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. It's a natural component of some foods and sometimes it's 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 balanced. 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.

Health Problems Linked to Too Much Sodium

Verywell / Jessica Olah

Sodium vs. Salt

It’s a common misconception that "sodium" and "salt" are the same thing; in fact, the words are 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 (which is a component of sodium chloride).

The difference is:

  • 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. The body has mechanisms for monitoring how much sodium it’s taken in, and how much it needs to get rid of through urine.

How the body manages sodium:

  • If sodium levels get too high, the body will often signal the kidneys to get rid of the excess. With kidney disease, getting rid of excess sodium might not be as efficient. This can lead to problems like hypertension.
  • If levels dip a bit low, you may start to crave salty foods or produce less urine. In severe cases, this can cause signs of a condition called hyponatremia, which can lead to a medical emergency that affects the brain. Symptoms include dizziness, muscle twitches, seizures, and in severe cases, loss of consciousness.

The body does not produce its own sodium—it is only acquired from food. Unlike other nutrients such as calcium or vitamin B, it is rarely necessary to take sodium supplements. The sodium supplied by a normal diet is typically adequate.

Sodium in the Diet

Sodium is naturally present in foods like celery, beets, and milk. It’s also added to many packaged foods during manufacturing—often in amounts that are considered too high. High-sodium products include processed meats, canned soups, salad dressings, and soy sauce. Restaurant meals 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 cause 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 healthcare provider will be able to tell you if any of the medicine you take is potentially problematic.

Health Risks

Consuming excessive amounts of sodium can be a risk factor for high blood pressure in some people, which can lead to serious health issues, such as heart disease and stroke.

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 are present in your 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.

Hyponatremia requires close monitoring by a medical team. Sometimes medical intervention is needed, but it's important that sodium is carefully and gradually repleted. Overcorrecting too rapidly can be harmful.

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 healthcare provider 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 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. 

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Medline Plus. Sodium in diet. Apr 23, 2018.

  2. Henry Ford Health System. Salt vs. sodium—What's the difference? Mar 12, 2016.

  3. Medline Plus. Fluid and electrolyte balance. Oct 1, 2020.

  4. Medline Plus. Low blood sodium. Apr 8, 2019.

  5. Food and Drug Administration. Sodium in your diet. Apr 2, 2020.

  6. Health.gov. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2105-2020.

  7. Food and Drug Administration. You may be surprised by how much salt you're eating. July 19, 2016.

  8. Food and Drug Administration. FDA issues draft guidance to food industry for voluntarily reducing sodium in processed and commercially prepared food. May 31, 2016.

By Cristina Mutchler
Cristina Mutchler is an award-winning journalist with more than a decade of experience in national media, specializing in health and wellness content.