"Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life."
- Mark Twain
Did you know that the words "salary" and "salad" are derived from the word "salt?" For thousands of years, humanity has cherished salt. It's been used to pay for labor (salary), the Romans used it to season their greens (salad) and the ancient Egyptians used to offer it up during religious ceremonies. You've probably heard a lot about sodium; and most of it was probably bad. The unfortunate truth is that most of it was probably right on the money.
Salt, or sodium, is an essential element in the diet of living creatures, humans especially. If you've ever had a sports drink, then you've probably heard of electrolytes. Electrolytes keep a charge running across cell membranes (especially heart, muscle and nerve cells) allowing the cells to send electrical impulses across themselves and into other cells. When you work out you lose sodium and potassium (both of which are electrolytes) in your sweat, possibly causing a decrease in performance. Swigging a sports drink can often help replace the lost electrolytes; thus keeping you performing at a higher level for longer periods of time.
Aside from being an electrolyte, salt helps regulate the amount of fluid in your body. Sodium molecules sit outside cell membranes, and they're attractive to water. When you have too much sodium in the body, it can pull too much water out of cells causing hypertension, or high blood pressure. The opposite is also true in that, if too-little sodium is present in the body, low blood pressure can occur. Keeping this delicate balance is one of sodium's most important roles.
When too much sodium is present in the blood, the body balances it out by releasing water into the bloodstream, raising your blood pressure. In a healthy individual, this increase in blood pressure is usually minor and has no adverse long-term effects. However, when this happens too often, it becomes known as chronic high blood pressure. This is when things tend to get serious as chronic high blood pressure can lead to vascular diseases and damage the heart and other organs.
So, how much sodium do you need to maintain a healthy balance? According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, healthy Americans need less than 2,300mg a day (or 1,500 if you're over 51). Studies have shown that most Americans get closer to 3,400mg of sodium in a day -well over the recommended allotment.
If you're looking to maintain a healthy, nutritious diet, it's important to be vigilant about your sodium intake. Since it's one of the best preservatives out there, it's extremely common in anything you can find on the shelf. Canned foods, whether they be vegetables, pastas or meats, are particularly high in sodium and should be eaten sparingly (if at all). It's also located in a little shaker on just about every table out there. Adding extra salt to any dish can drastically increase its sodium content.
As common as sodium is in processed foods, it's found in natural foods in relatively low amounts. Try to stick with fresh veggies as opposed to canned, and watch out for condiments like relish and soy sauce. In small amounts these things can add a delicious flavor to our foods, but in a diet already high in sodium they're probably hurting more than helping. Remember to check your food labels and avoid foods that are high in sodium in order to maintain a healthy diet and body.