Sodium has a bad rep in the American diet, but it plays an important role in the functioning of our bodies.

Sodium is an electrolyte like calcium, magnesium, phosphate, and potassium. Electrolytes are electrically charged ions when dissolved in fluids like blood. (1) Our bodies need electrolytes because they help with nerve impulses and they also help to regulate essential body functions including brain activity, blood pressure, digestion, heart rate, and respiration. (2)

Sodium helps maintain fluid balance and helps to regulate muscle and nerve function. (3)

As important as sodium is for the proper functioning of the body, most Americans consume too much. People who consume high levels of sodium tend to have higher blood pressure and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. (4)(5) But how much is too much? And how little is too little?

What should my daily sodium intake be?

On average, Americans eat about 3,400 mg of sodium per day. However, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg per day—that’s equal to about 1 teaspoon of salt! (4) The American Heart Association has a slightly different recommendation and suggests an ideal limit of no more than 1,500mg per day for most adults. (6)

woman putting salt on her meal in kitchen

Cooking at home means that you have control over the amount of salt you add to your meal.

People with health conditions like high blood pressure or kidney disease may need to aim for lower sodium intakes and should follow the advice of their healthcare provider.

Which foods are high in sodium?

More than 70 percent of the sodium we eat comes from packaged, prepared, and restaurant foods – not the salt shaker. Here is a list of some common high sodium foods:

  • Canned or packaged items: baked beans, cereals, soups, vegetable juices
  • Convenience foods: frozen dinners, muffins, seasoned pasta and rice mixes, seasoning mixes, spaghetti sauce, stews
  • Jarred foods preserved in salt: pickles, relishes, olives, sauerkraut
  • Condiments and sauces: ketchup, mustard, relish, soya sauce, teriyaki sauce
  • Processed meats: bacon, cold cuts, hot dogs, salt-cured ham, sausages, smoked meats
  • Cheese: spreads and processed cheese
  • Salted snack foods: chips, crackers, nuts, popcorn, pretzels, trail mix

What are the health effects of eating too much sodium?

Sodium is important to help regulate fluid balance, but when there’s extra sodium in your bloodstream, it pulls water into your blood vessels which increases the total amount of blood in them. As more blood flows through your blood vessels, blood pressure increases. It’s similar to turning up the water supply to a garden hose – the pressure in the hose increases as more water is passed through it. (7)

Blood pressure

High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is a condition that occurs when blood pressure remains elevated over time. The added pressure tires the heart out, making it work harder to pump blood through the body. It can also harm arteries and organs including the heart, kidneys, brain, and eyes. (8)

If left uncontrolled, high blood pressure can raise the risk of heart attacks, heart failure, stroke, kidney disease, and blindness. High blood pressure is often known as the “silent killer” because its symptoms are not always obvious. (9)

Beyond the health effects of sodium, it may also influence your appearance. Excessive sodium may cause increased water retention which might result in:

How do I keep sodium levels in check?

An overall healthy diet includes keeping sodium consumption in check. The American Heart Association encourages an overall healthy eating pattern that emphasizes: (10)

  • A variety of fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Low-fat dairy products
  • Skinless poultry and fish
  • Nuts and legumes
  • Non-tropical vegetable oils

Processed meats, refined carbohydrates, and sweetened beverages should be minimized.

man reading the label of a food can

The majority of the sodium we eat comes from processed and convenience foods so always check the label!

You can check the food label to identify products that may contain less sodium. Here are some common claims on food labels and what they mean: (11)

  • Sodium-free – Less than 5 milligrams of sodium per serving
  • Very low sodium – 35 milligrams or less per serving
  • Low sodium – 140 milligrams or less per serving
  • Reduced (or less) sodium – At least 25 percent less sodium per serving than the usual sodium level
  • Light (for sodium-reduced products) – If the food is “low calorie” and “low fat” and sodium is reduced by at least 50 percent per serving
  • Light in sodium – If sodium is reduced by at least 50 percent per serving

Is there such a thing as eating too little sodium?

The body only needs a small amount of sodium – about 500 milligrams per day – to function optimally. That’s the amount in less than ¼ of a teaspoon. (12) In the United States, very few people come close to eating less than that amount.

However, it is possible to be sodium-deficient if you overexert yourself and lose a lot of sodium in sweat. It’s also possible to have low sodium levels as a result of drinking too much water and diluting its concentration.

Both of these things can lead to a potentially life-threatening condition known as hyponatremia. Symptoms of hyponatremia include muscle cramps, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, shock, coma, and death. (13)

This is why athletes training or competing for long hours are advised to consume electrolyte-rich sports drinks, to compensate for the loss of sodium and other essential minerals through sweat.

Some other conditions may also cause hyponatremia, either by depleting sodium levels or causing excessive retention of fluids. This is especially true in older adults who take medications or have conditions that put them at risk. (14)

These include:

  • Chronic kidney disease (15)
  • Cirrhosis
  • Congestive heart failure (16)
  • Diuretics
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Remeron (mirtazapine)
  • Tricyclic antidepressants (17)
  • Lung cancer and secondary adrenal gland tumors

The bottom line

Sodium is an important nutrient that the body needs in small amounts to function properly.

It’s recommended to limit consumption to 1500 to 2300mg per day unless directed otherwise by a health care provider. Limiting consumption of processed and packaged foods, opting instead for a diet that emphasizes high quality, nutrient-dense foods can help lower the risk of health conditions linked to high sodium intakes.

While most individuals could stand to reduce their sodium consumption, recommendations and advice should be tailored to the individual. Ideal sodium levels differ from population to population and even among disease states. Work with your health care provider to determine your optimal sodium intake.

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