CareNow® - May 10, 2019

Most Americans are eating too much sodium on a regular basis.

While some sodium is needed for the body to function properly, eating too much can cause myriad health problems. In fact, diets higher in sodium are linked to an increased risk of developing high blood pressure.

Most dietary sodium tends to come from packaged and prepared foods—not from salt that’s added to food during the cooking or preparation process.

How much sodium per day?

The daily recommended value for sodium is less than 2,300 milligrams each day. Also simply referred to as salt, this mineral plays a crucial role in maintaining our health, essential for nerve and muscle function and the regulation of fluids in the body.

The problem occurs when people consume too much, often unwittingly. Commonly used in food manufacturing, processed foods account for an estimated 75 percent of total sodium consumed.

The best way to monitor your intake of sodium is to read food labels, paying particular attention to the servings per container and % Daily Value (also labeled %DV). These numbers will let you know the percentage of your daily sodium intake in the packaged food that you’re eating.

Anything at 20% DV or more of sodium per serving is considered high; you should aim for 5% DV or less of sodium per serving.

Side effects of too much sodium

If you take in too much sodium during the day, it can have a direct effect on your blood pressure.

Salt causes your body to hold onto water. If you’ve consumed too much, the excess water in your body causes your blood pressure to increase. When your blood pressure rises, it strains your heart, arteries, kidneys and brain, which can result in heart attacks, strokes, dementia and kidney disease.

Sodium and blood pressure

It’s no secret that sodium increases blood pressure, especially in those who have elevated levels.

An extensive study published in 2014 analyzed the urine sodium levels of more than 100,000 people from 18 different countries across five continents. Researchers found that:

  • Those who consumed more sodium had significantly higher blood pressure than those with lower intakes.
  • People who consumed more than 7 grams of sodium per day were at a higher risk of heart disease and early death than people who consumed 3–6 grams daily.

But not everyone responds to sodium in the same way. People with high blood pressure, diabetes and chronic kidney disease, as well as older adults and African-Americans, tend to be more sensitive to the blood pressure–raising effects of sodium.

How much sodium per day should you consume if diagnosed with high blood pressure?

If you’ve been diagnosed with high blood pressure, it’s important that you take in less than 1,500 milligrams of sodium a day. This requires some careful monitoring, including reading food labels and making mindful choices at restaurants. Here are a few tips when eating out:

  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration now requires some chain restaurants to provide customers with nutrition information, and others are doing so voluntarily. Ask your waiter if this information is available.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask whether your dish can be prepared without salt.
  • Try to limit your intake of bread, soup and salad dressings, which can be high in sodium.

How to lower sodium intake

In addition to reading the nutrition facts on labels and making careful choices at restaurants, prepare more meals yourself—and limit the salt in recipes—as much as possible. Include fresh meat, fruits and vegetables, and always rinse canned foods that contain sodium.

For enhanced flavor, add spices like black pepper, nutmeg, cilantro, thyme and onion powder instead of salt. A smaller portion size can also help you take in less sodium.

Low-sodium diets

Eating a low-sodium diet doesn’t need to be one of deprivation!

  • Fresh fruits and vegetables are great options for keeping your sodium intake at bay. A bonus: These highly nutritious foods are also high in potassium and magnesium, which can help lower blood pressure.
  • Opt for eggs, low-sodium peanut butter, dry peas and beans, and fresh or frozen meat and try to avoid smoked, cured, salted or canned meat, fish or poultry, which are typically high in sodium.
  • Instead of high-sodium foods like bread, pizza and processed mixes for potatoes, try muffins, rice and pastas, unsalted popcorn, and low-sodium. You can even try making your own bread, pizza dough and mashed potatoes from scratch!
  • Canned soups are usually high in sodium, so select low-sodium canned options or make soup at home without adding salt.

Another way to cut back on the amount of sodium you eat is by reducing your calorie intake. More calories often means more sodium.

Foods that can lower blood pressure

If your blood pressure is high, a diet low in sodium and rich in foods that contain potassium, calcium and magnesium can help normalize your numbers. So what would that look like for your daily diet?

  • Low-fat dairy, such as low-fat yogurt and milk, has been proven to reduce the risk of hypertension.
  • Research shows that consuming flaxseed is linked to a decrease in systolic and diastolic blood pressure.
  • Chocolate lovers rejoice! Dark chocolate and cocoa products, which are rich in flavonols, have been linked to a reduction in systolic and diastolic blood pressure.
  • Among overweight or obese young people, a diet that includes lean fish can heavily impact diastolic blood pressure for the better.

To see a full list of foods that can help lower your blood pressure.

Salt alternatives

Just because you’ve been directed to reduce the amount of salt in your diet, doesn’t mean you have to eat bland food. Spices, herbs and other salt alternatives are flavorful options for salt.

Consider using a salt alternative to spice up your food such as cinnamon, turmeric, oregano, black pepper, lemon juice, sunflower seeds, nutritional yeast and liquid aminos.

No salt diets

Providers commonly recommend low-salt diets for those with high blood pressure, which leads to the question, Is there such thing as a no-salt diet?

While it’s almost impossible to completely cut salt out of your diet, there are foods that you can consume that contain very little or no salt.

  • Most fruits and vegetables have very little or no salt in their fresh, natural state. Be sure to avoid canned vegetables, which often have sodium added.
  • Unprocessed beef, pork, fish and poultry are low in salt; however, be aware that processed deli meats, bacon and ham typically contain a lot of sodium.
  • While dairy products aren’t naturally free of sodium, you can limit your portion sizes and select low-sodium options.

Here are more options for a very low-sodium diet.

What causes low sodium and is it dangerous?

When the sodium in your blood is abnormally low, it is called hyponatremia.

With hyponatremia, the sodium in your body becomes diluted. As the water levels increase, the cells start to swell, resulting in a number of health problems.

Causes range from something simple, such as drinking too much water, to life-threatening, like heart, kidney, liver or hormonal problems.

Low sodium symptoms

If you’re suffering from hyponatremia, you may experience one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Headache
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Restlessness and irritability
  • Seizures
  • Coma
  • Loss of energy, drowsiness and fatigue
  • Muscle weakness, spasms or cramps

Because the symptoms of hyponatremia can happen with many conditions, it can be difficult to diagnose. Blood and urine tests are usually required.

Treatment for low sodium

Treatment for hyponatremia is usually aimed at addressing the underlying cause of the condition.

  • For moderate hyponatremia, your provider may suggest that you cut back on your fluid intake and recommend a diuretic to increase the level of sodium in your blood.
  • Severe, acute hyponatremia requires more aggressive treatment, such as intravenous electrolyte solutions or medications.

Sodium blood test

If you have high blood pressure or are exhibiting symptoms of high sodium levels, your provider will likely run a sodium blood test to measure how much is in your blood.

Symptoms of high sodium levels include excess thirst, infrequent urination, vomiting and diarrhea, as well as weakness, fatigue, confusion and muscle twitching.

If you’re looking for ways to lower your sodium intake, consider visiting your local CareNow® to speak with a medical professional or to get a sodium blood test.

Before your visit, be sure to use our Web Check-In® feature.

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Disclaimer: Patients’ health can vary. Always consult with a medical professional before taking medication, making health-related decisions or deciding if medical advice is right for you.