Most of us are familiar with the warning that we should restrict salt (sodium) in our diet. Too much salt intake, we are told, can be bad for us.
While that is true, it is also true that sodium, in proper concentrations, is a mineral that is essential for helping your body to maintain good health. Located primarily in the blood and in the fluids inside and outside of the cells, sodium is vital for normal nerve and muscle function, and is required to maintain normal fluid balance within and around the cells.
It's when sodium levels become too high or too low that imbalances can result, setting the stage for disease.
Your body's supply of sodium is derived from foods and drinks you consume, while sodium is excreted primarily through perspiration and during urination. Your kidneys maintain a consistent level of sodium in the body by regulating the amount of sodium that is eliminated in the urine. But when sodium intake and excretion are not in balance, the total amount of sodium in the body is affected. Changes in your body's sodium levels directly affect your body's blood volume (how much water your blood contains).
Too Much Salt (High Sodium Levels)
The most common form of sodium imbalance is a blood sodium level that is too high. Excessive blood sodium levels means that your body lacks enough water to cope with the amount of sodium it contains.
Contrary to popular belief, he primary cause of high blood sodium levels is not consumption of too much salt, but dehydration (not enough water intake).
Lack of adequate water intake is a very common condition in the United States due to the fact that most people fail to drink enough water each day, while also eating foods that are high in sodium. Other possible causes of dehydration include diarrhea, vomiting, fever, excessive sweating (particularly during hot weather), abnormal kidney function, diabetes, head trauma or surgery involving the pituitary gland, imbalanced calcium and/or potassium levels, sickle cell disease, and use of drugs such as corticosteroids or diuretics.
When the amount of sodium in your body becomes too high, your body's blood volume increases. When this happens extra fluid accumulates in the space surrounding your body's cells. Such an accumulation of fluid around your cells can cause a variety of problems.
The most common symptoms of high blood sodium levels are confusion, depression, fatigue, fluid retention, irritability, lack of coordination, muscle cramps or twitching, nausea, restlessness, and general weakness.
Another common symptom of high sodium levels is edema, which is characterized by swelling of body tissues, especially in the feet and ankles.
More serious symptoms of high sodium levels can include changes in blood pressure and heart rate, coma, seizure, and death.
A check-up by your physician is necessary to determine if you suffer from high blood sodium levels. If you are found to have this problem, then by all means you should avoid eating salty foods. But you should also beware of drinking salty beverages, such as sports drinks. And you should also increase your daily intake of water, especially following exercise or if you are taking medications.
Too Little Salt (Low Sodium Levels)
As stated above, not enough sodium in your body can also cause health problems. That's because a lack of sodium causes your body's blood volume to decrease. This, in turn, will lead to a corresponding decrease in your blood pressure level, a condition known as hypotension.
When blood volume starts to become low, your body's adrenal and pituitary glands secrete hormones that cause your kidneys to retain both sodium and water in order to increase blood volume. If this condition is not corrected over time, it can lead to kidney problems, as well as adrenal fatigue. Low blood pressure can also cause your heart rate to increase, as well as light-headedness and sometimes shock.
Low blood sodium levels can also affect the brain, which is highly sensitive to changes in sodium levels. As the brain becomes affected, you may feel yourself becoming lethargic or confused. If the condition worsens, additional symptoms, including muscle twitching and seizures can also occur. In severe cases of low blood sodium levels, the result can be stupor, coma, and even death.
Low blood sodium levels occur when your body's sodium supply becomes over-diluted. This can occur due to drinking excessive amounts of water or if you receive water intravenously in above normal amounts during hospitalization. Heart failure, cirrhosis of the liver, kidney problems, chronic diarrhea, and improper secretion of hormones by the pituitary or adrenal glands can also deplete blood sodium levels. Other causes include excessive exercise and/or perspiration, infections, and the use of diuretic medications.
Determining the cause of low blood sodium levels is difficult and requires a complete diagnostic check-up by a physician. If you are found to have low sodium levels, you will need to restrict your fluid intake to no more than one quart per day. In severe cases, additional medical attention may also be required.
As this article makes clear, when it comes to salt in your diet, as with most issues related to health, the key is balance. You don't want your blood sodium levels to be too high or too low. As a further precaution, have your physician check your blood sodium level as part of an annual physical exam. This simple step of monitoring your blood sodium level and adjusting your diet accordingly can make a big difference in your overall health, both immediately and in the long-term.