Sodium and chloride are the most abundant electrolytes in the human body and are essential for the proper functioning of all our cells and organs, especially because they help to maintain fluid balance. Nerve impulses, muscle contraction, and cardiac function all depend on sodium and chloride. The stomach also uses chloride to produce hydrochloric acid, so it’s needed for proper digestion.
The Importance of Electrolytes
While sweat is mostly water, it also contains electrolytes that actually produce an electric charge when dissolved in water. The electrolytes in our sweat include sodium and chloride, as well as potassium, and to a lesser degree, iron and calcium. In considering this, it is no surprise that sweating can disrupt electrolyte balance in the body. For this reason, doctors recommend increasing electrolyte-rich fluids and foods for athletes and those living in hot climates [II]. Your body also needs glucose (sugar) to absorb sodium, so this is one reason why sports drinks contain sugar. Unfortunately, these drinks over do it! Plus, the large quantities of glucose are often provided in the form of high fructose corn syrup, which can do more harm than good. Better choices include coconut water, or a homemade version! Simply combine filtered water with a bit of sea salt, lemon and honey for a refreshing, hydrating beverage.
High Blood Pressure
Since water naturally moves towards areas that have a high concentration of Na+ (sodium) or Cl– (chloride), the body can move these ions to areas where more water is needed. This is especially important for the regulation of blood pressure. Because sodium attracts water, it increases blood volume. As blood volume increases, so does blood pressure. For years, high blood pressure (hypertension) has been associated with a high intake of salt. Now we’ve discovered that a low-salt diet does not benefit everyone with high blood pressure. Restricting salt may decrease blood pressure in some individuals, yet in a small portion of the population, reducing salt in the diet may actually cause an increase in blood pressure [I]. For others, salt may not affect blood pressure one way or another. This is very good example of how we are all biochemically different, and why one particular diet cannot fit all people.
The Effects of Too Much Sodium
Bloating & Dehydration
Feeling bloated and having swollen fingers is often the result of consuming too much salt. This occurs because your body retains water in an attempt to dilute the salt. The best way to reduce this bloating is to drink more water to eliminate the excess salt through the urine. Too much salt also makes some people thirsty. This is your body’s way of telling you to dilute the salt! By the time you feel thirsty, however, you are already dehydrated. No worries though, simply drink more water. Sipping throughout the day is the best way to stay hydrated and in balance.
Acid Reflux and Heartburn
Sodium regulates the balance of your bodily fluids and blood, so too much salt may trigger acid reflux and cause heartburn. Studies have shown that daily intake of too much salt is a strong risk factor for duodenal and gastric ulcers and cancers. Processed foods, TV dinners, fast foods, canned goods, crackers, and chips are all high in sodium and are therefore linked to these health issues. If you contend with heartburn and acid reflux, try reducing your intake of these types of processed foods.
Too much sodium inhibits your body’s absorption and utilization of calcium. This can lead to weakened and porous bones. If you are dealing with osteoporosis, are diabetic, just starting menopause, or post-menopause, reducing your salt intake could help. Track your progress with your doctor to see if too much salt may be a contributing factor.
Excess sodium and calcium (from supplements) that are not used by your body are excreted in your urine. This can increase the filtration load of your kidneys and increase the likelihood of crystal formation. A tendency toward kidney stones may indicate too much salt in your diet.
So now you know what to do if you’re getting too much salt: drink more water and decrease processed foods. But how do you know if you aren’t getting enough?
Although it does not occur frequently, sodium deficiency can occur in athletes, individuals living in hot climates, and in cases of severe diarrhea and vomiting. It can be serious when it does happen. Symptoms include headache, nausea and vomiting, muscle cramps, drowsiness, fainting, fatigue, and in some severe cases, coma.
Table Salt or Sea Salt?
Your regular table salt, or iodized salt, is mined from underground salt deposits. It is processed to eliminate minerals and usually contains an additive to prevent clumping. I find this to be an unbalanced, unnatural salt, and not nearly as efficient as unrefined sea salt at balancing bodily fluids and filling our nutritional needs.
Unrefined sea salt is produced by evaporating seawater. It goes through very limited processing, which leaves trace minerals and elements in the salt, depending on the water source. These minerals add flavor, texture, color, and nutrition to sea salt, which can be anywhere from white to gray to pink, depending on the source. Sea salt comes in varieties of coarseness for different uses. Chefs use a "finishing salt" which is fine, unrefined sea salt to add flavor to dishes at the last moment. Coarser sea salt can be used in dishes such as soups or stews in which the minerals dissolve in the solution. When buying sea salt, look for the word “unrefined” on the label to make sure you are not getting a processed version in disguise.
Salt and Iodine
Most table salt also has synthetic iodine added to it to prevent iodine deficiency. If you do not eat much seafood and are concerned about iodine levels, simply add some dried kelp or dulse (a type of seaweed) granules to unrefined sea salt or sprinkle it directly on salads and other dishes. Many people don’t taste this because it is used in such small amounts. These nutrients will keep you up to par on your iodine and give you extra minerals as well.
Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA)
Sodium - 1500 mg/day, Upper Level Dosage (UL) 2300 mg/day
Chloride - 2300 mg/day, Upper Level Dosage (UL) 3500 mg/day
Salt - 3800 mg/day, Upper Level Dosage (U)L 5800 mg/day
Regulating Your Salt Intake
You can easily minimize your salt intake by eating fresh vegetables instead of canned (or rinse canned vegetables well), avoid processed foods, use soy sauce or tamari sparingly, and simply avoid adding extra salt to your foods. Take note that one teaspoon of salt is equivalent to 2325 mg, which is almost 100% of your RDA.
Here are a few tips on interpreting labels:
Salt free typically means less than 5 mg of sodium per serving.
Very low salt typically means less than 35 mg of sodium per serving.
Low salt typically mean less than 140 mg of sodium per serving.
Food Sources of Sodium and Chloride
Animal sources: beef, poultry, dairy, and seafood contain moderate amounts of both sodium and chloride.
Plant sources: fresh fruits and vegetables contain a small amount of sodium and chloride, as do sea vegetables.
While limiting your salt intake may be important, we know that many dishes just don’t taste the same without a pinch! Remember to choose sea salt over table salt and try using more spices and herbs in your dish next time around. You might be pleasantly surprised just how much they can improve flavor and taste!
[I] Titze J, Ritz E. "Salt-its effect on blood pressure and target organ damage: New pieces in an old puzzle". Journal of Nephrology, 2009 Mar-Apr; 22(2):177-89. Web. May. 2016. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19384834>.
[II] Von Duvillard SP, Braun WA, Markofski M, Beneke R, Leithäuser R. "Fluids and hydration in prolonged endurance performance." Nutrition. 2004 Jul-Aug; 20(7-8):651-6. Web. May. 2016 <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15212747>.