All About Salt: How Much Sodium Per Day is Good For You?
For years now, everyone with an opinion on healthcare - from our grandmother to the government - has been warning us off salt. We’re told time and time again how bad eating too much salt can be for us. Why? salt’s sodium content is known to raise blood pressure, leading to major problems like heart attack and stroke.
Although most major health organizations host serious warnings about the problems too much sodium can cause, many refrain from reminding us how problematic getting too little sodium can also be. We’re left wondering how much sodium per day should we really be getting? Read on to find out.
What Is Sodium
Sodium (Na) is a chemical element which also happens to be a crucial electrolyte in the human body. We obtain sodium through our diet as many foods naturally contain the substance. That said, most of our sodium intake comes from that favored seasoning, salt.
Salt (NaCl) is made up of 40% sodium and 60% chloride (Cl), another chemical element.
Sodium is an electrically charged molecule which helps maintain electrical gradients across cell membranes. This is critical for a number of bodily functions including nerve transmission and muscle contraction.
Sodium also binds to water in the body which ensures a correct fluid balance. It ensures that the right fluids are held onto while others are excreted naturally.
Sodium is completely necessary for the body to function.
If Sodium Is Necessary, Where’s the Issue?
We’ve been told that salt is bad for us for years - decades even. It’s almost as infamous as saturated fat when it comes to portrayal in the media.
When you have messages coming from the most reputable sources, most prominently the government, you can be sure that the warning is not without good reason. But what is the problem with too much salt?
The sodium in salt binds to water and brings it into our bloodstream. More salt means more volume inside our blood vessels, which in turn puts pressure on their walls. In simple terms, this measurement is your blood pressure. It’s believed that salt slightly raises blood pressure by around 5 mm HG (source).
High blood pressure or hypertension, is a serious precursor to many chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and kidney failure.
According the the World Health Organization (WHO), cardiovascular disease (heart disease and stroke) is currently the number one cause of death worldwide (source). Therefore, it is clear to see why monitoring your sodium intake is necessary.
While we have already mentioned that sodium is necessary for the human body to function, the problem (according to most US health organizations) is that Americans following a typical western diet are on average getting around 3400 mg of sodium per day. The main culprit here is processed foods. This is far higher than the recommended amount according to most major health organizations.
How Much Sodium Per Day Should We Have In Our Diet?
The major US health organizations recommend the following:
Clearly, there is a general consensus that we should not be eating more than 2300 mg of sodium per day which equates to around one teaspoon of salt.
However, you have to remember that these are guidelines. Everyone is different. Dietary factors, lifestyle factors and pre-existing health conditions can all have an affect on your health. Although these guidelines are generally suitable for the masses, that doesn’t mean they are right for everyone.
Therefore, we need to look at these guidelines and all other contributing factors and ask how much sodium per day do I need? Does research support that lowering your salt intake is really that necessary? Are the health benefits worth the very obvious lack of pleasure we are left with from our unseasoned, salt-free food?
Moreover, what many major health organizations refrain from advertising is that an insufficient sodium intake can also cause serious adverse health effects.
Therefore, when it comes to these recommendations they should probably be take with, well, a pinch of salt!
Low Sodium Levels Can Cause Serious Harm
I myself actually have personal experience with this. Like most young adults who leave their family home to go off to college, I suddenly had to learn to cook in order to feed myself! During this time I never added salt to anything, not as a seasoning in meals, nothing.
Suddenly, mid way through college I started having unexplained episodes where I would suddenly feel faint and lose consciousness. This started to happen more and more regularly, until the point I also started having very mild seizures.
Of course, at this point I was admitted to the emergency room for further investigation for what was initially thought to be a mild form of epilepsy. Yet believe it or not, after a number of unpleasant and invasive tests, the results were that I was suffering from a condition called hyponatremia - or insufficient blood sodium.
Basically, I had been consuming too little salt for so long that it started to lower my blood pressure and cause other adverse effects within my body. Add to that the stress of general college life and I was left pretty sick.
This condition, although rare, can affect many people. Most commonly those who workout or exercise frequently, and those whose dietary choices mean they are simply not taking in an adequate amount of sodium.
In fact numerous studies have shown just how problematic and downright harmful low blood sodium can be.
A study published in the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology showed that many people who physically exert themselves (athletes, bodybuilders, hardcore fitness fanatics) are especially at risk of hyponatremia (source).
It has also been shown that low blood sodium can also cause serious issues for people with pre-existing conditions. In fact, one study showed that in the case of people with type 2 diabetes, low dietary sodium actually increased the risk of death (source).
Remember To Look At All Dietary Factors
We have established that too much sodium can raise your blood pressure, however, there are many other dietary factors which could lower your blood pressure far more effectively than excessive sodium restriction.
One way to maintain healthy blood pressure is by ensuring you get all the essential vitamins and minerals you need. Most notably, magnesium (source) and potassium (source). Both of which can be obtained naturally through eating animal products and plants, but also through supplementation with multivitamins.
Moreover, eating less carbohydrates lowers your insulin levels, which in turn forces the kidneys to excrete excess sodium. Thus, a low-carb diet can help lower blood pressure and generally improve overall health (source)
Needless to say, aside from diet, your lifestyle choices can also affect your blood pressure. Exercising can significantly lower your blood pressure as well as having many other benefits for your health and wellbeing (source).
How Much Sodium Per Day Is Optimal?
It goes without saying that anyone who has high blood pressure, or has been advised by their doctor to lower their sodium intake should continue to do so. No questions asked.
However, for those who are perfectly healthy and wish to continue that way, there is no research suggesting that lowering (or even monitoring) your sodium intake is necessary.
Most research actually shows that moderation is the key. Too little sodium can be dangerous, as can too much, therefore, somewhere in the middle is key to optimum health (source).
In fact, those with low blood pressure and people following low-carb diets like the paleo diet may actually require more salt in their diet, especially if you are also regularly working out.
One way to make healthier choices when it comes to salt is to only use unrefined kinds such as sea salt or himalayan rock salt. These also contain a number of trace nutrients which are beneficial to your health.
Most likely, the best way to get enough sodium in your diet is rather than obsessing over milligrams and teaspoons, cut out refined, processed rubbish and eat whole-foods. Then, add salt as seasoning to make those natural foods taste good. It really is as simple as that.
Here's an interesting infographic from healthyforgood.heart.org