Salt, the not-so-secret ingredient that makes food taste good, is also considered one of the main causes of increased blood pressure. It turns out that the situation is, in fact, much more complex, and the effects of salt intake not just vary from one individual to another, but many other factors have a greater impact on our health.
- ? Complexity of Salt Intake: The effects of salt on health vary between individuals, and there are many factors influencing its impact on health, more than just increasing blood pressure.
- ? Official Recommendations: Daily sodium intake recommendations range from 1500 to 2300 mg. However, the average American consumes around 3400 mg daily, exceeding the advised amounts.
- ❤️ Heart Disease and Sodium: A study found that those with higher urinary sodium levels were less likely to develop heart disease. Individuals with a low salt intake experienced higher death rates due to heart conditions.
- ⚠️ Risks of Low Sodium: Insufficient sodium can increase LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, and symptoms like fatigue and confusion. It also has links to increased insulin resistance, a factor in type II diabetes and obesity.
- ? General Advice: For healthy individuals, prioritizing overall food quality is crucial. Consuming moderate salt is advised, and focusing solely on salt content isn’t the best approach to health.
The official recommendations
Not all top health officials have the same recommendation for our daily sodium intake, which varies between 1500 and 2300 mg. That is the equivalent of 3.75 to 6 grams of salt every day. According to the CDC, Americans’ average daily sodium intake is about 3400 mg per day, way above any official recommendation.
Considering these health organizations have given us plenty of bad advice in the past, such as avoiding saturated fats at all costs and drinking more water than we need, I say we take this with a grain of salt (pun intended).
Sodium and 6 other compounds (Chloride, Potassium, Magnesium, Calcium, Phosphate, and Bicarbonate) are the essential electrolytes our body needs to function properly.
Sodium is responsible for regulating the total amount of water in the body. It’s found mostly in blood, plasma, and lymph fluid. Sodium binds water on the extracellular level, while potassium works on the intracellular level. Together, they maintain a balance between these two environments. Besides controlling the blood volume, this balance is critical for nerve and muscle function.
While some foods naturally contain low amounts of sodium, we get most of it from salt, about 40% sodium and 60% chloride.
Sodium increases blood pressure because more water is retained in the blood as sodium levels get higher.
The effect of sodium intake on blood pressure
Eating less salt is linked to reduced blood pressure, but it has only a mild effect and varies a lot, depending on other factors.
A Cochrane review analyzed 34 randomized, controlled studies to see the effects of modest, long-term salt restriction. Individuals with high blood pressure got a reduction of 5.39 mm Hg systolic and 2.82 mm Hg diastolic. People with normal blood pressure didn’t get the same effect; they only got a 2.42 mm Hg systolic reduction and 1.00 mm Hg for diastolic. So the effects vary a lot from one individual to another, and there’s no guarantee that a lower sodium intake is a general solution for everyone.
A study conducted by Belgian scientists at Leuven University followed 3,681 healthy individuals between the ages of 40 and 50 for 8 years. They measured the urinary sodium levels, and the ones with the highest levels had the lowest chance of developing heart disease. The low-salt individuals had 4x higher death rates caused by heart disease than the high-salt people.
Too little sodium is not good either
Just like with any other food or substance we need, excess is just as bad as the lack of it. Not having enough sodium in your system has been shown to cause increased LDL (the “bad” cholesterol) and triglycerides. Too little sodium is an electrolyte disorder called hyponatremia and it includes symptoms such as headache, muscle spasms, fatigue, confusion, hallucinations, and severe vomiting or diarrhea.
Scientific research also discovered that even a short-term low-sodium diet increases insulin resistance in healthy individuals, one of the major factors of type II diabetes and obesity; patients that already had type II diabetes and were following a low sodium diet had an increased risk of death, according to another study.
What can be done?
If you already have a health problem and the doctor recommended low salt intake, by all means, do not ignore his advice. However, for healthy people, going on a low-sodium diet cannot be counted as a preventative measure for developing heart disease and maintaining cardiovascular health.
Also, if you’re on a low-carb diet, you may need to up your sodium intake. A low-carb diet lowers insulin levels and has a diuretic effect, making you lose more salt in your urine.
The general advice for a healthy person is to focus on choosing quality foods; their salt content should not be the only factor involved in the decision process. As long as you apply some common sense rules, there’s nothing wrong with eating moderate salt, and avoiding it certainly doesn’t make any sense.