Salt and Sleep: A Personal Story of Food and Genes

Nutrigenomics shows the personal effects of food

Spilled salt

People react differently to food — and it’s not just about what flavors you prefer.

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I’ve written before about the science of nutrigenomics, which deals with how certain foods affect individuals based on their genes. Take salt, for example. Some people are more sensitive to the negative effects of salt than others. I discovered this for myself recently.

As a primary care physician, I often advise patients to eat less salt. But it never occurred to me that I might be eating too much salt, too. I have a family history of high blood pressure, but mine has always been fine. So I did not have a reason to re-think my salt intake until I connected the dots and realized it might be interfering with my sleep.

“It took this genomic test — something tangible — to make me stop and think about the connection between salt and my sleep.”

Kathryn Teng

Kathryn Teng, MD

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Center for Personalized Healthcare

For years, I have been drinking 10–12 glasses of water a day to quench my thirst. That meant plenty of sleep-interrupting trips to the bathroom at night, which wasn’t a problem until my sleep was further disrupted by having two children. The outcome: a grumpy, sleep-deprived doctor. Not good!

Little did I know my constant thirst had something to do with my body’s response to salt.

Salt sensitivity in the genes

Eating high amounts of salt raises blood pressure, which increases the risk for heart disease and stroke, the leading causes of death in the United States. Most people can eat 1500 mg of sodium per day, but our bodies do not need that much to work properly.

On top of that, research studies have shown that genes may make some people more sensitive to salt. These people have a higher risk for high blood pressure even when they eat a lower amount of salt.

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I took a nutrigenomics test recently and found out that I am one of them. With the help of a dietitian, I realized that this salt sensitivity has been making me drink more water than most people. As a result, I changed my diet. I cut back on my sodium intake, and I am drinking less water daily because I am not as thirsty. Your doctor or dietitian could make similar suggestions for you and even recommend genomic testing.

Best of all, I’m sleeping better. No more grumpy doctor.

As a physician, I often wonder what it takes to make my patients change their lifestyles. In my case, it took this genomic test — something tangible — to make me stop and think about the connection between salt and my sleep. And knowing this information made me change my behavior for the better.

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