Why You Really Need to Pay Attention to Sodium Levels

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Sodium has long been maligned for a whole catalogue of health issues, from high blood pressure to early death. And while an overabundance of this mineral can indeed cause a host of complications, what’s often overlooked is the fact that sodium is as vital to your health as calcium. Here’s the lowdown on this fundamental mineral—and how to ensure you’re getting the optimal amount:

Wooden Spoon Overflowing with Salt on Blue Table to Represent Concept of Monitoring Sodium Levels | Vitacost.com/blog

What are the pros of sodium?

As the American Heart Association puts it, “Sodium is a mineral that’s essential for life.” Regulated by your kidneys, this key electrolyte plays a critical role in maintaining the fluid balance in your body. Working with potassium—another key electrolyte—sodium also aids in sending nerve impulses throughout your body, bolsters energy production, and influences muscle contractions and recovery, blood pressure and blood volume. Indeed, if moderate amounts are consumed and ideal levels are met, sodium can help maintain oral health (by diminishing harmful bacteria in the mouth), prevent sunstroke, and promote digestion.

What is the recommended sodium intake?

Sodium is one of the few nutrients for which there’s not a daily recommended intake, but, rather, a recommended amount that you should stay below. That number depends on who you ask. It’s generally recommended that you refrain from exceeding 2,300 mg per day but the American Heart Association advises on capping it at 1,500 mg—or less than one teaspoon daily.

What are the signs that I’m not getting enough?

Given that sodium is abundant in nearly all of the foods and drinks we consume, it seems that low sodium would be an oxymoron—or impossible to achieve. On the contrary: Too little sodium in the body can wreak just as much havoc as an excess of it. Some of the side effects of insufficient amounts include muscular cramps, vomiting, headaches, fatigue, low blood pressure, confusion, restlessness, irritability and dizziness.

What are the signs that I’m getting too much sodium?

Sodium regulation may be required for overall health, but not only is it easy to overdo it on salt, but also the average American, as we all know, gets too much. This can have both immediate and lasting consequences. High sodium in the blood is technically known as hypernatremia and its chief symptom is—surprise—thirst. (Ever wonder why you feel so parched after eating a bag of pretzels? Exactly.)

Less common but more severe signs of excess sodium include muscle twitching, seizures, confusion, coma and, yes, death. Over time, a surplus of sodium can also impact your kidneys’ ability to remove water and ultimately lead to hypertension—the medical term for high blood pressure, which in itself ups your risk for heart attack, stroke and cardiovascular disease.

Unfortunately, the signs of hypertension are often subtle—there’s a reason why heart disease is called “the silent killer”—but some may experience headaches, a shortness of breath and nosebleeds. (These, however, typically present when sodium levels are significantly elevated.) An overly-salty diet can further increase your risk for osteoporosis, gastric cancer and kidney stones, the Linus Pauling Institute reports.

What foods should I reach for?

Organic fruits and vegetables are your best bet for keeping your sodium levels in control. Preparing your own food also helps ensure that you’re not getting the extreme amount of salt that’s frequently found in restaurants, while rinsing canned beans, tuna and legumes can help reduce your sodium intake even more. The American Heart Association also suggests purchasing poultry and other meats that have not been injected with a sodium solution (find this in the fine print under saline, broth, and sodium solution). At the same time, increase your consumption of potassium-rich foods—such as leafy greens, oranges, bananas, white and kidney beans and sweet potatoes—to counter the sodium you do consume.

What foods should I avoid?

Some may assume that skipping the table salt is all the effort they need to put forth to reduce their sodium intake and maintain a proper amount. But since sodium is ubiquitous in foods—and often concealed—it’s important to take it a step beyond this. Foods that are high in sodium tend to come from a package (think: chips, crackers, snack mixes, those aforementioned pretzels), as well as processed products, such as bacon, hot dogs, deli meats, hard cheeses, canned soup and pasta. And while you may think your morning toast is safe, beware: Many bread products are high in sodium and can take a major toll on your low-sodium endeavors.

In sum? Look at food labels and reach for health-boosting spices such as turmeric, black pepper, garlic and dill to enhance the flavor of your food. Finally, be mindful of the condiments you choose. Soy sauce, mustard, relishes, bottled salsas and salad dressings often contain high amounts of sodium. Search for reduced-sodium versions of these products instead—or find new ways to give your food a kick with those above-mentioned spices.

Should I take a sodium supplement?

Certain medications, heart disease and illnesses that cause diarrhea and vomiting are just a few of the instances in which a sodium supplement may be necessary, but wherever you are on the spectrum of health, be sure to consult with your physician first.

If you and your doctor decide a sodium supplement is the right choice, go for a product that contains other important trace minerals, such as Vitacost’s Trace Mineral Drops, which contains just the right amount of sodium, as well as magnesium and potassium. Your body, in turn, will thank you.