A common occurrence in health news today is the subject of salt and the subsequent effects it has on our well-being. Excessive salt or sodium chloride contributes to 1/3 of high blood pressure cases in the western world and is a contributing factor in heart attacks, strokes and coronary heart disease (CHD).
Sodium is an electrolyte found in the blood stream as one of the main minerals in blood plasma and extracellular fluid. Its function is to adjust fluid exchange throughout the body’s compartments thus allowing a well-regulated exchange of nutrients and waste products between the cells. It is also required to maintain healthy nerve pathways and aid in muscular contractions.
The body is perfectly built to manage and regulate its sodium levels naturally with low sodium levels being treated with the release of the hormone aldosterone to protect the kidneys and high sodium levels being instantly reduced with the excess sodium being expelled in urine.
Sodium is not the same as salt. Salt is 60% chloride and 40% sodium. Sodium is naturally occurring in a lot of our foods but through cooking, preserving and flavoring or foods, we add and increase the levels of sodium in our diet.
Americans consistently consume about 3,700 milligrams (3.7 grams) of sodium a day. Current sodium guidelines advise up to 2,300 milligrams (about one teaspoon) a day for adults, and 1,500 milligrams for those who have or are at risk for high blood pressure.
The average Briton consumes 11 grams of salt per day which is more than twice what the body naturally needs. The British Government have set a recommended daily allowance of 6 grams of salt per day, a level that allows some extra in your diet but can be easily regulated by the body.
75% of salt in our diet is already added to the foods we eat such as breads, cereals, oily fish, cheese, meat and butter. Ready meals have an increased addition of salt to almost dangerous levels. One supermarket in Britain was found to have 6 grams of salt in one of its “healthier” Shepherds Pie options providing the RDA in one sitting and that’s not counting the excess that would have been consumed in drinks, puddings or snacks before and after this meal. That’s dangerously high levels of sodium.
High levels of salt can lead to nausea, abdominal cramps and diarrhea and over time will increase blood pressure (or hypertension) by increasing fluid volume and enlarging the heart muscle putting an increased strain on the heart and limiting the supply of blood and oxygen. This could eventually lead to heart failure, coronary heart disease and possibly strokes.
As we get older we become more sensitive to sodium levels and should regulate our diet with potassium, magnesium and calcium to counter the effects of high sodium levels.
If you regularly add salt to your food or eat large amounts of processed ready meals or “beige goods” such as cereals, breads, pizzas, cakes, biscuits and pastries, you may be eating over and above the RDA of sodium.
The first thing to do is to change your diet. Eating clean, fresh foods such as vegetables and fruits in their natural form will not only flush out the toxins and waste products in the body but they will also help to keep the body fully hydrated. Drinking lots of fresh water will help to expel excess salt in your urine. Dehydration can often lead to high levels of sodium in the cells and has been attributed to muscle cramps.
Try to avoid adding salt to your meals or use low sodium stock or herbs for favoring and simply try cooking your own meals. Cooking yourself means you can regulate how much salt is put into your meals but remember most foods will already have it added so check your labels.
- Food labels often provide salt and sodium levels so just remember 1 gram of salt contains 0.4 grams of sodium.
- Foods with a high level of salt will display a reading of 5 grams of salt per 100 grams (or 0.6 grams of sodium) and foods with low salt will have a reading of 0.3 grams of salt or less per 100 grams (or 0.1 grams of sodium).
- Reduction in salt can lead to an increased weight loss by reducing water retention however it is important to remember that this does not affect fat loss which is vital to long-term weight loss.
Exercise and Salt
Now on the other hand if you are a regular exerciser or frequently train hard for endurance events you may experience a deficiency in sodium levels. This is quite rare on our modern diet but it can happen and it can be fatal.
Deficiencies in sodium are generally caused by excessive sweating and a 1 pound drop in weight will also result in a 16 ounce drop in sodium levels. Exercising in heat or for long periods such as when training for a marathon without sufficiently hydrating the body can result in nausea, sickness, lack of concentration or even coma. It is important to fuel and hydrate the body in adherence to the exercise you are doing. If you regularly finish a training session with white salt crystals on the skin you need to sufficiently rehydrate the body to replenish both the water and the sodium. An isotonic drink is generally the easiest form of replenishment however it may be worth working out how much weight and therefore sodium has been lost and creating a drink to match those needs.
Over hydration caused by too much water can have the opposite effect. Have you ever exercised for an hour constantly taking sips of water and then felt a little bit sick at the end as you felt the water splashing around? Excessive water intake will upset the balance of salt and water outside the cells allowing water to seep through cell walls causing swelling even on the brain. The result is hyponatremia and produces symptoms of nausea, incoherence, stumbling, seizures, coma and death. This is common in very slow marathon runners, triathletes or over zealous water drinkers who take in more fluid than they lose through sweat or urine. Again isotonic drinks can aid in maintaining sodium levels but commercial products often contain more water than sodium and often exacerbate the problem. It is therefore important that you work out your rate of sweating versus drinking in time for any such endurance events (weighing yourself after training runs is a good way to do this) and providing adequate hydration. The average person needs to drink at least 6-8 glasses of water a day at rest.