Is Sodium Bad for Your Health? The Salty Truth about Sodium and How It Affects the Human Body
Sodium vs. Salt: What’s the Difference?
The terms “sodium” and “salt” are often used interchangeably, but they aren’t the same. Sodium is a mineral with the atomic number 11 that all people and animals — as well as some plants — need to function properly. Salt, on the other hand, is a mineral consisting of roughly 60 percent chloride and 40 percent sodium. There are different types of salt, including table salt, sea salt, Himalayan salt and kosher salt, but there’s only a single type of sodium.
Why Sodium Is Essential for a Healthy Diet
As an electrolyte, sodium protects against involuntary muscle contractions or spasms by providing your body with electrical energy in the form of charged molecules. The nervous system tells muscles when to contract and relax using electrical signals. If you have a sodium deficiency, the lack of charged molecules will disrupt how your nervous system communicates with your muscles, which could lead to spasms.
When consumed, sodium is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream to protect against low blood pressure. It increases your blood volume, which causes the pressure inside your veins to rise. People who struggle with hypotension are often advised by doctors to consume more sodium in their diet to help raise their blood pressure.
Adequate sodium intake also protects against a potentially serious medical condition known as hyponatremia. Defined as a low ratio of ratio of sodium to blood, it’s a leading cause of emergency room visits in the United States. With hyponatremia, fluid inside the bloodstream moves to nearby cells, including brain cells, where they cause cells to swell.
Symptoms of hyponatremia include:
•Muscle cramps or spasms
How Excessive Sodium Intake Can Adversely Affect Your Health
Although it’s essential to your health, sodium can have adverse effects when consumed in excess, such as high blood pressure. The kidneys can filter sodium from the blood. But if you overburden your kidneys by consuming too much sodium, the mineral will accumulate inside your bloodstream where it causes your blood pressure levels to rise, thus increasing your risk of hypertension-related ailments like heart disease and stroke.
Because the kidneys are responsible for filtering sodium from the bloodstream, a high-sodium diet can increase your risk of kidney disease. The kidneys work by pulling unwanted fluid from the blood via osmosis and channeling it to the bladder. For this to happen, your body needs a proper balance of sodium and potassium. Consuming too much sodium or too little potassium restricts your kidneys’ ability to pull unwanted fluid. And high blood pressure caused by the over-consumption of sodium will compress your kidneys and their blood vessels, further increasing your risk of kidney disease.
Consuming too much sodium can increase your risk of the chronic bone disease osteoporosis by filtering an excess amount of calcium from your blood. Calcium is the primary mineral used in the production of new bone tissue. When sodium levels in your bloodstream are high, your kidneys will pull both sodium and calcium to discard as waste. And without a plentiful of calcium, your body will then pull this mineral from your bones, resulting in a loss of bone density.
High-sodium diets have also been linked to digestive problems. Because of its antibacterial properties, sodium is used as a preservative in many packaged foods. Sodium still retains its antibacterial properties when consumed, meaning it kills the colonies of good bacteria in your gut. As your gut flora is disrupted, bad bacteria can thrive unchecked to cause digestive problems like constipation, bloating and diarrhea.
How to Moderate Your Sodium Intake
Statistics show the average person consumes about 3,400 mg of sodium per day. In the 2015 to 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, however, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommends consuming just 2,300 mg per day. To avoid its potentially harmful effects, you must moderate your sodium intake by staying within this daily limit.
Limit your use of salt when preparing and cooking food. One teaspoon of table salt contains up to 2,325 mg of sodium, which is already more than the daily intake recommended by the HHS. To satisfy your taste buds without consuming an excessive amount of sodium, consider using a salt substitute. It has a similar taste, but contains other minerals, such as potassium chloride, instead of sodium.
Whether you are shopping for groceries or dining out at a restaurant, be proactive toward identifying the sodium content in the foods you eat and the beverages you drink. In the United States, chain restaurants are required by law to display the nutrition information, including sodium content, of the foods and beverages they sell.
There are six foods, specifically, that contain extremely high concentrations of sodium. Dubbed the “salty six” by the American Heart Association (AHA), they consist of breads, pizza, soup, deli meat, poultry and tacos or burritos.
Condiments like ketchup, mustard, barbecue and soy sauce can pack a significant amount of sodium. One tablespoon of ketchup, for example, contains 154 mg of sodium, while one tablespoon of soy sauce packs up to 879 mg of sodium.
Increasing your potassium intake can help counter the effects of sodium. Potassium stimulates your kidneys, causing them to flush more sodium from your blood. Along with cutting back on salt, choosing high-potassium foods can curb the effects of high sodium consumption.
Sodium isn’t a junk ingredient that’s used strictly to improve the flavor or shelf life of foods and beverages. It’s an essential nutrient that protects against muscle spasms, low blood pressure blood, osteoporosis, digestive problems and hyponatremia, all while balancing your body’s fluid levels. By moderating your intake of sodium, you’ll reap these health benefits without experiencing its harmful effects.