Sodium is vital not only for maintaining fluid balance but also for many other essential functions. In contrast to many minerals, sodium absorption in the small intestine is extremely efficient and in a healthy individual all excess sodium is excreted by the kidneys. In fact, very little sodium is required in the diet (about 200 milligrams) because the kidneys actively reabsorb sodium. Kidney reabsorption of sodium is hormonally controlled, allowing for a relatively constant sodium concentration in the blood.
A notable function of sodium is in nerve impulse transmission. Similar to how a current moves along a wire, a sodium current moves along a nerve cell. Stimulating a muscle contraction also involves the movement of sodium ions as well as other ion movements.
Sodium is essential for nutrient absorption in the small intestine and also for nutrient reabsorption in the kidney. Amino acids, glucose and water are aided by sodium as they make their way from the small intestine to the blood. The transport of nutrients through intestinal cells is facilitated by the sodium-potassium pump, which by moving sodium out of the cell, creates a higher sodium concentration outside of the cell (requiring ATP).
Sweating is a homeostatic mechanism for maintaining body temperature, which influences fluid and electrolyte balance. Sweat is mostly water but also contains some electrolytes, mostly sodium and chloride. Under normal environmental conditions (i.e., not hot, humid days) water and sodium loss through sweat is negligible, but is highly variable among individuals. It is estimated that sixty minutes of high-intensity physical activity, like playing a game of tennis, can produce approximately one liter of sweat; however the amount of sweat produced is highly dependent on environmental conditions. A liter of sweat typically contains between 1 and 2 grams of sodium and therefore exercising for multiple hours can result in a high amount of sodium loss in some people. Additionally, hard labor can produce substantial sodium loss through sweat. In either case, the lost sodium is easily replaced in the next snack or meal.
In athletes hyponatremia, or a low blood-sodium level, is not so much the result of excessive sodium loss in sweat, but rather drinking too much water. The excess water dilutes the sodium concentration in blood. Illnesses causing vomiting, sweating, and diarrhea may also cause hyponatremia. The symptoms of hyponatremia, also called water intoxication (since it is often the root cause) include nausea, muscle cramps, confusion, dizziness, and in severe cases, coma and death. The physiological events that occur in water intoxication proceed as follows:
- excessive sodium loss and/or water intake
- sodium levels fall in blood and in the fluid between cells
- water moves to where solutes are more concentrated (i.e. into cells)
- cells swell
- symptoms result, including nausea, muscle cramps, confusion, dizziness and, in severe cases, coma and death
Hyponatremia in endurance athletes (such as marathon runners) can be avoided by drinking the correct amount of water, which is about 1 cup every twenty minutes during the event. Sports drinks are better at restoring fluid and blood-glucose levels than replacing electrolytes. During an endurance event you would be better off drinking water and eating an energy bar that contains sugars, proteins, and electrolytes. The American College of Sports Medicine suggests if you are exercising for longer than one hour you eat one high carbohydrate (25–40 grams) per hour of exercise along with ample water.
Watch out for the fat content, as sometimes energy bars contain a hefty dose. If you’re not exercising over an hour at high intensity, you can skip the sports drinks, but not the water. For those who do not exercise or do so at low to moderate intensity, sports drinks are another source of extra calories, sugar, and salt.
Needs and Dietary Sources of Sodium
The IOM has set an AI (Adequate Intake)level for sodium for healthy adults between the ages of nineteen and fifty at 1,500 milligrams. Table salt is approximately 40 percent sodium and 60 percent chloride. As a reference point, only ⅔ teaspoon of salt is needed in the diet to meet the AI for sodium and chloride. The AI takes into account the amount of sodium lost in sweat during recommended physical activity levels and additionally provides for the sufficient intake of other nutrients, such as chloride. Many scientific studies demonstrate that reducing salt intake prevents hypertension, is helpful in reducing blood pressure after hypertension is diagnosed, and reduces the risk for cardiovascular disease.
Food Sources for Sodium
Most sodium in the typical North American diet comes from processed and prepared foods. Manufacturers add salt to foods to improve texture and flavor, and also as a preservative. The amount of salt in similar food products varies widely. Some foods, such as meat, poultry, and dairy foods, contain naturally-occurring sodium. For example, one cup of low-fat milk contains 107 milligrams of sodium. Naturally-occurring sodium accounts for less than 12 percent of dietary intake in a typical diet. For the sodium contents of various foods see Table 188.8.131.52 “Sodium Contents of Selected Foods.”
Figure 184.108.40.206 Dietary Sources of Sodium
Table 220.127.116.11 Sodium Contents of Selected Foods
|Food group||Serving size||Sodium (mg)|
|Breads, all types||1 oz.||95–210|
|Rice Chex cereal||1 ¼ c.||292|
|Raisin Bran cereal||1 c.||362|
|Frozen pizza, plain, cheese||4 oz.||450–1200|
|Frozen vegetables, all types||½ c.||2–160|
|Salad dressing, regular fat, all types||2 Tbsp.||110–505|
|Soup (tomato), reconstituted||8 oz.||700–1260|
|Potato chips||1 oz. (28.4 g)||120–180|
|Tortilla chips||1 oz. (28.4 g)||105–160|
|Chicken fast food dinner||2243|
|Chicken noodle soup||1 c.||1107|
|Soy sauce||1 Tbsp.||1029|
|Canned corn||1 c.||384|
|Baked beans, canned||1 c.||856|
|Canned tuna||3 oz.||384|
|Fresh tuna||3 oz.||50|
|Dry-roasted peanuts||1 c.||986|
|American cheese||1 oz.||406|
|Tap water||8 oz.||12|
Foods vary in sodium content. Some sodium intake is necessary for health; however, large intakes of sodium should be avoided.
Tools for Change
To decrease your sodium intake, become a salt-savvy shopper by reading the labels and ingredients lists of processed foods and choosing those lower in salt. Even better, stay away from processed foods and control the seasoning of your foods. Eating a diet with less salty foods diminishes salt cravings so you may need to try a lower sodium diet for a week or two before you will be satisfied with the less salty food.
For those with hypertension or those looking for a way to decrease salt use, using a salt substitute for food preparation is one option. However, many salt substitutes still contain sodium, just in lesser amounts than table salt. Also, remember that most salt in the diet is not from table-salt use, but from processed foods. Salt substitutes often replace the sodium with potassium. People with kidney disorders often have problems getting rid of excess potassium in the diet and are advised to avoid salt substitutes containing potassium. People with liver disorders should also avoid salt substitutes containing potassium because their treatment is often accompanied by potassium dysregulation.
Table salt may seem an essential ingredient of good food, but there are others that provide alternative taste and zest to your foods. See Table 18.104.22.168 “Salt Alternatives” for an AHA list of alternative food seasonings.
Table 22.214.171.124 Salt Alternatives
|Allspice||Lean ground meats, stews, tomatoes, peaches, applesauce, cranberry sauce, gravies, lean meat|
|Almond extract||Puddings, fruits|
|Caraway seeds||Lean meats, stews, soups, salads, breads, cabbage, asparagus, noodles|
|Chives||Salads, sauces, soups, lean-meat dishes, vegetables|
|Cider vinegar||Salads, vegetables, sauces|
|Cinnamon||Fruits, breads, pie crusts|
|Curry powder||Lean meats (especially lamb), veal, chicken, fish, tomatoes, tomato soup, mayonnaise,|
|Dill||fish sauces, soups, tomatoes, cabbages, carrots, cauliflower, green beans, cucumbers, potatoes, salads, macaroni, lamb|
|Garlic (not garlic salt)||Lean meats, fish, soups, salads, vegetables, tomatoes, potatoes|
|Lemon juice||Lean meats, fish, poultry, salads, vegetables|
|Mace||Hot breads, apples, fruit salads, carrots, cauliflower, squash, potatoes, veal, lamb|
|Mustard (dry)||lean ground meats, lean meats, chicken, fish, salads, asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, mayonnaise, sauces|
|Nutmeg||Fruits, pie crust, lemonade, potatoes, chicken, fish, lean meatloaf, toast, veal, pudding|
|Onion powder||Lean meats, stews, vegetables, salads, soups|
|Paprika||Lean meats, fish, soups, salads, sauces, vegetables|
|Parsley||Lean meats, fish, soups, salads, sauces, vegetables|
|Peppermint extract||Puddings, fruits|
|Pimiento||Salads, vegetables, casserole dishes|
|Rosemary||Chicken, veal, lean meatloaf, lean beef, lean pork, sauces, stuffings, potatoes, peas, lima beans|
|Sage||Lean meats, stews, biscuits, tomatoes, green beans, fish, lima beans, onions, lean pork|
|Savory||Salads, lean pork, lean ground meats, soups, green beans, squash, tomatoes, lima beans, peas|
|Thyme||Lean meats (especially veal and lean pork), sauces, soups, onions, peas, tomatoes, salads|
|Turmeric||Lean meats, fish, sauces, rice|
Note: There are a wide variety of foods that can be substituted for salt. A lot of these options serve as healthier alternatives. Source: Shaking the Salt Habit. American Heart Association. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/HighBloodPressure/PreventionTreatmentofHighBloodPressure/Shaking-the-Salt-Habit_UCM_303241_Article.jsp. Updated June 6, 2012. Accessed September 22, 2017.
Chloride’s Role in Fluid Balance
Chloride aids in fluid balance mainly because it follows sodium in order to maintain charge neutrality. Chloride channels also play a role in regulating fluid secretion, such as pancreatic juice into the small intestine and the flow of water into mucus. Fluid secretion and mucus are important for many of life’s processes. Their importance is exemplified in the signs and symptoms of the genetic disease, cystic fibrosis (CF). CF’s signs and symptoms include salty skin, poor digestion and absorption (leading to poor growth), sticky mucus accumulation in the lungs (causing increased susceptibility to respiratory infections), liver damage, and infertility.
Needs and Dietary Sources of Potassium
The IOM based their AIs for potassium on the levels associated with a decrease in blood pressure, a reduction in salt sensitivity, and a minimal risk of kidney stones. Signs and symptoms of low potassium include muscle weakness and cramps, respiratory distress, and constipation. Severe potassium depletion can cause the heart to have abnormal contractions and can even be fatal. High levels of potassium in the blood, also affects the heart.