Your body needs salt, or sodium chloride, to help contract and relax your muscles, maintain a balance of water and minerals and conduct nerve impulses, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. But this requires just a small amount of salt. What happens if you consume too much?
Where Salt Is Found
Americans, on average, consume upward of 3,400 milligrams of sodium daily, which is more than twice the amount the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends. Ideally, the AHA says you should limit yourself to no more than 1,500 milligrams a day.
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When you think of salt, you may initially think of the saltshaker, but sodium can be hidden in a lot of foods. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that there are 10 types of foods in your diet that account for more than 40 percent of the sodium consumed each day, including such popular choices as breads, tacos, pizza, cold cuts and cured meats, soups and more — even chicken, cheese and eggs make the list, which may come as a surprise to many.
To know and control your potential sodium intake, checking labels for sodium content per serving on packaged products should become a regular part of grocery shopping.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) advises consumers to check nutrition labels and select foods that contain a daily value (DV) of 5 percent or less for sodium. A daily value of of 20 percent or more is considered high. An easier option is to choose foods with labels marked as either "low sodium" or "no salt added." Better still, HHS suggests choosing fresh foods such as fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains.
Water and Sodium
According to National Institutes of Health, researchers have long upheld the notion that if sodium levels in your body were too high, your brain would be triggered to make you thirsty. Drinking more water would then cause you to urinate more in order for your body to get rid of excess salt.
To gain further insight into this process, an April 2017 study in the Journal of Clinical Investigation investigated, finding that the regulation of salt and water occurs not only by removing excess sodium in urine but also by retaining or releasing water in the urine.
The study concluded that the mechanism and maintenance of body fluids does not depend on external water as it was believed and, therefore, drinking additional water would not change sodium levels in your body. With the body protecting its water, participants in the study actually drank less when their salt intake was high.
"The best way to balance your sodium levels is making modifications to your diet," says Caitlin Lewis, RD, a dietitian and culinary nutritionist in Bluffton, South Carolina, and founder of Lowcountry Nutrition. "The amount of water that you consume each day should equal the amount you lose. How much fluid you need depends on your age, gender and activity level."
"According to the National Academics of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, men should consume 15.5 cups (3.7 liters) of fluid per day, and women should consume 11.5 cups (2.7 liters) of fluids per day." Lewis says. Overall, it's ideal to limit sodium, but if you do have a high sodium meal, just sit back and allow your body and organs to regulate the levels naturally.
High Sodium Side Effects
Having high sodium has been linked to various health conditions. Too much salt can damage the heart, aorta and kidneys, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. The American Heart Association notes that blood pressure can also be affected by high sodium levels because sodium holds excess fluids in the body that cause stress on the heart.
A meta-analysis published in April 2013 in BMJ evaluated 14 studies to find the relationship between sodium intake and blood pressure, renal function, blood lipids and other chronic conditions. The results showed a reduction in sodium significantly improved blood pressure in participants. Consuming low amounts of sodium also reduced the risk for stroke and fatal heart disease.
However, high sodium can affect more than just your heart, the American Heart Association states. Your risk for osteoporosis, stomach cancer, kidney stones and headaches can also increase. You also may notice increased puffiness, retention of water and weight gain after a high-sodium meal.
Read more: Is 400 mg of Sodium Bad for You?
- American Heart Association: “How Much Sodium Should I Eat Per Day?”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Top 10 Sources of Sodium”
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: “Lower-Sodium Foods: Shopping List”
- National Institutes of Health: “How the Body Regulates Salt Levels”
- Journal of Clinical Investigation: “High Salt Intake Reprioritizes Osmolyte and Energy Metabolism for Body Fluid Conservation”
- Caitlin Lewis, RD, dietitian and culinary nutritionist, Bluffton, South Carolina
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: Nutrition Source: “Salt and Sodium”
- BMJ: “Effect of Lower Sodium Intake on Health: Systematic Review and Meta-Analyses”
- American Heart Association: “Excess Sodium Hurts Your Health and Your Looks”