It's easy to consume more salt than you realize. Most of the salt in your diet -- about 90 percent -- is already in the foods you purchase at grocery stores and restaurants, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some signs that you're consuming too much salt -- such as thirst -- are obvious. The bigger problem is that the sodium you get from salt causes serious health problems that may not exhibit signs or symptoms.
Salt is Elemental
Salt consists of sodium and chloride. More specifically, it's 40 percent sodium and 60 percent chloride. Both minerals are electrolytes that help regulate the amount of water in your body. Chloride is also an essential component of stomach acid, while sodium is necessary to keep your muscles and nerves working. The recommended intake for sodium is 1,500 milligrams daily, which equals 3,800 milligrams of salt, according to the Linus Pauling Institute. This daily recommendation represents about two-thirds of a teaspoon of table salt.
Feeling thirsty is the first sign that you're consuming too much salt. Your body works hard to maintain a precise concentration of sodium. When levels get too high, systems kick in to restore the right balance. Because sodium is dissolved in fluids, your body lowers the concentration of the mineral by increasing the amount of fluids. The kidneys help accomplish this goal by excreting less urine. At the same time, receptors that sense the sodium imbalance tell your brain to trigger the feeling of thirst.
When excessive salt makes the levels of sodium increase, your body retains water. As extra fluids build up in tissues, the symptom that appears is swelling. This swelling, called edema, affects various parts of the body, but often occurs in the face, hands, legs, ankles and feet. Cutting back on your salt intake should relieve the edema. Elevating the affected body part, walking and moving your body also help the swelling go down. If the edema is severe or doesn't go away, consult your physician, because it can be a sign of a more serious health condition.
Silent and Serious
High levels of sodium increase the amount of water in your body, including the volume of your blood. The extra blood pushes against blood vessel walls -- and the result is high blood pressure, or hypertension. The problem with high blood pressure is that it seldom causes any signs or symptoms. Some people may experience headaches, but you can have high blood pressure for a long time without knowing it. Untreated hypertension damages blood vessels, as well as the heart and kidneys. Signs won't appear until the damage affects your health, and the type of symptom depends on which body part is weakened. The first sign may come in the form of a stroke or heart attack.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Vital Signs - Food Categories Contributing the Most to Sodium Consumption - United States, 2007-2008
- Linus Pauling Institute: Sodium (Chloride)
- USDA National Agricultural Library: Sodium and Chloride
- The Merck Manual Home Health Handbook: About Body Water
- FamilyDoctor.org: Edema
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: What Is High Blood Pressure?
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: What Are the Signs and Symptoms of High Blood Pressure?
- USDA National Nutrient Database: Salt, Table