The Wellness Corner

Salt, Sodium, and High Blood Pressure

Historical Trivia: Salt was a valuable commodity. In fact, the word salary stems from an allowance of salt in payment for services rendered.

                Salt is sodium chloride (NaCl). About 40% of salt is sodium. Therefore, 5 grams of salt (slightly less than a teaspoon of salt) is equal to 2 grams (2,000 milligrams) of sodium. A teaspoon of salt contains about 2,100 mg. of sodium. (Light salt contains about 1,100 mg of sodium per teaspoon.) There is no recommended daily intake for sodium. “Safe and adequate” standards have been set at 1,100 to 3,300 mg of sodium per day by the National Research Council.

                Much of the body’s sodium is found on the outside of the cell and functions as an essential component for water regulation, nerve transmission, and muscle contraction. The sodium in the tissues outside of the cells and in blood fluid is about the same concentration as in ordinary sea water.

                Body fluid regulation is directly tied into sodium retention. High salt/sodium intake will cause an increase in thirst. If your body retains an extra gram of salt (400 mg of sodium), this will add to about two pounds of temporary water weight to your body. Normally, as the body gains sodium, it retains water; as it loses sodium, it loses water to help maintain the outside-the-cell fluid concentration near that of sea water.

                A trick of many fad diets is to cause a sodium depletion, with the result that there is a temporary water weight loss that shows up on the scale. This is not a fat loss, but simply dehydration. Such (water) weight loss will be quickly regained once the body recovers its normal sodium concentration. Sometimes dieters think that eating too much salt or drinking too much water will cause them a long-term weight gain. Actually, excess water is excreted by the body rather quickly. Excess sodium is excreted when enough additional water is consumed to flush out the sodium from the body. Looking at it from this vantage point, the best way to control body salt and “water weight” is to drink more – not less – plain water. Additional body weight can be put on when high sodium levels – and the accompanying thirst – are dealt with by calorie-containing fluids such as beer and soft drinks. When the excess fluid (and sodium) leaves the body, the extra calories remain to cause a weight gain.

Here are some salty statistics: 




Minimum human requirements

0.5 grams

200 mg

Recommended suggestions

5.5 grams

2,200 mg

Low sodium diets

1.2 grams

500 mg

Average American intake

11.0 grams

4,400 mg

Safe levels up to

8.0 grams

3,200 mg

Excessive – greater than

18.0 grams

7,200 mg

                 High salt/sodium levels have been implicated in high blood pressure. However, high blood pressure is a complex subject and salt/sodium statistics are only one variable in the hypertensive puzzle. It would be advisable for the health-concerned person to limit sodium intake to about 2,200 mg/day or less. Pregnant women are advised against restricting salt/sodium intakes, unless specifically recommended by their physicians.

Guidelines for Reducing Sodium Intake

·          Remember that 25% of the sodium in your diet comes from the salt shaker. Be very cautious about using the salt shaker at the table or when cooking. You can gradually adjust your taste preferences to a lower level of table salt.

·          Particularly high quantities of sodium are found in pre-packaged foods. Get in the habit of reading the label. Be aware that salt/sodium comes in many disguises – MSG (monosodium glutamate), sodium saccharin, baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), disodium phosphate, sodium benzoate, sodium sulfate, sodium propionate, and many baking powders.

·          Watch out for the fast foods! Most entrees are well over 500 mg of sodium. Certain pizza establishments may serve over 2,300 mg of sodium in three slices of pizza.

·          Pickles, sauerkraut, and olives are set up in a brine (salt water) during manufacture. Ten large olives or a medium dill are over 900 mg of sodium.

·          Baking soda and baking powder (often used in quick bread recipes) are high in sodium. Brand name mixes – like Bisquick (700 mg of sodium in 2 ounces) and pancake mixes are hidden sources of concentrated sodium.

·          Many frozen dinners and entrees have almost 1,500 mg of sodium! And you wonder why you’re thirsty all night!

·          Be discreet in your soup selection. Many canned soups have over 600 mg of sodium. Try making your own soups and season the soup with sodium-free spices and flavorings. Watch the bouillon cubes!

·          Ham, bacon, hot dogs, smoked meats, lunch meats, corned beef, canned and processed fish, and dried beef are high in sodium. Fresh meats are relatively low in sodium.

·          Canned vegetables often have salt added in high amounts. Try some of the low or no-salt brands.

·          Sodium is found naturally in dairy products, but most cheese has salt added to it during processing. Don’t give up dairy products; just balance milk and yogurt against the high sodium cheeses.

·          Watch the over-the-counter drugs like antacids, aspirin, and bicarbonate of soda. These (and others) often contain high levels of added sodium.

·          If you need a water softener system, consider hooking it to only the hot water system. These systems often cause dietary sodium levels to soar. Otherwise, consider drinking low sodium bottled water (not mineral water).

The final word on sodium and hypertension will not be written during our lifetime. Some people seem to be immune to the effects of excess salt while others as susceptible. A few are able to control high salt intakes through perspiration during work and/or exercise. A high-sodium diet may be a contributing factor to high blood pressure, or it may be a symptom of a lifestyle out of balance. Whatever the case, the person concerned with wellness would be wise to monitor and limit salt/sodium intake.

(Editor’s Note: “The Wellness Corner” is an ongoing column written by Dr. Jack D. Osman of the Health Science Department.)
(c) 1989 and 2006, Jack D. Osman

·         Reduce Salt and Sodium in Your Diet
Health Advice from Gannett: Cornell University Health Services: High Blood Pressure