There are many generalizations about sodium.
Most of the eating public thinks of it as salt. We know it tastes good in moderation but ruins food in excess. It sounds like something we should pay attention to and have only in moderation, or perhaps try to minimize. The phrase “high-sodium diet” brings to mind poor health and high blood pressure. Since Americans tend to categorize nutritional pieces in a binary way, you may have filed sodium away in your mental folders as either “good” or “bad”.
But is it both?
What is It?
Sodium is a naturally occurring mineral that is found in almost all natural foods – both plant and animal. The most familiar form is sodium chloride – recognizable as table salt. It is considered a macro-mineral in the diet because it is used by the body in relatively large quantities. It is found in cells, in intracellular fluid – between cells – and in bones. Sodium typically makes up about 0.15 percent of body weight.
What Does it Do?
Sodium performs some very important tasks in the body. It helps to direct hydration and allows water to be more easily absorbed by cells. Sodium functions to maintain the acid-base balance in the blood. It is also part of the sodium-potassium pump that moves electrical charges across the cell membranes of the body. This allows for muscle contractions and nerve impulses.
Signs of Imbalances
Like the other minerals, optimal health is not achieved by simply “getting enough” sodium. It is about balance and co-factors. Excessive sodium intake has been indicated in hypertension and premenstrual complaints. Sodium is highly absorbable in the body. Almost 100 percent of sodium consumed is actually absorbed into the blood stream. The body is fairly efficient at eliminating excess sodium. Sodium above and beyond what is directly needed by the body is filtered out by the kidneys.
Filtering the excess was no big deal before the advent of processed foods. When the human diet was made up of only naturally occurring foods, sodium and potassium were ingested in beneficial ratios – low sodium and high potassium. In today’s preserved and packaged foods, much potassium is lost during processing but greater amounts of sodium are added in. Many foods found on grocery store shelves have flipped ratios – high sodium and low potassium. This changing ratio has a greater impact on poor health outcomes than the simple amount of sodium consumed.
When foods contain such artificially high levels of sodium, the kidneys have to go into overtime to ensure balance is maintained and excess is excreted.
In a very high-sodium situation, the kidneys can become inefficient at clearing the excess. The additional sodium remaining in the blood can draw extra water in, increasing blood pressure. This is one connection between sodium and hypertension.
Replacing high-sodium processed foods for low-sodium varieties is not the answer. Eliminating processed foods and incorporating many more nutrient dense vegetables that are naturally low in sodium and high in potassium will provide greater results for those with hypertensive concerns.
A low-sodium approach can have some drawbacks – especially for athletes. Sodium is lost through sweating. With average perspiration, any sodium needed for replenishment can typically be retained by the kidneys. In situations with profuse sweating, such as a long, intense workout or competition, the athlete can lose too much sodium. Attempting to replace this lost sodium with plain water can result in nausea, dizziness, muscle cramps or weakness, or impaired cognitive function. Water toxicity – which can be life-threatening – is the result of over-hydrating without electrolytes such as sodium, potassium and calcium. Dyed and sweetened athletic drinks are not necessarily the best replacement for this condition. Water with a pinch of mineral-containing sea salt can do the trick, but a variety of electrolyte tablets are available for very long or intense sessions.
If you find yourself struggling with conditions that indicate a sodium excess, there is no need to buy specially formulated meals. You just need wholesome nourishing ones full of unadulterated plant and animal foods. If this type of meal sounds like something that needs a few liberal shakes of the salt shaker to be palatable, you have some options. First, you should consider your adrenals. Are you living with a large, chronic stress load? Salt cravings can be an indication that your adrenal glands are getting worn down. If that does not sound like you, it might just be time for a “salt detox.” Try a month of using salt-free spices on your foods to reset your palate.
Nature has an amazing way of providing what we need for optimal health. Reverting to ancestral foods and the type of nourishment our DNA expects can bring surprisingly radical changes to health states.
This information is for educational purposes only and should not be used as medical advice.
Weatherby, D. (2004). Signs and Symptoms Analysis from a Functional Perspective. Bear Mountain Publishing, Jacksonville.
Haas, E. M. (2006). Staying Healthy with Nutrition. Celestial Arts, Berkeley.
Editor’s Note: Sara Kennedy is a certified nutritional therapy consultant. She is the owner of Renegade Wellness found on Facebook at www.facebook.com/paleoalaska. Reach her online at www.thriveak.com.