While your body needs moderate amounts of sodium to function properly, excess salt intake causes a variety of chronic health issues, including high blood pressure and increased risk of heart disease.
Are Salt and Sodium the Same Thing?
People often use the words “sodium” and “salt” interchangeably. Of course, they are not the same thing, although common table salt (the kind you use for cooking) contains 40 percent sodium. It is your body’s largest source of sodium, which is likely why so many people think of salt when they think of sodium.
Salt’s other 60 percent includes chloride, as well as trace amounts of other minerals, including calcium and potassium. Sodium occurs naturally in a variety of whole foods. In addition, processed foods typically contain high levels of sodium, as manufacturers use it as a preservative, and use it to improve flavor.
The Importance of Salt to the Body
Your body uses salt in numerous ways. The first is to help you retain water necessary to maintain proper bodily function. For example, salt is an electrolyte, meaning it carries electrical impulses to the brain, including those that indicate thirst, causing you to drink water. Adequate water keeps kidneys functioning properly and helps regulate blood pressure. Electrolytes also stimulate your muscles so that they contract rather than cramp.
Salt also plays a large role in digestion, beginning the moment it hits your mouth. It activates enzymes that govern your sense of taste, helps break down foods, and creates hydrochloric acid, the lining that keeps your stomach from digesting itself.
Salt also helps prevent heatstroke and sunstroke. Finally, it helps stimulate your adrenal glands, as well as helping to regulate mineral levels in your blood.
What Are the Dangers of Excess Salt?
While sodium helps your body retain water to ensure proper organ function, too much sodium causes your body to retain water in an attempt to dilute sodium levels. The result is fluid buildup, and perhaps kidney damage. This fluid retention also increases blood volume, putting more strain on your heart and blood vessels. Over time, patients experience high blood pressure and a variety of heart problems, including damage to the heart and aorta, as well as increased risk for heart attack and stroke.
Salt and Your Kidneys
Blood passes through your kidneys, which work to remove excess water, which then passes through your bladder. This filtration process requires a precise balance of sodium and potassium and, when that balance is off, it reduces your kidneys’ ability to remove water from your blood.
That extra fluid in your blood raises your blood pressure, straining the kidneys’ blood vessels and leading to kidney disease over time. What’s more, their ability to filter unwanted items from your bloodstream causes those toxic materials to build up in your body. If the situation continues untreated, kidney failure occurs, with the kidneys unable to filter your blood, poisoning your body with toxic waste.
This is one of the reasons many blood pressure medications include a diuretic. Alternatively, your doctor may prescribe a diuretic as a separate medication. This helps your kidneys function normally, improving the efficacy of your blood pressure medication.
Salt and Heart Health
The buildup of blood strains your arteries, and they respond by becoming stronger. That sounds good, but what it really means is that the artery walls become thicker, meaning they have less room to move your blood. Your heart works harder, leading to high blood pressure.
Your arteries are also more susceptible to clogging and even bursting. Your organs no longer get the nutrients and oxygen they need to survive, causing organ damage that may ultimately be fatal.
The heart also fails to get the blood it needs. Over time and without treatment, your risk of heart attack rises significantly. Guard against this by eating the correct amount of sodium.
The Recommended Sodium Intake
Healthy adults only need around 2,300 milligrams of sodium (about 1 teaspoon of salt). However, if you have high blood pressure, that number drops to 1,500 milligrams. A few ideas to reduce your sodium intake include:
- Replace salt with other spices, or use a salt substitute
- Eat a diet rich in whole foods and light on processed foods, which contain a great deal of added sodium
- Limit condiments such as soy sauce and even ketchup and steak sauce
- Look for low-sodium products