Pink salt intake on table

Do you have more of a salty tooth instead of a sweet tooth? Maybe that’s an advantage. After all, such a preference in taste will keep your sugar intake on the low side. Warnings against high sugar intake are all around us but scientists and doctors are urging just the same not to eat too much salt.

But why can salt be bad for you?

It turns out that eating too much salt is the second main dietary risk for death and disability. Immediately after not eating enough fruit. The good news is that by cutting salt intake by just half a teaspoon a day, you significantly lower the risk for stroke and heart attacks. But what does sodium do to your body that’s so dangerous? What happens when you eat too much salt?

In this article we’ll show you how the body reacts to high doses of sodium. How access salt from your diet effects important structures in your body and show why it is so damaging. We’ll also give you actionable tips to help reduce sodium intake successfully.

How to lower salt intake
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How to lower salt intake with two additional tips to help you eat less salt

What is salt?

Salt is a compound of sodium and chloride. Both are essential nutrients. They exist in small amounts in natural foods and liquids. Nowadays a significant amount of salt comes from processed food and additional salting during cooking.

salty foods from which we eat too much salt

Sodium and chloride are essential nutrients because your body can’t produce them by itself. The element usually connected to serious health problems in many studies is sodium. Although too much sodium can have a negative effect on your health, without it your body wouldn’t be able to function properly. It has a very important role in a number of critical life-sustaining processes. Sodium is essential to keep adequate water balance in the body, for nerve conduction and muscle contraction. A small amount of sodium is essential for normal body function but too much of it is bad news.

So what happens in your body when you eat too much salt?

Sodium in your stomach

When you consume salt (NaCl) it first enters the stomach. Part of the chloride from salt is essential for the production of HCl- stomach or hydrochloric acid. This way chloride helps the digestion of foods. Chloride, as an essential element, supports critical functions in a number of processes just like sodium. In this article we will concentrate on the role of sodium. It’s the element connected to most health problems that are linked to salt over consumption.

After salt is partially resolved in the stomach sodium travels further to the small intestines.

Sodium in your intestines

SmallIntestine_AnSodium_absorption
In the small intestines food is broken up into essential building blocks. These building blocks, like amino acids,  enter the bloodstream through the intestinal lining. From there they and are used by the whole body in different processes. Most of the sodium you eat is actually absorbed in the small intestines. A number of  different and complex mechanisms exist that make sodium enter the blood stream through the intestinal wall. Once sodium enters the blood several mechanisms are in place to regulate the concentration of sodium in the whole body. The body is very sensitive to sodium intake so even very small amounts of salt trigger the bodies reaction.

After Sodium enters your blood stream

When you eat too much salt the osmolarity (measure of solute concentration) of your blood plasma is significantly increased. Although there are other elements, sodium has by far the biggest influence on blood osmolarity. The body regulates osmolarity by simultaneously balancing the intake and excretion of sodium and water. This job is mainly done by your kidneys.

1. Decrease of sodium concentration

adrenal cortex secreting aldosterone after eating too much salt

On top of the kidneys lie two adrenal glands. The adrenal cortex directly senses plasma osmolarity (concentration of sodium in the blood). The adrenal cortex prevents osmolarity to go below normal. This is done with the help of aldosterone. Aldosterone is a steroid hormone. The adrenal glands excrete it and initiate the process of sodium reabsoprtion in the kidneys. This process exists to preserve adequate osmolarity and pressure in your body.  When you eat a lot of salt the concentration of sodium in your blood is too high. As a result aldosterone secretion stops and the kidneys reabsorb less sodium. The amount of sodium in your blood is decreased and blood plasma is diluted. The excess sodium is transported into your bladder through urine.

2. Increase of blood volume and water detention

At the same time special receptors in the hypothalamus sense the increased plasma osmolarity. These receptors stimulate antidiuretic hormone (ADH) secretion. When ADH is excreted water is reabsorbed in the kidneys. That way the kidneys remove only minimal amounts of water through urine. The body tries to preserve as much water as possible to get the sodium concentration to normal levels. Whenever ADH is excreted it makes you thirsty to signal the body that more water is needed to help the process of diluting blood plasma.

 

Flowchart ADH secretion-what the kidneys do when we eat too much salt

Because water is detained in the attempt of your body to dilute sodium concentration, more and more water enters the blood vessels throughout the whole body. This extra fluid increases the pressure on the walls of your blood vessels which results in hypertension or high blood pressure.  The delicate vessels in the kidneys and in your whole body are taking an extra strain because of high salt intake. In these circumstances the kidneys work extra hard. If you eat too much salt regularly, it can damage the kidneys itself. In that case the kidneys aren’t able to filter waste products from our blood efficiently any more.

Blood vessels

normal blood vessels and clogged blood vessels under pressure

The extra pressure in your blood vessels induces a reaction in the muscles around the blood vessels. They become stronger and thicker to cope with the higher pressure. When this happens blood vessels become more narrow, which leads to even more pressure, hardening of blood vessel walls and even clotting in the blood vessels. The bad condition of blood vessels leads to serious heart disease and heart attack. That’s the reason doctors recommend a low sodium diet, especially for people with hypertension.

Heart

The extra fluid in your blood vessels returns to the heart from the veins which activates stretch receptors in  the walls of the heart. Muscle cells in the upper chambers of the heart then release Atrial natriuretic peptide (ANP). This is a powerful blood vessel relaxing agent which additionally stimulates sodium loss in an attempt to lower blood pressure in the whole body.

When you eat too much salt you usually feel thirsty and excrete less urine that is more concentrated.

As you can see there are several mechanisms in place that control sodium concentration and water volume in your blood. The body tries to restore a healthy osmolarity that won’t put additional strain on body functions. While the body works hard to get back to normal sodium concentrations, we usually feel thirsty and excrete less urine that is more concentrated. You can notice this in the change of color in your urine. Concentrated urine is dark yellow.

What we did before we ate to much salt

As mentioned before sodium is essential for many body functions. Without sodium your blood pressure would be too low and blood would not be able to reach all of your organs. Through history salt has long been difficult to obtain for most people. It wasn’t as cheap as it is today and people didn’t eat too much salt. That’s why the human body has evolved and can efficiently preserve even low amounts of sodium it gets from food and liquids. In other words we need some salt but not too much. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends to consume up to 1500 mg of sodium daily– that’s about 3.75 g or three-quarters of a teaspoon of salt.

How to lower salt intake
Download checklist
How to lower salt intake with two additional tips to help you eat less salt

How to lower salt intake

If you’re eating a mainly whole food diet, salt your food moderately during cooking and drink enough water you probably shouldn’t stress too much about sodium intake. On the other hand if you like to eat salty food and eat processed foods you probably are over the AHA recommendations for salt intake. Here are some tips how to lower sodium intake and reduce the pressure on your body organs and functions.

  1. Reduce sodium intake from processed food
    The recommendation for sodium intake is 1500 mg per day (AHA). Look out for the hidden sodium in processed and fast food. Sodium concentration in foods like bakery goods, meats and dairy foods, ready meals, sauces and snacks, are high. You should watch out for the sodium amount on the label. Sodium is added in different forms to processed foods. Here’s a list of common ingredients that contain sodium: Sodium chloride
    Salt
    Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
    Sodium bicarbonate (baking soda)
    Sodium benzoate
    Disodium guanylate (GMP)
    Disodium inosinate (IMP)
    Fleur de sel
    Sodium nitrate
    Sodium citrate
    Kosher salt
    Sodium diacetate
    Sodium erythorbate
    Sea salt
    Sodium glutamate
    Himalayan pink salt
    Sodium lactate
    Sodium lauryl Sulfate
    Rock salt
    Sodium metabisulfite
    Sodium phosphate
    Trisodium phosphate
  2. Don’t salt your food before even tasting it
    This is a very common habit of many people that makes them eat too much salt. Even better- remove the salt shaker from the table.
  3. Drink more water regularly
    Keep yourself hydrated and try not to get to the stage where you feel thirst. Drink about 8-10 glasses of water during the day.
  4. Consider cooking without salt
    Flavor meals with spices and herbs instead of salt. Try to flavor your meals with pepper, onions, garlic, sweet pepper, smoked paprika, chilly powder, curry, coriander, celery, basil, parsley, thyme, rosemary, lemon or lime.

Photo credit: Small intestines by Blausen.com staff (2014).Medical gallery of Blausen Medical 2014. WikiJournal of Medicine 1 (2). DOI:10.15347/wjm/2014.010.ISSN 2002-4436, Kidney diagram by Cancer Research UK (Original email from CRUK) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons