Everyone knows that following a healthy diet can help promote a healthy life.
But what many people don’t know is that salt plays a vital role in the functionality of our bodies and if we dramatically reduce our intake, it could be damaging.
There continues to be complete disagreement amongst experts on how much salt we should consume. Over recent years there have been many campaigns encouraging people to cut down their salt intake. They have suggested that too much salt may damage our health and in particular, contribute to heart disease. However, what everyone needs to know is that our bodies cannot function properly without adequate salt – and recent research even suggests that consuming too little salt may actually increase the risk of heart disease. Most of us don’t need to worry as a healthy body on a balanced diet will naturally excrete any excess unneeded salt.
Salt and Health: The Facts
Every gram of salt is made up from 40 per cent sodium and 60 per cent chlorine and both play a vital part in keeping our bodies functioning.
Sodium facilitates the transmission of nerve impulses around the body and regulates the electrical charges in and out of our cells. This means fluids and vital minerals can be passed into and out of each body cell depending on their individual needs. Sodium controls our taste and smell and helps our muscles contract, with the most important muscle of all being – the Heart.
While Sodium is essential for muscle and cell functionality, the Chloride part of Salt is essential in the digestion process. It is used in the production by the body of Hydrochloric Acid(HCI) in the stomach for digestion; it preserves the acid balance throughout the body and helps to carry carbon dioxide from tissues to the lungs.
So, what would happen if we took these vital functions away?
Well we wouldn’t feel very well. Our muscles would become weak and cramp, and we could suffer from heat exhaustion. Extremely low levels of salt can even be fatal.
So Who is at Risk?
The straightforward answer is everyone, but there are a few who could be classed as at a ‘higher risk’ if they reduce their salt intake.
Pregnant women, the elderly and those who undertake regular periods of exercise are among the ‘high-risk groups because their bodies are under pressure.
Exercising regularly as part of a healthy lifestyle can help protect us from heart disease and strokes, as well as keeping blood pressure constant, but as we build up a sweat we lose water and Sodium from our bodies.
Drinking water before, during and after exercise can help to replace the lost water, but we need to replace the Sodium as well, or we run the risk of diluting our blood plasma, which is when our health is most at risk. This is done quite naturally by the body extracting and retaining more Sodium and Chloride from the salt in the foods that we subsequently eat and drink. However, after exercise, the body may require additional sodium which is why many sports-people take salt tablets after heavy exercise.
Expectant mothers, especially towards the third trimester of pregnancy, can put their lives as well as the unborn child’s life at risk if the levels of salt in the body fall to a dangerous level.
This is because Sodium helps to regulate the amount of fluids in the body. However, if the mother has low salt levels in her body, evidence suggests that it could cause problems with blood volume in the unborn child and also can cause her own blood pressure to increase. (Low salt levels results in ‘thicker’ blood which leads to higher blood pressure).
During a heatwave in 2003, over 2,000 people died in the UK as a result of over-heating, many of whom were the elderly. The elderly do not drink as much as younger people, so during hot weather when they sweat, they are not replacing the essential water and sodium needed to maintain a healthy body.
Again this can lead to thickening of the blood, which increases blood pressure, which can then lead to heart attacks and strokes.