Reducing salt intake, should you care?
In our last blog article I discussed the dangers of dehydration during a heat wave. It was also remarked how our bodies don't just lose fluid, but also lose salts. As if it isn't clear yet, you will not just need to drink more water during a heat wave, but also need to consume more salts.
Because we are are bombarded with well-intended advice to limit salt intake because the average person consumes too much salt by eating too much junkfood, you would almost forget how essential minerals are and more specifically, sodium is for our health.
Why we aren't supposed to eat so much sodiumWhen there’s extra sodium in your bloodstream, sodium pulls water into your blood vessels, increasing the total amount of blood inside your blood vessels. With more blood flowing through your blood vessels, blood pressure may increase too much.
Even if you don’t have high blood pressure, it is postulated that eating less sodium can help blunt the rise in blood pressure that occurs with age, and reduce your risk of heart attack, heart failure, stroke, kidney disease, osteoporosis, stomach cancer and even headaches.
The extra water in your body (from temporary high salt intake) can also lead to bloating which can feel very uncomfortable.
While the American (and Dutch) Heart Association recommend a sodium intake of 1500mg (or <4g salt) a day, about 95% of the world's populations have an average intake between 6 g and 12 g daily. Widespread advice that salt intake be restricted below this range is not supported by evidence from randomized controlled trials nor is it supported by evidence from observational studies.
As a matter of fact, intake of less than 5.8 g of salt per day typically results in activation of the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system, which leads to an increase in plasma lipids and increased mortality.
Why is sodium important?Sodium is an extremely important and essential electrolyte present in the extracellular fluid. One of the health benefits of sodium is the role it plays in enzyme processes and muscle contraction. Sodium is very important for osmoregulation and fluid maintenance within the human body. Other health benefits include improved heart performance, nervous system, and glucose absorption.
Sodium is needed for blood volume regulation and its absence can cause serious impairment of body functions. As an electrolyte, sodium regulates the body fluids and transmits electrical impulses as well as proper nerve function in the body.
In short, sodium is a vital component in the human diet for the regulation of cellular activity and nervous system function.
Health benefits of sodiumSodium is generally present in very small quantities in nearly every natural food. When it is added in the form of a common salt, it not only increases the flavor but also completes the necessary requirement of a balanced diet.
Apparently we seem to forget how a normal salt intake can be beneficial for us, so let's sum up the health advantages of sodium for our body!
Sodium regulates fluid levels
Sodium is one of the minerals that helps to regulate fluid levels in the human body. Sodium and water balance are closely linked. Sodium gateways and channels are what pump water into the cell and regulate the amount of extracellular fluid in the body.
Sodium prevents sunstroke
Sunstroke is caused by a failure of the heat regulating system in the human body. This form of heat exhaustion is caused due to continuous exposure to very high temperatures. This exposure causes the body to lose its capacity to maintain a normal temperature. This condition is further aggravated due to the loss of salt and water from the body. Thus, sodium plays a vital role in preventing sunstroke or heat exhaustion by replacing the loss of essential electrolytes.
Besides water, drinking fluids containing salt and sugar is favorable against sunstroke. Salt can also be mixed with the juice of raw mangos to provide even more relief.
Sodium levels and fluid balance are very important for endurance athletes as well as those who live extremely active lifestyles.
Sodium improves brain function
The brain is very sensitive to change in sodium levels of the body; deficiency of sodium often manifests as confusion and lethargy.
Sodium aids in keeping the mind sharp, and it is an important element for the development of the brain since it works to improve brain function.
Sodium relieves muscle cramps
Muscle cramps are caused mostly during the hot summer months due to electrolyte imbalance and dehydration. Along with properly hydrating the body, sodium is also important to supplement one’s body with sodium-rich juices and fluids to restore a number of electrolytes.
Sodium hydrates skin
Sodium is an important hydrating product in many anti-aging creams as it defends against the free radicals that accelerate the aging process. Furthermore, it helps to restore youthful and healthy skin.
Sodium controls glucose absorption
Sodium helps to facilitate the absorption of glucose by cells, resulting in the smooth transportation of nutrients in the body’s cell membranes.
Sodium maintains acid-base balance
By altering the proportions of acid-base alkali phosphates in the body, sodium controls the reaction of the kidneys and the frequency and content of urination.
Sodium regulates fluids
One of the most notable health benefits of sodium is its ability to balance the osmotic pressure in the human body due to the regulation of fluid in the body’s cells.
Sodium balances ions
Sodium shares an association with chlorides and bicarbonates in maintaining a sound balance between two types of ions, both positively charged ions, and negatively charged ones.
Sodium controls blood pressure
Sodium can help to maintain normal contractions of the heart. It plays a vital role in maintaining the blood pressure of the human body, but an excessive increase in its content can dramatically boost the blood pressure and result in serious health complications.
Salt is vital for digestion
Sodium plays a primary role in the processes of digestion and absorption. Sodium activates an enzyme in the mouth called salivary amylase.
When you are eating salty food, the salt allows your taste buds to taste the food. Salt also plays a role in digestion by helping to break down food. The chlorine part of salt (NaCL) is transformed into hydrochloric acid (HCl). Hydrochloric acid is a very important digestive secretion, which lines the stomach walls. Salt actually helps your body digest food.
A sodium deficiency happens when a body fails to receive an adequate supply of sodium. Sodium deficiency most frequently happens in excessive temperatures, which cause the body to perspire heavily and patterns of dehydration will set in. Sodium deficiency can lead to shock if the blood pressure is decreased too severely.
The 3 main effects of sodium deficiency are muscular problems, gastrointestinal distress, and cognitive impairment.
Muscle cramps and spasms occur because muscles fatigue easily at low sodium levels. Muscular weakness and seizures are additional signs of a sodium deficiency.
Gastrointestinal distress may cause a decreased appetite, nausea and vomiting. If a person with low sodium levels experiences vomiting, the hyponatremia may continue to worsen.
Cognitive impairment results from decreased sodium levels because while most of the body tissues can handle the expanding tissue cells caused by hyponatremia, the brain cannot compensate for increased cell size.
Brain dysfunction may occur because of the changes. Symptoms of this impairment include a headache, lethargy, fatigue and confusion. As the condition worsens, a person may experience irritability and hallucinations. A decreased level of consciousness, a coma and possibly death may also occur when blood sodium levels drop.
In a serious case of sodium deficiency the nervous system will begin to shut down. In general, sodium deficiency leads to diarrhea, vomiting, headache, weakness, low blood pressure, lethargy, weight loss, confusion, dizziness, and muscular irritability.
The symptoms of low blood sodium levels may vary depending on the severity of the condition. A person with a slow decrease in sodium levels may not experience any symptoms, while a person with a rapid decrease in sodium levels may have severe symptoms.
Age may also play a role in the severity of symptoms associated with low sodium levels. Older individuals may experience more severe symptoms than a younger person with the same sodium levels.
General health also plays a role in symptoms because an aged, chronically ill person tends to develop more severe symptoms than a healthy, young person. Without proper treatment to correct the imbalance, the symptoms of sodium deficiency will worsen.
Excessive sodium intake
Diets that are too high in sodium can lead to high water retention and hypertension. Overall, salt is generally nontoxic to adults, provided it is excreted properly.
While sodium is an essential nutrient in any balanced diet, excessive intake can even cause stomach cancer. People suffering from kidney problems or edema should restrict their intake to protect against those health risks.
Excessive intake will not just cause high blood pressure, but also lead to swelling of the neural tissues and nerves, and cerebral edema. In the worst case excessive intake can even lead to a coma.
When to supplement with sodium?Supplemental doses of sodium is necessary when you sweat profusely, have sunstroke or suffer from adrenal insufficiency.
Sodium and migraine
Surprisingly, migraine sufferers may find relief by ingesting more salt.
In a study on almost 9000 adults suffering from regular headaches, those that had a higher dietary intake of sodium had a lower chance of migraines or severe headaches.
This relationship was not affected by age or sex. In women, this inverse relationship was limited to those with lower relative body weight, while in men the relationship did not differ by weight. Apparently there's an inverse relationship between migraines and severe headaches and dietary sodium intake.
The surprise here is that the exact opposite advice was given to migraine sufferers because in most people with migraine, sodium levels in the brain fluids were elevated and worse, a sudden increase in sodium intake can trigger migraines.
Probably the trick here is to have a consistently normal-high (neither low nor too high) sodium intake, rather than let it fluctuate too much, either on the low nor on the high end! So, our best advice we can give to those of you who suffer from migraine is to experiment with your dietary sodium intake and raising or dropping it consistently.
On another note, hormonal cycle-related migraines may be related to low sodium intake, especially when progesterone levels are high, since progesterone can reduce the sodium retaining activity of aldosterone and result in excessive sodium-loss.
Sources of sodium in food
The best sources of sodium are apples, common salt, homemade soups, cabbage, egg yolks, pulses, and bananas.
Even carrots, baking powder and baking soda, turnips, leafy vegetables and dried peas are good sources.
Processed cheese, smoked fish, salty meats, snacks, pickles, and sauce contain ample amount, but they come with other health concerns.
Unlike some other vitamins and minerals, heat has no effect on sodium. Therefore, it can be used in different ways and preparations without losing its effects.
In short, sodium is more vital for your health than most of us realise.
Most of the time you won't need to worry too much about a need to reduce sodium intake, unless you are 100% sure to be among the small amount of people suffering from sodium-related hypertension or when your kidneys aren't functioning properly.
Most of the time, your intake is self-regulated, and at times, like during a heat wave or when you experience migraines often, you may need to increase your intake.