Natural Healing: Understanding Salt and Sodium

It is important to know sodium's role before you can smartly use it in your regular diet.

| March/April 2003

Sodium is essential to life. Sodium is so important, in fact, that humans have a specific sensor on the tongue that can detect salt. Thousands of years ago, when the diet of humans was potassium-rich and sodium-poor, this sensor for salt was a crucial survival tool. Nature, in its infinite wisdom, devised a way to help humans (as well as animals) seek out salty foods so that they could be assured of receiving adequate sodium from their diets. This is important because sodium—often found in the form of sodium chloride or salt—plays countless roles in the body.

Sodium’s role

To begin with, sodium is crucial for maintaining the health of every cell in the human system. It permeates the fluid between cells (often called the extracellular fluid) and potassium exists mainly on the inside of the cells (in the intracellular fluid). These two minerals need to be in a constant dynamic balance so nutrients and waste can move across cell membranes. If either of these minerals is deficient or in excess, cell permeability becomes compromised and the health of all of the cells suffers.

Besides being a component of extracellular fluid that bathes every living cell, sodium is important in two other “salty oceans” in the body—our blood and our lymphatic fluid. It is also necessary for the production of hydrochloric acid, the digestive enzyme secreted by the stomach in order to digest protein. Along with potassium, sodium is required for the proper functioning of our nerves and the contraction of our muscles. (The heart, as you may know, is our hardest-working muscle.) Finally, sodium is necessary to maintain several kinds of equilibrium—fluid balance, electrolyte balance, and pH (acid/alkaline) balance—which are all of the utmost importance to the body.

With the many crucial roles sodium plays, it’s clear that if we had no sodium, we would cease to exist. Obtaining adequate, easily absorbable sodium from foods then is important for maintaining health, but obtaining too much of the wrong kinds of sodium is harmful.

Like fat, sodium is often misunderstood. Sodium and fat are nutrients we need for health, but not all forms of them are healthy.

Health concerns

Most of us already know that excessive salt consumption contributes to the development of high blood pressure, but recent research shows that it is also associated with strokes, calcium deficiency and osteoporosis, fluid retention, weight gain, stomach ulcers, and stomach cancer. However, reducing sodium too much can be just as harmful as consuming large amounts of it. Too little can cause spasms, poor heart rhythms, an increase the risk of heart attack in hypertensive patients, and even sudden death. Understanding the role sodium plays in the body and the difference between “good” and “bad” sources of sodium will help you get the salt out of your diet while you still meet your sodium needs.

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