Sabrina Geisberger

How salt weakens the power plants of our cells

Biochemist Sabrina Geisberger researches the effects of salt consumption on our health at the Max Delbrück Center. We asked her five questions.

When Dr. Sabrina Geisberger talks about the awarding of the Marthe Vogt Prize for young female scientists, she goes into raptures: She met many impressive women there; researchers who want to make a difference with their work. Geisberger herself was honored at the ceremony last fall for her work on the effect of salt on our immune system. Soon her findings will find their way into textbooks, expects Thomas Sommer, Scientific Director of the MDC. Here, the biochemist answers five questions about salt, health and the value of cooking for yourself.

Increased sodium concentrations in the blood cause the mitochondria - the power plants of the cells - to temporarily produce less ATP.

Ms. Geisberger, your study on the consumption of salty foods published last year generated a huge media response. Even eating one pizza could destroy our immune system, it said. I've eaten considerably more than one pizza in my life, so is my immune system at a standstill?

No, don't worry. Our food doesn't have that power, even if some tabloids made it sound that way. But salt can actually upset the energy balance of our immune cells. This is because it dampens respiration and thus the activity of the mitochondria, i.e., the power plants in our cells. Our immune cells then suffer from a lack of energy, so to speak. This has doubly fatal consequences, because the immune cells perform two functions in our body, to put it very simply: Some fend off newly attacking viruses, parasites and bacteria, others control this killing and thus prevent inflammation. With excessive salt consumption, the defending cells are strengthened, but the regulating cells are weakened, which is why inflammation can develop more easily.

Are these long-term effects or does our immune system already react so sensitively to individual meals?

We did not know that until now. That is why we conducted two studies at the Max Delbrück Center together with the Charité in Berlin: On the one hand, we examined cell cultures from male volunteers who had increased their salt intake over a period of two weeks. On the other hand, we analyzed the blood values of participants after eating a pizza. This showed that even this one meal was enough to weaken the metabolism of our immune cells. The extent to which shocked me.

Interview: Jenny Niederstadt

You can find the full interview here


Further information