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.
Implantable electronic devices can significantly improve patients’ quality of life. A pacemaker can encourage the heart to beat more regularly. A neural implant, usually placed at the back of the skull, can help brain function and encourage higher neural activity. Current research on neural implants finds them helpful to patients with Parkinson’s disease, vision loss, hearing loss, and other nerve damage problems. Several of these implants, such as Elon Musk’s Neuralink, have already been approved by the FDA for human use.
Yet, pacemakers, neural implants, and other such electronic devices are not without problems. They require constant electricity, limited through batteries that need replacements. They also cause scarring. “The problem with doing this with electronics is that scar tissue forms,” explains Kate Adamala, an assistant professor of cell biology at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. “Anytime you have something hard interacting with something soft [like muscle, skin, or tissue], the soft thing will scar. That's why there are no long-term neural implants right now.” To overcome these challenges, scientists are turning to biocomputing processes that use organic materials like DNA and RNA. Other promised benefits include “diagnostics and possibly therapeutic action, operating as nanorobots in living organisms,” writes Evgeny Katz, a professor of bioelectronics at Clarkson University, in his bookDNA- And RNA-Based Computing Systems.
While a computer gives these inputs in binary code or "bits," such as a 0 or 1, biocomputing uses DNA strands as inputs, whether double or single-stranded, and often uses fluorescent RNA as an output.
Adamala’s research focuses on developing such biocomputing systems using DNA, RNA, proteins, and lipids. Using these molecules in the biocomputing systems allows the latter to be biocompatible with the human body, resulting in a natural healing process. In a recent Nature Communicationsstudy, Adamala and her team created a new biocomputing platform called TRUMPET (Transcriptional RNA Universal Multi-Purpose GatE PlaTform) which acts like a DNA-powered computer chip. “These biological systems can heal if you design them correctly,” adds Adamala. “So you can imagine a computer that will eventually heal itself.”
The basics of biocomputing
Biocomputing and regular computing have many similarities. Like regular computing, biocomputing works by running information through a series of gates, usually logic gates. A logic gate works as a fork in the road for an electronic circuit. The input will travel one way or another, giving two different outputs. An example logic gate is the AND gate, which has two inputs (A and B) and two different results. If both A and B are 1, the AND gate output will be 1. If only A is 1 and B is 0, the output will be 0 and vice versa. If both A and B are 0, the result will be 0. While a computer gives these inputs in binary code or "bits," such as a 0 or 1, biocomputing uses DNA strands as inputs, whether double or single-stranded, and often uses fluorescent RNA as an output. In this case, the DNA enters the logic gate as a single or double strand.
If the DNA is double-stranded, the system “digests” the DNA or destroys it, which results in non-fluorescence or “0” output. Conversely, if the DNA is single-stranded, it won’t be digested and instead will be copied by several enzymes in the biocomputing system, resulting in fluorescent RNA or a “1” output. And the output for this type of binary system can be expanded beyond fluorescence or not. For example, a “1” output might be the production of the enzyme insulin, while a “0” may be that no insulin is produced. “This kind of synergy between biology and computation is the essence of biocomputing,” says Stephanie Forrest, a professor and the director of the Biodesign Center for Biocomputing, Security and Society at Arizona State University.
Biocomputing circles are made of DNA, RNA, proteins and even bacteria.
The TRUMPET’s promise
Depending on whether the biocomputing system is placed directly inside a cell within the human body, or run in a test-tube, different environmental factors play a role. When an output is produced inside a cell, the cell's natural processes can amplify this output (for example, a specific protein or DNA strand), creating a solid signal. However, these cells can also be very leaky. “You want the cells to do the thing you ask them to do before they finish whatever their businesses, which is to grow, replicate, metabolize,” Adamala explains. “However, often the gate may be triggered without the right inputs, creating a false positive signal. So that's why natural logic gates are often leaky." While biocomputing outside a cell in a test tube can allow for tighter control over the logic gates, the outputs or signals cannot be amplified by a cell and are less potent.
TRUMPET, which is smaller than a cell, taps into both cellular and non-cellular biocomputing benefits. “At its core, it is a nonliving logic gate system,” Adamala states, “It's a DNA-based logic gate system. But because we use enzymes, and the readout is enzymatic [where an enzyme replicates the fluorescent RNA], we end up with signal amplification." This readout means that the output from the TRUMPET system, a fluorescent RNA strand, can be replicated by nearby enzymes in the platform, making the light signal stronger. "So it combines the best of both worlds,” Adamala adds.
These organic-based systems could detect cancer cells or low insulin levels inside a patient’s body.
The TRUMPET biocomputing process is relatively straightforward. “If the DNA [input] shows up as single-stranded, it will not be digested [by the logic gate], and you get this nice fluorescent output as the RNA is made from the single-stranded DNA, and that's a 1,” Adamala explains. "And if the DNA input is double-stranded, it gets digested by the enzymes in the logic gate, and there is no RNA created from the DNA, so there is no fluorescence, and the output is 0." On the story's leading image above, if the tube is "lit" with a purple color, that is a binary 1 signal for computing. If it's "off" it is a 0.
While still in research, TRUMPET and other biocomputing systems promise significant benefits to personalized healthcare and medicine. These organic-based systems could detect cancer cells or low insulin levels inside a patient’s body. The study’s lead author and graduate student Judee Sharon is already beginning to research TRUMPET's ability for earlier cancer diagnoses. Because the inputs for TRUMPET are single or double-stranded DNA, any mutated or cancerous DNA could theoretically be detected from the platform through the biocomputing process. Theoretically, devices like TRUMPET could be used to detect cancer and other diseases earlier.
Adamala sees TRUMPET not only as a detection system but also as a potential cancer drug delivery system. “Ideally, you would like the drug only to turn on when it senses the presence of a cancer cell. And that's how we use the logic gates, which work in response to inputs like cancerous DNA. Then the output can be the production of a small molecule or the release of a small molecule that can then go and kill what needs killing, in this case, a cancer cell. So we would like to develop applications that use this technology to control the logic gate response of a drug’s delivery to a cell.”
Although platforms like TRUMPET are making progress, a lot more work must be done before they can be used commercially. “The process of translating mechanisms and architecture from biology to computing and vice versa is still an art rather than a science,” says Forrest. “It requires deep computer science and biology knowledge,” she adds. “Some people have compared interdisciplinary science to fusion restaurants—not all combinations are successful, but when they are, the results are remarkable.”
In today’s podcast episode, Leaps.org Deputy Editor Lina Zeldovich speaks about the health and ecological benefits of farming crickets for human consumption with Bicky Nguyen, who joins Lina from Vietnam. Bicky and her business partner Nam Dang operate an insect farm named CricketOne. Motivated by the idea of sustainable and healthy protein production, they started their unconventional endeavor a few years ago, despite numerous naysayers who didn’t believe that humans would ever consider munching on bugs.
Yet, making creepy crawlers part of our diet offers many health and planetary advantages. Food production needs to match the rise in global population, estimated to reach 10 billion by 2050. One challenge is that some of our current practices are inefficient, polluting and wasteful. According to nonprofit EarthSave.org, it takes 2,500 gallons of water, 12 pounds of grain, 35 pounds of topsoil and the energy equivalent of one gallon of gasoline to produce one pound of feedlot beef, although exact statistics vary between sources.
Meanwhile, insects are easy to grow, high on protein and low on fat. When roasted with salt, they make crunchy snacks. When chopped up, they transform into delicious pâtes, says Bicky, who invents her own cricket recipes and serves them at industry and public events. Maybe that’s why some research predicts that edible insects market may grow to almost $10 billion by 2030. Tune in for a delectable chat on this alternative and sustainable protein.
More info on Bicky Nguyen
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Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Popular Science, Smithsonian, National Geographic, Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, the New York Times and other major national and international publications. A Columbia J-School alumna, she has won several awards for her stories, including the ASJA Crisis Coverage Award for Covid reporting, and has been a contributing editor at Nautilus Magazine. In 2021, Zeldovich released her first book, The Other Dark Matter, published by the University of Chicago Press, about the science and business of turning waste into wealth and health. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.