Effects of salt on the body: Why you should stop eating too much salt
Salt is a basic food ingredient that serves different purposes, and almost all foods require salt to get a tasty result. However, too much salt can be detrimental to health. It will help to know the effects of salt on the body.
Salt is also called sodium chloride because it contains 40% sodium and 60% chloride. It is a common household ingredient used to spice up food. It is used as a stabiliser and a binder. Also, some bacteria cannot thrive in a food item with a high amount of salt; thus, it also serves as a food preservative.
Salt is good for health as the body needs sodium to carry out some functions. For instance, the body needs sodium for muscle contraction and relaxation, nerve impulses conduction and maintenance of water and mineral balance. However, sodium is only required in a small amount to carry out these functions.
According to the National Health Service, UK adults should not eat more than 6g (1 teaspoon) of salt per day. This contains about 2.4g of sodium. Also, children aged 1-3 years should not eat more than 2g of salt daily.4
Also, the recommendation by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans states that adults should not take more than 2,300 mg of sodium daily (still equal to 1 teaspoon of salt!) Unfortunately, many people eat more than 1.5 teaspoons of salt per day. On average, Americans eat about 3,400 mg of sodium every day.5
Good effects of salt on the body
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People should not avoid salt entirely as it plays a vital role in certain body functions. Here are some good effects of salt on the body:
Prevents low blood pressure
One of the good effects of salt on the body is that it can help stabilise blood pressure when taken in an adequate amount. When you lack sodium in your diet, it can lead to low blood pressure (also called hypotension).
Just like hypertension, hypotension is equally bad for the health. It can cause symptoms like fainting, nausea and blurry vision.
Helps thyroid function
The thyroid organ plays an important role in metabolism. To produce thyroid hormone, the body needs iodine, which is where salt comes in. Most salts contain iodine and are labelled “iodized salts”. When you add salts containing iodine to your food, it provides the iodine needed to help the thyroid function properly.
Another good effect of salt can be seen in body hydration. Salt promotes electrolyte balance and hydration levels in the organs of the body. All cells need water to function properly, and the sodium contained in salt helps them maintain the right amount of fluid.
When you are not adequately hydrated, it can lead to dehydration which further predisposes you to dizziness, muscle cramps and fatigue.
Promotes nerve and muscle function
Sodium contained in salt is an electrolyte that plays an important role in nerve cell transmission and muscle contraction. Sodium, chloride, and potassium carry electrical charges. When their ions change position across cell membranes, they trigger muscle contraction and transmission of nerve impulses.
Why you should not eat too much salt
Sodium contained in salt plays an important role in body functions. But what happens when you eat too much salt? Eating food that has a high amount of salt, whether over a day or in a single meal, can cause short and long term side effects.
Short term effects of eating too much salt
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When you eat too much salt in a meal, you might immediately notice some effects on your body. Some short term effects of eating too much salt include:
Eating a meal that contains too much salt can make your mouth dry and can make you feel intensely thirsty. Your body tries to balance the sodium-water ratio by making you feel the urge to drink water. The result is that you urinate more often.
Hypernatremia is a medical term used to describe high blood sodium levels. It can occur when your body lacks enough fluid to balance the excess sodium intake.
Hypernatremia can cause water to leach from the cells into the blood in a bid to dilute the excess sodium. If left untreated, hypernatremia can cause seizures, confusion, coma and even death.
When you consume an excess amount of salt, you may start feeling more puffy and bloated than usual. This is because the kidney is still trying to maintain the right sodium-water ratio.
To do that, instead of eliminating more water, the kidney holds back extra water to compensate and balance up the excess sodium you consumed. The increased water retention may cause swelling of the hands, feet, and other body parts.
Long term effects of eating too much salt
Eating a high amount of salt over a prolonged period can cause certain long term health complications. Some of the long term effects of eating too much salt include:
High blood pressure
While sodium deficiency can cause hypotension, excess of it over a prolonged period can cause hypertension. Studies show that foods containing high amounts of salt can cause a significant increase in blood pressure.3
This shows that people with hypertension can lower their blood pressure by reducing sodium intake. Also, ageing people and obese people are at a higher risk of developing high blood pressure when they consume salt-rich diets.
Cardiovascular disease risk
Some studies suggest that high salt intake is risky for the heart. According to one of the studies, too much consumption of salt can cause an increase in blood pressure and stiffening of the arteries and blood vessels.1 This, in turn, increases the high risk of heart diseases and premature death.
Stomach cancer risk
Some studies have linked high salt consumption to an increased risk of stomach cancer. A study review suggests that people with a median salt intake of 3 grams daily may have a 68% higher risk of developing stomach cancer than those with a median salt intake of 1 gram daily.2
Foods that contain a high amount of salt
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Each time the issue of limiting sodium consumption comes up, what quickly comes to mind is reducing the table salt added to salt.
But contrary to what most people think, most of the dietary sodium we consume doesn’t come from table salt added to food when cooking. Rather, about 70% of dietary sodium comes from eating packaged and prepared fast foods.
Below are some foods that contain a high amount of salt.
- Smoked meat and fish
- Salted fish
- Salted nuts
- Pasta sauces
- Bread and bread products
- Breakfast cereal
Keep in mind to avoid these foods or at least limit their intake. You can as well prepare them yourself and add a small quantity of salt instead of buying the already-prepared ones.
- D’Elia, Lanfranco et al. “Effect of dietary sodium restriction on arterial stiffness: systematic review and meta-analysis of the randomized controlled trials.” Journal of hypertension vol. 36,4 (2018): 734-743. doi:10.1097/HJH.0000000000001604
- D’Elia, Lanfranco et al. “Habitual salt intake and risk of gastric cancer: a meta-analysis of prospective studies.” Clinical nutrition (Edinburgh, Scotland) vol. 31,4 (2012): 489-98. doi:10.1016/j.clnu.2012.01.003
- Grillo, Andrea et al. “Sodium Intake and Hypertension.” Nutrients vol. 11,9 1970. 21 Aug. 2019, doi:10.3390/nu11091970
- National Health Services, UK. (2020, March 15). Salt: the facts. https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/salt-nutrition/
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2021, June 8). Sodium in your diet. https://www.fda.gov/food/nutrition-education-resources-materials/sodium-your-diet