Shaking the Salt (Part 1)

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I hope you enjoyed a tasty Thanksgiving feast last Thursday. Chances are you’re still munching on leftovers. And it’s likely that many of you were counting the grams of carbohydrate in the stuffing, or the fat grams in the gravy. How many of you were thinking about the amount of sodium in the turkey with all the trimmings?

It’s okay if you didn’t; after all, Thanksgiving is a day to be thankful, as well as to relax a bit. But the reality is that a large number of people need to think about their sodium intake on a daily basis because of health issues, such as high blood pressure or congestive heart failure.

The term “sodium” is probably no stranger to you, given that it’s frequently mentioned in the news and is always listed on a food label. But what is it, really? Sodium is a mineral that we need to stay healthy. All of the body’s fluids, such as sweat and blood, contain sodium. Sodium works along with other minerals (also known as electrolytes), such as potassium, to regulate the shift of fluid in and out of the cells in our bodies. Fluids carry nutrients into our cells, and carry wastes out of our cells. The kidneys, in turn, help regulate the amount of sodium and fluid in our bodies so that they stay in balance. If you take in too much sodium, your kidneys will excrete what isn’t needed in your urine; you might also sweat it out through perspiration. But, if your kidneys aren’t working so well, excess sodium stays in your body, increasing blood volume. And a larger blood volume means that blood pressure is increased, since your heart has to work harder to pump the extra blood.

Excess sodium in your body can also lead to fluid retention in your cells and tissues. You can easily tell if this is happening because your ankles might be puffy, or your rings might be tight on your fingers.

Sodium does more than regulate fluid balance, by the way. It also works closely with potassium and chloride ions to help your nerves conduct nerve impulses. So, sodium isn’t a bad thing. But, like many things in life, too much of it isn’t so good. The key, then, is taking in the right amount of sodium to maintain good health.

So how much sodium do you need, anyway? Well, it depends. The American Heart Association recommends that we take in no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium each day. This isn’t salt we’re talking here; even though we use the terms “salt” and “sodium” interchangeably, they’re not quite the same. Salt is actually made up of sodium chloride (40% sodium and 60% chlorine, to be more precise). A teaspoon of salt weighs about 5 grams and contains about 2,300 mg of sodium—the amount that the American Heart Association tells us not to exceed. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 also recommend no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day—if you’re relatively healthy. People with high blood pressure, middle-aged and older adults, and African-Americans ideally should aim for no more than 1,500 mg per day. That’s because these groups of people have a higher risk of heart disease, stroke, congestive heart failure, and kidney disease.

The American Diabetes Association is pretty much in line with the American Heart Association—it recommends no more than 2,400 mg of sodium daily. This isn’t surprising, since people with diabetes are more likely to have high blood pressure and kidney problems than people without diabetes. Ask your health-care provider about the right amount of sodium for you.

You may be interested to know that the average American consumes, on average, between 3,000 to 4,000 mg of sodium each day, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Many people take in up to 6,000 mg of sodium or even more. Yikes!

Next week: Sodium lurks in surprising places!

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