Salt (or is it sodium?) seems to be multi-faceted – it has its good sides (it amps up taste appeal in food) and it has its bad side – it increases blood pressure. Most people don’t know much more about it than that, such as, how does salt/sodium impact blood pressure? How much is too much? Does sodium provide any benefit to the human body? Do we need it? How much is too much? How little is too little and what happens to me if I don’t have enough? And, is it addictive?
First we need to clarify – salt and sodium are not the same exact thing. Sodium is an element – Na – on the periodic table of elements, with the atomic number of 11. Fun chemistry fact: sodium is one of the only three metals that can actually float on water.
Salt, meanwhile, is the combination of sodium and chloride. Sodium, again a single element, is found in foods while salt is a flavoring compound added to foods. Salt contains sodium.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about 40% of the sodium consumed by Americans comes from deli meat sandwiches, pizza, burritos/tacos, savory snacks, burgers, and pasta dishes, among a few more.
According to the FDA, sodium as a food ingredient has several uses, such as for curing meat, baking, thickening, retaining moisture, enhancing flavor (including the flavor of other ingredients), and even as a preservative. The FDA explains, “Surprisingly, some foods that don’t taste salty can still be high in sodium, which is why using taste alone is not an accurate way to judge a food’s sodium content. For example, while some foods that are high in sodium (like pickles and soy sauce) taste salty, there are also many foods (like cereals and pastries) that contain sodium but don’t taste salty. Also, some foods that you may eat several times a day (such as breads) can add up to a lot of sodium over the course of a day, even though an individual serving may not be high in sodium.”
Did you ever notice that if you are one to weigh yourself daily, that you seem to gain a pound or to overnight – but you did not consume more than 2,000 calories or so? (It takes 3,500 incoming calories net to create a pound). It isn’t calories – it’s the sodium.
The sodium in salt and in sodium-containing foods attracts water – and the more sodium and salt you consume, the more you will “retain water.” Hence, your water weight increases.
Now, here’s the reason why “water weight” isn’t as benign as it sounds. That water is drawn into the bloodstream, expanding the volume of blood and subsequently your blood pressure. Through time, regular consumption of high amounts of salt/sodium continues to pull water through the bloodstream, increasing blood volume and escalating blood pressure. This condition, known as hypertension, is a dramatic and significant risk factor for stroke and heart attack in middle-age.
While sodium has its good side – it is chiefly useful for fluid balance and cellular homeostasis, it becomes the mortal enemy quickly. Here’s why: the amount of sodium needed to maintain homeostasis in adults is exceedingly low (500 mg or less) compared to the average intake of most Americans (more than 3,200 mg).
A newly published paper validates these and other similar meta-analyses, with the authors commenting that those trials examining sodium intake levels as low as 400 mg per day showed that the reduction in sodium amounts reduced blood pressure
“to the same or a greater degree when the initial sodium intake is low and that the reduction in blood pressure is approximately twice as large in studies that are 2 weeks or longer compared to those of shorter duration.”
A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials shows that a reduction in dietary sodium from 3646 to 2690 mg/day causes a linear 26% and 15% reduction in cardiovascular disease (CVD) and mortality, respectively.
One meta-analysis of 17 trials of participants with elevated blood pressure and 11 with normal blood pressure (total of 2954) has shown that a modest reduction in salt intake for 4 or more weeks has a significant effect on blood pressure in individuals with normal and elevated blood pressure. The meta-analysis revealed a correlation between the amount of salt reduction and the magnitude of blood pressure reduction. Within the daily intake range of 3 to 12 g/day, the lower the salt intake achieved, the lower the blood pressure.
Yet another meta-analysis of a total of 56 studies concluded, “The totality of evidence suggests that most people will likely benefit from reducing sodium intake.
Minding your sodium/salt intake can have a dramatic effect on your potential cardiovascular function longevity. One research team analyzed sodium data from individuals in 195 countries – finding that approximately 3 million deaths from CVD were linked to dietary sodium intakes greater than 3 grams per day.
Researchers of another systematic review and meta-analysis asserted that “high quality evidence in non-acutely ill adults shows that reduced sodium intake reduces blood pressure and has no adverse effect on blood lipids, catecholamine levels, or renal function, and moderate quality evidence in children shows that a reduction in sodium intake reduces blood pressure. Lower sodium intake is also associated with a reduced risk of stroke and fatal coronary heart disease in adults. The totality of evidence suggests that most people will likely benefit from reducing sodium intake.”
Obviously, the earlier you start to monitor your sodium intake, the better. However, your body requires sodium in and of itself: if you drink too much water and don’t have enough sodium, you can develop hyponatremia, which can lead to shock and circulatory system collapse. Sodium is an electrolyte and if you are an athlete or highly active, you will lose sodium in perspiration (it is also lost in urine).
Work with your primary care physician or naturopath to arrive at what is a healthy range of sodium intake. Then, “do the math.” First, however, stick to your regular diet for about a week or so and add up your typical sodium intake by reading product labels and researching naturally occurring sodium levels are in foods. When you know your personal average intake – then you can take measures to cut down through substitutions.
The great news is: you do not have to give in to eating a bland diet – low-sodium does not mean tasteless! There are so many exotic spices and herbs that add specific flavor layers.
There has been a trend in gourmet salts, such as pink Himalayan and others – these can be used judiciously. You can learn how to use certain salts in cooking as the chemistry of salt can be complex (here’s another resource.)
Salt doesn’t have to be your enemy or your frenemy; use it wisely and enjoy. In other words, it’s OK to get a little salty every now and then!