Salt, as far as our diet is concerned, has been given some really negative press. Everyone is conditioned to worry about an excess of salt in our foods as being bad for our health but it is quite often overlooked that in actual fact our bodies need a certain level of salt to function effectively. Reducing our intake too much can be just as damaging as overdoing it in the salt department.
So let’s break it down to get a better understanding…
The human body cannot actually survive without the main component of salt, sodium. It works within us to enable the transmission of nerve impulses, to contract and relax muscle fibres (including fibres in the heart and blood vessels) it also helps our cells to absorb nutrients, and aids the digestion process. It also serves to maintain a balance of fluids; sodium is an electrolyte, and it helps regulate the amount of water that’s in and around your cells. A balance of fluid and sodium is necessary for the health of the heart, liver, and kidneys. It regulates blood fluids and prevents low blood pressure.
All bodies have approximately 250g (!) of salt which needs to be constantly maintained. Our body, being a highly intelligent system, knows when our sodium levels are too high by indicating we need to drink (by way of thirst), we then dilute the amount in our system, filter it and excrete it. If our levels are too low our kidneys will reabsorb it into our bloodstream.
Too much salt…
If our sodium levels are constantly too high this can result in the blocking of arteries, osteoporosis, kidney disease, kidney stones, stomach cancer, oedema (water retention) and hypertension (high blood pressure), which can lead to heart disease and stroke. Excess sodium has a negative effect on the body because it causes us to draw more water into our bloodstream, this causes an increase in the volume of the blood which in turn adds pressure onto the heart as it has more work to do pumping it around the body. This added pressure can also weaken the blood vessels, making them more prone to damage as well as causing the build up of plaque in the arteries. Autoimmune diseases may also be linked to high sodium levels as it is known to overstimulate our immune systems.
Fast foods raise our salt intake too high
Not enough salt…
If the concentration of sodium in our blood is too low, and remains so, this can cause hyponatremia. This means that our water levels are for some reason rising in our body causing our cells to swell which can cause serious health issues. Symptoms of hyponatremia can be any of the following; nausea, vomiting, headaches, lethargy, drowsiness, restlessness, confusion, muscle weakness or cramps, spasms, seizures and even coma. This can be caused by a whole manner of reasons:
Medication: Certain medications, such as some water pills (diuretics), antidepressants and pain medications, can cause an imbalance in our sodium levels by interfering with our natural hormonal and kidney processes.
Heart, kidney and liver problems: Certain diseases which affect these organs can cause fluids to build up in your body and dilute sodium levels.
Syndrome of inappropriate anti-diuretic hormone (SIADH): When high levels of ADH are produced, our bodies retain water and therefore dilute sodium levels.
Chronic dehydration: This can be caused by serious vomiting, diarrhoea or over exercising without replenishing lost fluids.
Over hydration: Too much water can also affect our sodium levels as we can overwhelm our kidneys and over dilute the content in our bloodstream.
Hormonal imbalance: When our adrenal gland’s ability to produce the correct hormones which balance our sodium levels are compromised we will suffer a shortage; this can be caused by Addison’s disease.
Amphetamines: When taking recreational drugs such as ecstasy this can cause our body to go into serious cases of hyponatremia which can even result in death.
How to monitor your salt intake…
Foods with high amounts of salt are generally those that are processed or packaged. Fast food contains serious amounts, a 250g tub of popcorn at the cinema can contain our entire recommended daily intake of one teaspoon, 2000mg, or 5g. Because salt is useful as a preservative you’ll find plenty of it in canned or jarred foods as well as smoked or cured fish and meats. Always check the labels to see the sodium content. If you opt for fresh food you can guarantee that your salt intake will be far less than if you buy packaged; if it comes in any form of packaging, it will contain plenty of sodium. The best way to limit and monitor your intake is to make your own food from scratch using fresh ingredients.
We can see the reality of just how important the level of salt in our system is to our health. We need to hydrate – but not too much. We need to eat salt – but not too much. The balance is paramount. To keep a heathy diet full of plenty of fresh foods, fruits and vegetables, replenishing electrolytes after strenuous exercise, not taking drugs (!), and generally keeping an eye on our salt intake is really important for our overall wellness.
Online distance learning diploma courses in Nutrition
Here at the School of Natural Health Sciences nutrition is one of our most popular subjects. So much so that we have introduced many new courses in recent years to cover a diverse range of dietary needs:
- Child & Adolescent Nutrition
- Ethical & Sustainable Eating
- Clinical Nutrition
- Advanced Nutrition
- Nutrition for Age 50 Plus
- Plant-Based Nutrition
- Sport & Exercise Nutrition
- Vegetarian & Vegan Nutrition
Our courses never run out, there are no deadlines to finish them – only the ones you make yourself of course 🙂 – and they are accredited in 26 countries worldwide.