An element that is crucial to healthy functioning, sodium has become a staple in the American diet.  Sodium chloride (table salt) is the most common form, but other types that may be found on a food label include sodium benzoate, sodium saccharine, monosodium glutamate (MSG), sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), and sodium nitrate. 

Sodium and the Body

An electrolyte (that is, a mineral with an electric charge), sodium is involved in muscle action and blood chemistry.  Additionally, sodium helps regulate body temperature. However, as with most vitamins and minerals, too much can do damage. Added to flavor many processed foods – often in excess – sodium in large quantities has been linked to high blood pressure (hypertension) particularly in individuals who are sensitive to it.

Sodium Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDAs)

Healthy adults should try to have no more than 2,300 mg of sodium daily.  Guidelines for babies, toddlers, children, and teens have not been established, but it can be helpful to try to minimize salt intake during this period to help your child appreciate low-sodium foods to set the tone for lower salt consumption later in life. If you have congestive heart failure, kidney disease, hypertension, or cirrhosis, consult your physician about how to appropriately modify your diet to avoid sodium (usually capping at about 1,500 mg/day). Increasing one’s potassium intake can help curb the negative effects that salt has on blood pressure.

Natural Sources of Sodium

Intake of sodium from natural sources typically only comprises roughly 10% of total sodium intake (the rest comes from sodium added to processed foods or added to foods during or after preparation).  Most foods (everything from milk to celery) contain some amount of sodium.  Even drinking water, depending on its source, has sodium in it.

Tips for Decreasing Your Daily Sodium Intake

Fast foods, processed meats (like bacon, ham, and sausage), canned soups, seasonings like soy sauce, and even movie theater popcorn are all notorious for containing high amounts of sodium.  If you are attempting to decrease your sodium intake, consider avoiding these foods, purchasing the “low sodium” equivalents, or adding other types of seasoning when cooking.

Signs of Sodium Deficiency

Most diets in the United States far exceed an individual’s need for sodium.  Those most at risk for developing an electrolyte imbalance (including insufficient sodium) are those who have been ill and losing fluid through diarrhea, sweating, vomiting, or kidney issues.  People who do not have enough sodium in fluids outside of cells may develop a condition called hyponatremia.  Symptoms include irritability, poor appetite, muscle cramps or spasms, headaches, fatigue, seizures, nausea, vomiting, restlessness, hallucinations, confusion, weakness, impaired consciousness, and possibly coma.

Signs of Excessive Sodium

As mentioned, most Americans are eating too much sodium.  Also discussed, long-term consumption of high levels of sodium can lead to hypertension, which often does not cause clear symptoms in the early stages (usually caught during routine medical office visits).  People who have kidney disease, cirrhosis, or congestive heart failure are also at risk for dangerous fluid retention if eating a high-sodium diet.  Bloating (fluid retention) and thirst are common symptoms of consuming too much salt.