Sodium


Sodium often gets a bad rap that it doesn’t entirely deserve. If consumed in moderate amounts, sodium is vital to certain biochemical processes that help keep us feeling at our best.

The problem, then, isn’t the sodium. It’s that the stuff is so tasty we frequently end up eating more than we should! Let’s take a look at how exactly sodium can affect our health: both good and bad.

What Is It?

Sodium is an element, rarely found in nature in its pure form. A silver-colored, metallic substance, pure sodium is not what is being referred to in terms of the foods we eat. Rather, nutritive sodium is an ionic form of the mineral that is required by animals for various biological processes.

What Is Its Biological Role?

One of sodium’s jobs is to work alongside other compounds in the body [1] to help regulate blood pressure. A property of sodium is its ability to help our bodies retain water, and it does this with the aim of helping us to maintain a proper balance of fluids in our bodies.

In this way, it affects our blood pressure by affecting the total volume of fluid. Sodium also signals the activation of a specialized protein that constricts your blood vessels. Both of the effects raise your blood pressure, which is why individuals with clinically high blood pressure are typically told to follow a low sodium diet.

However, in addition to these potentially undesired effects, sodium is vital to the function of our nervous system. Sodium helps your nerves talk to each other--it is the mineral that helps bridge the gaps between your nerves and send messages throughout the body.

Specifically, it is involved in the communications between nerves and muscle fibers; in other words, it helps tell your muscles when to tense and when to relax. If your body is too low in sodium, it may be unable to send that second message that says “relax”, which is one of the contributing factors to the body cramps that come with dehydration. Lastly, sodium has some small effect on the digestive system, aiding in the absorption of key nutrients.

How Does It Help Bodybuilders and People Who Work Out?

Regardless of lifestyle or how often you workout, everybody needs an appropriate amount of sodium in order to stay healthy. However, sodium is an electrolyte that can be lost in sweat.

For anyone who works out frequently, protracted periods of sweating can cause illness from acute hyponatremia [2]. This is why sports drinks marketed to athletes will typically have sodium in them, to offset what is being lost in sweat as you exercise.

What Foods Contain It?

Sodium is added to processed foods to enhance their taste. In addition to table salt, some examples of sodium-containing foods are: frozen meals, pizza, pre-cooked chicken, canned vegetables or soups, and most processed meats, be they canned, cured, or cold cut.

How Much Of It Do You Need?

The recommended daily allowance of sodium [3] for infants is 1,500mg per day. This number rises steadily as we age, topping out at the adult recommendation of 2,300mg per day. This may seem like quite a lot; however, 2,500mg of sodium is equivalent to only about a teaspoon of table salt.

Are There Risks Associated With Consuming Too Much Of It?

If consumed in moderation, the effects of dietary sodium can help prevent us from low blood pressure and dehydration. If, however, we consume more than we need (which is the case for the vast majority of Americans who rely primarily on processed foods for their daily caloric intake) it can cause dangerously high blood pressure.

In addition it can also cause our bodies to retain more fluid than we need in order to be healthy. These two effects combine to cause an undue amount of stress on the heart. This leads to a greatly increased risk of heart disease, heart attack, or stroke.

Sodium is abundantly present in many of the foods commonly eaten today and causes these health complications without most people even being aware that they are at risk. This has earned it the nickname “silent killer”.

Are There Risks Associated With Consuming Too Little Of It?

Whether or not you experience symptoms relating to hyponatremia (low blood sodium) depends on how quickly the level of sodium in your blood drops. If it is a gradual change you may not notice any symptoms until your deficiency is quite severe.

If the drop happens suddenly you may experience fainting, seizure, or coma. Symptoms of hyponatremia include: muscle cramps, confusion, fatigue, weakness, and nausea.

Final Take

As you've probably deduce by now, sodium isn’t as bad as you might have initially thought. Certainly, the standard American diet is far too high in sodium, but that doesn’t mean we ought to cut it out completely!

If you maintain a wholesome diet high in unprocessed, fresh foods, you’ll be a lot more likely to consume the recommended healthy amount of sodium that will help you to remain healthy.

References:

[1] Medline Plus. Sodium in Diet. Medlineplus.gov, 2016.

[2] The Mayo Clinic. Hyponatremia. mayoclinic.org, 2014

[3] American Heart Association. Sodium and Salt. Heart.org, 2017.