What is Sodium?

Sodium is a mineral found in food that helps your body function properly.

Sodium is an essential mineral found in many common foods, sometimes naturally and sometimes added as salt during cooking or manufacturing for flavor or as a preservative. Sodium plays an important role in cell function, blood pressure control, muscle contraction, and nerve transmission. It’s essential for keeping body fluids stay balanced. But although sodium is important for optimal health, consuming too much has been linked to health problems including hypertension (high blood pressure), cardiovascular disease, and kidney stones.

Sodium vs. Salt

It’s a common misconception that "sodium" and "salt" are the same thing; in fact, the words aw often are used interchangeably. But understanding the difference between the two could affect how you manage the nutritional quality of your diet. 

"Salt" refers to the crystal-like chemical compound sodium chloride, while "sodium" refers to the dietary mineral sodium. Health experts suggest remembering the distinction in this way:

  • Sodium is found in food, either naturally or manufactured into processed foods.
  • Salt is what we add to our food when we use the salt shaker.

Table salt is a combination of the mineral elements sodium and chloride. Broken down by weight, sodium makes up approximately 40% of table salt. 

Function

Your body takes in sodium through the foods you eat and eliminates extra sodium in perspiration and urine. The role of sodium in overall health is to help cells and organs function properly by regulating blood pressure, supporting muscular contraction, and keeping nerve impulses running smoothly. It’s one of the electrolytes responsible for maintaining a healthy amount of fluids in the body.

Too much or too little sodium can cause some of those bodily processes to malfunction, and do the body has mechanisms for monitoring how much sodium it’s taken in.

If sodium levels get too high, the body will signal the kidneys to get rid of the excess. If levels dip too low, you may show signs of a condition called hyponatremia, which is a medical emergency in which the brain is affected. Symptoms include dizziness, muscle twitches, seizures, and in severe cases, loss of consciousness.

Although sodium is essential for keeping the body functioning optimally and the body does not product its own—it is only acquired from food—unlike other nutrients such as calcium or vitamin B, it is rarely if ever necessary to take sodium supplements. Typically, unless large amounts of sodium are lost through excessive sweating, the sodium supplied by a normal diet is adequate.

Sodium in the Diet

Sodium occurs naturally in foods like celery, beets, and milk. It’s also added to many packaged foods during manufacturing—often in amounts that are considered much too high. High-sodium products include processed meats, canned soups, salad dressings, and soy sauce. Restaurant and fast foods are also typically high in sodium. 

In fact, most of the sodium we take in comes from eating packaged, processed, and restaurant foods—not from the salt we add to food when cooking or eating at the dinner table. Federal health agencies estimate that more than 70% of the sodium Americans take in is hidden in those processed or packaged foods.

As an added ingredient in packaged products, sodium is used for thickening, enhancing flavor, and preserving foods. It’s also used to prevent microbial growth that would cause food to spoil or people to get sick. 

Other potential sources of sodium include drinking water and certain medications, such as acetaminophen and antacids. If you’re concerned that your over-the-counter drug may be a factor in your overall sodium intake, your doctor will be able to tell you if any of the medicine you take is potentially problematic.

Health Risks

Consuming excessive amounts of sodium can cause high blood pressure in some people, which can lead to other health issues such heart disease and stroke. That’s because the accumulation of sodium causes the body to hang on to excess water, forcing your organs to work harder to flush it out as they try to maintain a healthy fluid balance. If your kidneys can’t get rid of extra fluids, sodium will start to build up in the bloodstream. 

To avoid those risks, experts recommend most healthy adults take in no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day; 1,500 mg per day is even better. For some context, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates that the average American consumes about 3,400 mg of sodium per day—much more than is generally recommended.

Since most diets are too high in sodium, it’s important to pay attention to how much salt and added sodium is present in our food—especially in processed foods like pizza, deli meats, soups, salad dressings, and cheese. But as experts point out, you can’t always count on your taste buds to sound the alarm. Keep in mind that foods high in sodium don’t always taste salty, so watch out for sweet offenders like cereals and pastries.

A Word From Verywell

Roughly 90% of Americans ages 2 and older consume too much sodium and don’t even realize it, which can be bad for your health. It's a good idea to check with your doctor if you have any concerns about your sodium intake and how it may be affecting your health. In the meantime, you can start to become aware of how much sodium you’re consuming by actively seeking out lower-sodium foods, checking the Nutrition Facts labels and ingredient lists on packaged foods, and cooking at home more often—just try to keep the salt shaker use to a minimum. Be assured as well that the FDA has been working with the food industry to gradually reduce sodium levels in food in the short- and long-term. While there’s no quick fix, federal regulators are aiming for a broad reduction in the next several years. 

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Article Sources
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