Sodium is a chemical element with atomic number 11. Its chemical symbol is Na, which comes from its Latin name, natrium. The best known compound of sodium is sodium chloride, also known as table salt. In the fields of medicine, health, and nutrition, the term sodium often refers to
sodium ions (Na+), of which sodium chloride and many sodium compounds are made. Sodium is one of the minerals that the body needs in relatively large quantities. Humankind’s taste for sodium reaches far back into the distant past, probably to the dawn of the human species. Much like in modern times, sodium was popular in antiquity as a food preservative and an ingredient in snacks. In some ancient societies, sodium chloride was even used as a form of currency.
A certain intake of sodium is essential to life. The mineral is a vital component of all bodily fluids, including blood and sweat. Often working in combination with other minerals such as potassium, sodium helps to manage the distribution and pH balance of these fluids inside the body and plays an important role in blood pressure regulation. Sodium is referred to
as an electrolyte because it has a weak electrical charge when dissolved in bodily fluids. Due to this charge, sufficient amounts of the mineral are necessary for the normal functioning of nerve transmissions and muscle contractions. Sodium also helps the body to retain water and prevent dehydration, and it may have some activity as an antibacterial agent.
The important benefits associated with sodium become apparent in cases of sodium deficiency, which is relatively uncommon. Sodium deficiency is most likely to occur in cases of starvation, diarrhea, intense sweating, or other conditions that cause rapid loss of water and the sodium ions it contains from the body. People who suffer from low sodium levels may experience a wide range of bothersome or serioushealth problems, including digestive disorders, muscle twitching or weakness, memory loss, fatigue, and lack of concentration or appetite. Arthritis may also develop. These problems usually occur when fluids that belong in the bloodstream take a wrong turn and enter cells.
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In 2013, the average sodium intake for Americansover the age of two years was 3,436 mg per day. This amount is about seven times the amount the body (500 mg) needs to function at an optimal level. Many nutrition experts have been concerned about the rise in sodium intake in the general population since about the 1970s.Much of this increase is due to the popularity of fast foods and salty snacks, including the sale of high-sodium snack foods in school cafeterias and vending machines. The increased popularity of processed foods, almost all of which contain significant amounts of sodium, is another factor in this increase. While sodium deficiencies are rare, supplements may be required in people with certain medical conditions such as Addison’s disease, adrenal gland tumors, kidney disease, or low blood pressure. More sodium may also be needed by those who experience severe dehydration or by people who take diuretic drugs.
Although taking extra amounts of sodium is not known to improve health or cure disease, the mineral may have some therapeutic value when used externally. A number of medical studies suggest that soaking in water from the Dead Sea may be beneficial in the treatment of various diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, and osteoarthritis of the knees. Located in the Dead Sea Rift, directly south of the Sea of Galilee and between the West Bank and Isreal to the west and Jordan to the east, the Dead Sea is almost nine times as salty as ocean water and rich in other minerals such as magnesium, potassium, and calcium. The use of mineral waters, such as those that make up the Dead Sea, to cure disease has a very long history. In many parts of the world bathing in saltwater at spas or baths with mineral waters has been a tradition for centuries.
Sodium is used by some people as a germ killer. Some people use solutions containing sodium compounds as an antibacterial mouthwash to combat microorganisms that cause sore throat or inflamed gums. Plain saltwater soaks have also been recommended as a remedy for sweaty feet. Salt is believed to have a drying effect by soaking up excess perspiration.
In ages past, saltwater soaks were used to relieve sore or aching muscles.
The U.S. Institute of Medicine has established the adequate intake (AI) level of sodium for adult men and women in the United States as 1,500 mg per day. It has set the upper limit (UL), the safest daily maximum intake for the mineral, at 2,300 mg. For certain special population groups (those over the age of 51; African Americans; or those with high blood pressure, diabetes,
or chronic kidney disease), the UL is 1,500 mg per day. To prepare a sodium mouthwash, a person mixes 1 tsp of table salt with a glass of warm water. The solution should be swished around in the mouth for about a minute, and then spit out. The solution should not be swallowed, as it contains about 2,000 mg of sodium. Sodium is available in tablet form, but supplements should be taken only under the supervision of a doctor. As mentioned above, most people already get far too much sodium in their diets.
A trip to the Dead Sea is not necessary in order to enjoy its potential benefits. Dead Sea bath salts can be purchased.
People who wish to take sodium supplements or increase their sodium intake should talk to a doctor first if they have high blood pressure (or a family history of the disease), congestive heart failure (or other forms of heart or blood vessel disease), hepatic cirrhosis, edema, epilepsy, kidney disease, or bleeding problems.
Studies investigating the role of sodium in the development of high blood pressure have produced mixed results. However, sodium is widely believed to contribute to the development of the disease in susceptible people. For this reason, most doctors and major health organizations around the world recommend a diet low in sodium. Eating a low-sodium diet may actually help to lower blood pressure, especially when that diet includes sufficient amounts of potassium.
Good reason for limiting one’s intake of sodium is the link between high levels of dietary sodium and an increased risk of stomach cancer.
This risk is increased if a person’s diet is also low in fresh fruits and vegetables.
Apart from an increase in blood pressure, high levels of sodium may cause confusion, anxiety, edema, nausea, vomiting, restlessness, weakness, and loss of potassium and calcium.
A striking new view on the risks of sodium consumption was reported in 2013 when a committee of the U.S. Institute of Medicine reported that it had found ‘‘no rationale for anyone to aim for sodium levels below 2,300 milligrams a day.’’ The committee had reviewed all of the latest data collected on the health effects of sodium consumption since 2005 and found no identifiable health benefits of reducing consumption below 2,300 mg and, in the case of some populations, there were some potential health risks in doing so. The committee report did not change recommendations made by the American Heart Association and other health groups about sodium consumption, but it does provide new fodder for the debate over the health benefits and risks of sodium consumption.
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Ways to reduce sodium intake include the following:
1. Reading the Nutrition Facts labels on processed food items. The amount of sodium in a specific processed food, such as cake mix or canned soup, can vary widely from brand to brand.
2. Retraining the taste buds. A taste for salt is acquired. A gradual decrease in the use of salt to season foods gives the taste buds time to adjust.
3. Using other spices and herbs to season food.
4. Cooking from scratch rather than using processed foods.
5. Substituting fresh fruits and vegetables for salty snack foods.
6. Tasting food at the table before adding salt. Many people salt their food automatically before eating it, which often adds unnecessary sodium to the daily intake.
7. Choosing foods that are labeled low sodium or sodium free.
8. Watching the sodium content of over-the-counter medications, and asking a pharmacist for information about the sodium content of prescription drugs. Restricting sodium intake is not usually recommended for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Dietary sodium is not associated with any bothersome or significant short-term side effects. In some people, however, salt tablets may cause upset stomach or affect kidney function.
Excess intake of sodium may promote the loss of calcium and potassium from the body. In addition, sodium in the diet should be restricted for such medications as antihypertensives (drugs to control blood pressure) and anticoagulants (blood thinners) to be fully effective.