Too much of this ingredient leads to autoimmune diseases, new research shows. Here's how to cut back.
For more than a century, doctors have warned that too much salt in your diet can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke - and many of the reasons for these effects are well known. But recently scientists have been looking deeper, into the cellular level, and they are finding additional reasons to minimize sodium intake; it is bad for immune cells, creating patterns of gene expression and activity seen in a variety of autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and type-1 diabetes.
Salt is a major part of the ocean from which life evolved on this planet. We carry that legacy in our blood, which tastes salty. It is an important element for conducting electrical signals along nerves and balancing water and metabolites transported throughout our bodies. We need to consume about 500 milligrams of salt each day to maintain these functions, more with exercise and heavy sweating as that is a major way the body loses salt. The problem is that most Americans eating a modern western diet consume about 3400 milligrams, 1.5 teaspoons per day.
Evidence has been accumulating over the last few years that elevated levels of sodium can be harmful to at least some types of immune cells. The first signal came in monocytes, which are immune cells that travel to various tissues in the body, where some of them turn into macrophages, a subset of white blood cells that can directly kill microorganisms and make chemical signals that bring other types of immune cells into play.
Two years ago, Dominik N. Müller from the Max-Delbrueck-Center in Berlin, Germany and Markus Kleinewietfeld, an immunologist at Hasselt University in Belgium, ran a study where they fed people pizza and then measured their immune cell function. “We saw that in any monocytes, metabolic function was down, even after a single salty meal,” Kleinewietfeld says. It seemed to be the cellular equivalent of the sluggish feeling we get after eating too much. The cells were able to recover but more research is needed to answer questions about what dose of sodium causes impairment, how long the damage lasts, and whether there is a cumulative effect of salt toxicity.
Kleinewietfeld and his colleagues have hypothesized that too much salt could be a significant factor in the increased number of autoimmune diseases and allergies over the last few generations.
The latest series of experiments focused on a type of T cell called T regulatory cells, or Tregs. Most T cells release inflammatory mediators to fight pathogens and, once that job is done, Tregs come along to calm down their hyperactive brethren. Failure to do so can result in continued inflammation and possibly autoimmune diseases.
In the lab, Kleinewietfeld and his large team of international collaborators saw that high levels of sodium had a huge effect on Tregs, upregulating 1250 genes and downregulating an additional 1380 genes so that they looked similar to patterns of gene expression seen in autoimmune diseases.
Digging deeper, they found that sodium affected mitochondria, the tiny organelles inside of cells that produce much of its energy. The sodium was interfering with how the mitochondria use oxygen, which resulted in increased levels of an unstable form of oxygen that can damage cell function. The researchers injected those damaged Tregs into mice and found that they impaired the animals' immune function, allowing the inflammation to continue rather than shutting it down.
That finding dovetailed nicely with a 2019 paper in Nature from Navdeep Chandel's lab at Northwestern University, which showed in mice that inhibiting the mitochondrial use of oxygen reduced the ability of Tregs to regulate other T cells. “Mitochondria were controlling directly the immunosuppressive program, they were this master regulator tuning the right amount of genes to give you proper immunosuppression,” Chandel said. “And if you lose that function, then you get autoimmunity.”
Kleinewietfeld's team studied the Treg cells of humans and found that sodium can similarly decrease mitochondrial use of oxygen and immunosuppressive activity. “I would have never predicted that myself,” Chandel says, but now researchers can look at the mitochondria of patients with autoimmune disease and see if their gene expression also changes under high salt conditions. He sees the link between the patterns of gene expression in Tregs generated by high salt exposure and those patterns seen in autoimmune diseases, but he is cautious about claiming a causal effect.
Kleinewietfeld and his colleagues have hypothesized that too much salt could be a significant factor in the increased number of autoimmune diseases and allergies over the last few generations. He says a high salt diet could also have an indirect effect on immune function through the way it affects the gut microbiome and the molecules made by microbes when they break down food. But the research results are too preliminary to say that for sure, much less parse out the role of salt compared with other possible factors. “It is still an exciting journey to try to understand this field,” he says.
Additionally, it is difficult to say precisely how this research in animals and human cell cultures will translate into a whole human body. Individual differences in genetics can affect how the body absorbs, transports, and gets rid of sodium, such that some people are more sensitive to salt than are others.
So how should people apply these research findings to daily life?
Salt is obvious when we sprinkle it on at the table or eat tasty things like potato chips, but we may be unaware of sodium hidden in packaged foods. That's because salt is an easy and cheap way to boost the flavor of foods. And if we do read the labeled salt content on a package, we focus on the number for a single serving, but then eat more than that.
Last September, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began a process to update labels on the content of food, including what is meant by the word “healthy” and how food manufacturers can use the term. Many in the food industry are resisting those proposed changes.
Chandel cautions against trying to counter the effects of salt by reaching for foods or supplements full of antioxidants, which, in theory, could reduce the harmful effects on mitochondria caused by a heavy hand with the salt shaker.
Until labels are updated, it would be prudent to try to reduce sodium intake by cutting down on packaged foods while making your own food at home, where you know just how much salt has been added. The Mayo Clinic offers guidance on how to become more aware of the sodium in your diet and eat less of it.
Chandel thinks many people will struggle with minimizing salt in their diets. It’s similar to the challenge of eating less sugar, in that the body craves both, and it is difficult to fight that. He cautions against trying to counter the effects of salt by reaching for foods or supplements full of antioxidants, which, in theory, could reduce the harmful effects on mitochondria caused by a heavy hand with the salt shaker. “Dietary antioxidants have failed in just about every clinical trial, yet the public continues to take them,” Chandel says. But he is optimistic that research will lead us to a better understanding of how Tregs function, and uncover new targets for treating autoimmune diseases.
Friday Five: The Therapeutic Value of Bonding with Fellow Sports Fans
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on new scientific theories and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
This episode includes an interview with Dr. Helen Keyes, Head of the School of Psychology and Sports Science at Anglia Ruskin University.
Listen on Apple | Listen on Spotify | Listen on Stitcher | Listen on Amazon | Listen on Google
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Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.
Scientists and dark sky advocates team up to flip the switch on light pollution
As a graduate student in observational astronomy at the University of Arizona during the 1970s, Diane Turnshek remembers the starry skies above the Kitt Peak National Observatory on the Tucson outskirts. Back then, she could observe faint objects like nebulae, galaxies, and star clusters on most nights.
When Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh in 1981, she found it almost impossible to see a clear night sky because the city’s countless lights created a bright dome of light called skyglow. Over the next two decades, Turnshek almost forgot what a dark sky looked like. She witnessed pristine dark skies in their full glory again during a visit to the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah in early 2000s.
“I was shocked at how beautiful the dark skies were in the West. That is when I realized that most parts of the world have lost access to starry skies because of light pollution,” says Turnshek, an astronomer and lecturer at Carnegie Mellon University. In 2015, she became a dark sky advocate.
Light pollution is defined as the excessive or wasteful use of artificial light.
Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) -- which became commercially available in 2002 and rapidly gained popularity in offices, schools, and hospitals when their price dropped six years later — inadvertently fueled the surge in light pollution. As traditional light sources like halogen, fluorescent, mercury, and sodium vapor lamps have been phased out or banned, LEDs became the main source of lighting globally in 2019. Switching to LEDs has been lauded as a win-win decision. Not only are they cheap but they also consume a fraction of electricity compared to their traditional counterparts.
But as cheap LED installations became omnipresent, they increased light pollution. “People have been installing LEDs thinking they are making a positive change for the environment. But LEDs are a lot brighter than traditional light sources,” explains Ashley Wilson, director of conservation at the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). “Despite being energy-efficient, they are increasing our energy consumption. No one expected this kind of backlash from switching to LEDs.”
Light pollution impacts the circadian rhythms of all living beings — the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle.
Currently, more than 80 percent of the world lives under light-polluted skies. In the U.S. and Europe, that figure is above 99 percent.
According to the IDA, $3 billion worth of electricity is lost to skyglow every year in the U.S. alone — thanks to unnecessary and poorly designed outdoor lighting installations. Worse, the resulting light pollution has insidious impacts on humans and wildlife — in more ways than one.
Disrupting the brain’s clock
Light pollution impacts the circadian rhythms of all living beings—the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle. Humans and other mammals have neurons in their retina called intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs). These cells collect information about the visual world and directly influence the brain’s biological clock in the hypothalamus.
The ipRGCs are particularly sensitive to the blue light that LEDs emit at high levels, resulting in suppression of melatonin, a hormone that helps us sleep. A 2020 JAMA Psychiatry study detailed how teenagers who lived in areas with bright outdoor lighting at night went to bed late and slept less, which made them more prone to mood disorders and anxiety.
“Many people are skeptical when they are told something as ubiquitous as lights could have such profound impacts on public health,” says Gena Glickman, director of the Chronobiology, Light and Sleep Lab at Uniformed Services University. “But when the clock in our brains gets exposed to blue light at nighttime, it could result in a lot of negative consequences like impaired cognitive function and neuro-endocrine disturbances.”
In the last 12 years, several studies indicated that light pollution exposure is associated with obesity and diabetes in humans and animals alike. While researchers are still trying to understand the exact underlying mechanisms, they found that even one night of too much light exposure could negatively affect the metabolic system. Studies have linked light pollution to a higher risk of hormone-sensitive cancers like breast and prostate cancer. A 2017 study found that female nurses exposed to light pollution have a 14 percent higher risk of breast cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) identified long-term night shiftwork as a probable cause of cancer.
“We ignore our biological need for a natural light and dark cycle. Our patterns of light exposure have consequently become different from what nature intended,” explains Glickman.
Circadian lighting systems, designed to match individuals’ circadian rhythms, might help. The Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute developed LED light systems that mimic natural lighting fluxes, required for better sleep. In the morning the lights shine brightly as does the sun. After sunset, the system dims, once again mimicking nature, which boosts melatonin production. It can even be programmed to increase blue light indoors when clouds block sunlight’s path through windows. Studies have shown that such systems might help reduce sleep fragmentation and cognitive decline. People who spend most of their day indoors can benefit from such circadian mimics.
When Diane Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh, she found it almost impossible to see a clear night sky because the city’s countless lights created a bright dome of light called skyglow.
Leading to better LEDs
Light pollution disrupts the travels of millions of migratory birds that begin their long-distance journeys after sunset but end up entrapped within the sky glow of cities, becoming disoriented. A 2017 study in Nature found that nocturnal pollinators like bees, moths, fireflies and bats visit 62 percent fewer plants in areas with artificial lights compared to dark areas.
“On an evolutionary timescale, LEDs have triggered huge changes in the Earth’s environment within a relative blink of an eye,” says Wilson, the director of IDA. “Plants and animals cannot adapt so fast. They have to fight to survive with their existing traits and abilities.”
But not all types of LEDs are inherently bad -- it all comes down to how much blue light they emit. During the day, the sun emits blue light waves. By sunset, it’s replaced by red and orange light waves that stimulate melatonin production. LED’s artificial blue light, when shining at night, disrupts that. For some unknown reason, there are more bluer color LEDs made and sold.
“Communities install blue color temperature LEDs rather than redder color temperature LEDs because more of the blue ones are made; they are the status quo on the market,” says Michelle Wooten, an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Most artificial outdoor light produced is wasted as human eyes do not use them to navigate their surroundings.
While astronomers and the IDA have been educating LED manufacturers about these nuances, policymakers struggle to keep up with the growing industry. But there are things they can do—such as requiring LEDs to include dimmers. “Most LED installations can be dimmed down. We need to make the dimmable drivers a mandatory requirement while selling LED lighting,” says Nancy Clanton, a lighting engineer, designer, and dark sky advocate.
Some lighting companies have been developing more sophisticated LED lights that help support melatonin production. Lighting engineers at Crossroads LLC and Nichia Corporation have been working on creating LEDs that produce more light in the red range. “We live in a wonderful age of technology that has given us these new LED designs which cut out blue wavelengths entirely for dark-sky friendly lighting purposes,” says Wooten.
Dimming the lights to see better
The IDA and advocates like Turnshek propose that communities turn off unnecessary outdoor lights. According to the Department of Energy, 99 percent of artificial outdoor light produced is wasted as human eyes do not use them to navigate their surroundings.
In recent years, major cities like Chicago, Austin, and Philadelphia adopted the “Lights Out” initiative encouraging communities to turn off unnecessary lights during birds’ peak migration seasons for 10 days at a time. “This poses an important question: if people can live without some lights for 10 days, why can’t they keep them turned off all year round,” says Wilson.
Most communities globally believe that keeping bright outdoor lights on all night increases security and prevents crime. But in her studies of street lights’ brightness levels in different parts of the US — from Alaska to California to Washington — Clanton found that people felt safe and could see clearly even at low or dim lighting levels.
Clanton and colleagues installed LEDs in a Seattle suburb that provided only 25 percent of lighting levels compared to what they used previously. The residents reported far better visibility because the new LEDs did not produce glare. “Visual contrast matters a lot more than lighting levels,” Clanton says. Additionally, motion sensor LEDs for outdoor lighting can go a long way in reducing light pollution.
Flipping a switch to preserve starry nights
Clanton has helped draft laws to reduce light pollution in at least 17 U.S. states. However, poor awareness of light pollution led to inadequate enforcement of these laws. Also, getting thousands of counties and municipalities within any state to comply with these regulations is a Herculean task, Turnshek points out.
Fountain Hills, a small town near Phoenix, Arizona, has rid itself of light pollution since 2018, thanks to the community's efforts to preserve dark skies.
Until LEDs became mainstream, Fountain Hills enjoyed starry skies despite its proximity to Phoenix. A mountain surrounding the town blocks most of the skyglow from the city.
“Light pollution became an issue in Fountain Hills over the years because we were not taking new LED technologies into account. Our town’s lighting code was antiquated and out-of-date,” says Vicky Derksen, a resident who is also a part of the Fountain Hills Dark Sky Association founded in 2017. “To preserve dark skies, we had to work with the entire town to update the local lighting code and convince residents to follow responsible outdoor lighting practices.”
Derksen and her team first tackled light pollution in the town center which has a faux fountain in the middle of a lake. “The iconic centerpiece, from which Fountain Hills got its name, had the wrong types of lighting fixtures, which created a lot of glare,” adds Derksen. They then replaced several other municipal lighting fixtures with dark-sky-friendly LEDs.
The results were awe-inspiring. After a long time, residents could see the Milky Way with crystal clear clarity. Star-gazing activities made a strong comeback across the town. But keeping light pollution low requires constant work.
Derksen and other residents regularly measure artificial light levels in
Fountain Hills. Currently, the only major source of light pollution is from extremely bright, illuminated signs which local businesses had installed in different parts of the town. While Derksen says it is an uphill battle to educate local businesses about light pollution, Fountain Hills residents are determined to protect their dark skies.
“When a river gets polluted, it can take several years before clean-up efforts see any tangible results,” says Derksen. “But the effects are immediate when you work toward reducing light pollution. All it requires is flipping a switch.”