Sodium is essential to life. It is a mineral that makes up about 40 per cent of ordinary table salt or sodium chloride. Many common foods are natural sources of dietary sodium. However, more than 70% comes from processed and restaurant foods and about 11% is added while cooking or eating. 3,400 milligrams is the amount of sodium an individual consumes on average in a day, while 1,500 milligrams is the recommended amount for ideal heart health. That being said, the fear of high sodium has driven many to opt for a low-sodium diet, irrespective of whether their sodium levels are high or not. While a high sodium diet brings with itself a multitude of issues ranging from headaches to enlarged heart muscles, a typically low sodium diet which dips below the required levels can also pose several problems. So before you opt for low-sodium products as a blanket rule, let us take you through the dangers of going overboard.
For starters, if your sodium levels drop below 135 mmol per L, it’s called hyponatremia. In severe cases, low sodium levels can cause neurological symptoms, brain damage and even death if left untreated.
Causes of acute hyponatremia can include excessive water intake (often in people with severe mental illness or developmental disability), use of the recreational drug ecstasy, receiving hypotonic fluid during surgery or extreme physical activity such as running a marathon, per Merck Manuals. The condition can also occur from diarrhoea, sweating or vomiting.
Low sodium levels over a long period of time are called chronic hyponatremia and cause water to move out of the bloodstream and into tissue cells, causing them to expand. While most of the tissue in your body can accommodate this swelling, it is a major problem for your brain.
People with hyponatremia can experience symptoms that include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of consciousness
- Muscle weakness and spasms
Factors that increase your risk of hyponatremia are:
- Old age
- Diuretic use
- Usage of antidepressants
- Being a high-performance athlete (i.e., a marathon runner)
- Living in a warmer climate
- Eating a very low-sodium diet
- People with heart disease, kidney disease, syndrome of inappropriate antidiuretic hormone (SIADH), or other conditions.
How does a low-sodium diet affect us?
- Low sodium diets may lead to increased insulin resistance which in turn causes type 2 diabetes.
- Although it is true that reducing your sodium intake can reduce your blood pressure, studies have shown that too low sodium intake is also injurious to the heart. Low-salt diets are linked to an increased risk of death from heart attacks or strokes.
- Low-sodium diets have been linked to an increased risk of death in people with heart failure.
- Studies have found that low sodium diets may increase both LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
- Eating less salt raises the risk of hyponatremia in older adults and some athletes
Keep your sodium intake in check as part of an overall heart-healthy eating pattern that emphasizes incorporating the following aspects –
- Variety of fruits and vegetables
- Whole-grain foods
- Fat-free or low-fat dairy products
- Skinless poultry and fish
- Nuts and legumes
- Non-tropical vegetable oils
- Limiting saturated fat, sodium, red meat, sweets and sugary drinks
- Avoid trans fat
What are the strategies to keep salt consumption in a healthy range?
- It is important to limit the use of added salt in your diet as in salads etc.
- Avoid salty condiments such as soy sauce, or choose lower-salt versions of these products.
- Limit your intake of processed foods such as lunch meats, frozen pizza or entrees, soups and fast foods, opting instead for fresh poultry, meat and fish.
- Omit salt wherever possible when cooking, replacing salt with herbs and spices.
- Choose reduced-salt canned soups and use salt-free versions of canned vegetables, or rinse salted vegetables before serving.
- Check product labels to determine the amount of sodium added to prepared foods, watching for sources of hidden sodium such as baking soda and monosodium glutamate, or MSG.
Too much sodium may be harmful, but too little can also have serious consequences. Even though sodium is being vilified, it is a necessary nutrient for good health.
It is one of the most important electrolytes, which are minerals that create electrically charged ions. Along with maintaining normal fluid balance, sodium plays a key role in normal nerve and muscle function.
If you’re worried about your blood pressure, there are several other, more effective things you can do, such as exercising, optimizing your diet or losing weight.
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