It's easy to eat too much salt, and you may be experiencing hypernatremia or too much sodium in the blood. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration points out that about half the sodium that people consume comes from common packaged or processed foods from the grocery store.
Some signs of too much sodium — 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, as the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health notes, salt is 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 Oregon State University's Linus Pauling Institute. This daily recommendation represents about two-thirds of a teaspoon of table salt and will result in normal sodium levels. To stay in the normal sodium range, you should consume no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day.
The average American is consuming more than this recommended maximum. Maintaining low enough levels of sodium to avoid hypernatremia is essential for chronic disease prevention.
Read more: 10 Myths About Salt Debunked
You Feel Thirsty
Feeling thirsty is an acute reaction to salt and one of the symptoms of too much sodium. 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.
One of the best responses to this symptom is increasing water intake. Water will help to flush the excess sodium from your body, assisting it in the process of restoration. If you don't increase your water intake, your body will hold onto the water it already has.
The kidney helps in the process of increasing water stores by excreting less urine. At the same time, receptors that sense the sodium imbalance tell your brain to trigger the feeling of thirst.
Your Body Retains Water
When excessive salt makes the levels of sodium increase, your body retains water. As extra fluids build up in tissues it causes another one of the symptoms of too much sodium — 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.
What makes high blood pressure one of the more dangerous symptoms of too much sodium is that it seldom causes any signs or symptoms. Unfortunately it's also very common, one in three adults in the US have high blood pressure. One symptom that some people experience is headaches, but you can have high blood pressure for a long time without realizing it.
Read more: What is Normal for Blood Pressure?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, untreated hypertension damages the 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.
- Oregon State University: Linus Pauling Institute: "Sodium (Chloride)"
- Merck Manual Home Health Handbook: "About Body Water"
- American Academy of Family Physicians: "Edema"
- USDA National Nutrient Database: "Salt, Table"
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: "Use the Nutrition Facts Label to Reduce Your Intake of Sodium in Your Diet"
- Better Health Channel: "Salt"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "High Blood Pressures"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Salt and Sodium"