increase shelf life. They also bleach the salt to make it look it more appealing to consumers–hence its white appearance.

How Can You Avoid Processed Salt at Home?

It’s simple really. Instead of purchasing normal table salt at home, travel to a local food co-op, natural food store, or even Amazon (by clicking the product links) to get yourself some unprocessed table salt. Unprocessed salt contains less sodium compared to table salt. It also contains small amounts of calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium, and many other minerals.

You can find unprocessed and unrefined table salt in a couple of forms:

Unprocessed Himalayan Rock Salt

The most common form of unprocessed salt (and my favorite) is Himalayan Rock Salt. Mined from the Khewra salt Mine, the second largest salt mine in the world, Himalayan rock salt is a great option to bring into your pantry. It contains many essential minerals (such as iron) that processed salt does not.

Celtic Sea Salt

Another option for unprocessed salt is Celtic sea salt. Celtic sea salt is harvested using an ancient evaporation technique that involves channeling sea water into “ponds” where the water can then leave in channels and evaporate. As the water evaporates, the salt is left behind where it can be harvested.

Final Words

Even without considering autoimmune disease, it is a good idea to look for ways to cut down your salt intake and replace your table salts with unprocessed salt.

Your body will thank you.

With that said, I take this information as another reason to avoid consuming too much salt and to continue using my unrefined Himalayan salt.

What are some tricks you use to avoid eating too much refined salt?

Feel free to comment below with any suggestions, tips, or questions.

Source: Shaking Out Clues to Autoimmune Disease – National Institutes of Health (NIH). (2013, March 18). Retrieved August 6, 2015.