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5 reasons your body needs salt — plus 5 ways to get the right amount

How much is the right amount of sodium?
While too much sodium isn’t a good thing, getting enough is crucial for your body to function.
While too much sodium isn’t a good thing, getting enough is crucial for your body to function.Getty Images/iStockphoto

This may be contrary to everything you’ve ever heard about salt, but sodium is an essential mineral, so you need a certain amount of it to stay alive. That said, keeping your salt intake in the proper range is key — getting too much can raise your risk of serious health problems. Here's how much sodium you need each day and why it’s actually good for you to get some salt in your diet.

How much sodium do you need?

Adults need 1,500 mg of sodium a day per the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. However, the reality is that few adults have trouble consuming this amount. In fact, most people consume more than double the daily requirement, averaging 3,400 mg per day. Both the National Academies and the Dietary Guidelines agree that you should aim to stay below 2,300 mg of sodium per day, which equates to a mere teaspoon of salt. The American Heart Association is a little stricter, suggesting it’s ideal for most adults — and particularly those with high blood pressure — to consume the lower amount of 1,500 mg per day.

5 ways salt is good for you

While too much sodium isn’t a good thing, getting enough is crucial for your body to function. Here are some ways sodium is good for you.

1. It helps maintains fluid balance.

Fluid balance is tightly regulated within your body. The majority of your body’s fluid is contained within your cells, with about a third existing outside of your cells. This balance is critical for life, and sodium, as well as other electrolytes, help draw water to the appropriate areas of the body so the balance can be maintained. When you lose fluid by sweating, urinating, or when you’re sick and vomiting or experiencing diarrhea, you excrete sodium and other electrolytes. Fluids and electrolytes, like sodium, need to be replaced by foods and drinks to maintain this delicate system.

2. It helps control blood volume.

Your body works hard to keep your blood volume in a healthy range. Inadequate sodium can reduce your blood volume, which may result in low blood pressure. However, when your body senses this imbalance, it has mechanisms to correct it. For example, your body gets a signal to retain sodium, which then helps retain fluid and restore blood volume in the proper range. Similarly, when sodium levels are high, your kidneys get the message to excrete more, again helping to control your blood volume.

3. It helps regulates blood pressure.

Due to its role in maintaining fluid balance and blood volume, sodium is also deeply involved in regulating blood pressure. With excess sodium, more fluid is retained in the blood, so your blood volume increases and puts added pressure on your blood vessels. Although your body tries to maintain your blood volume, if your sodium intake consistently exceeds your sodium losses for a prolonged period, it increases your risk of high blood pressure.

On the other hand, if your sodium levels are extremely low — typically due to dehydration or a medical issue — your blood volume can become dangerously low. Bottom line: You need a little sodium for healthy blood pressure, but too much can be problematic.

4. It helps maintain a steady heartbeat.

Together with potassium, sodium powers the communication system between your nerve cells. These electrical charges travel to your brain, which gets the message to contract your muscles. This includes your most crucial muscle — your heart. So, essentially, sodium is required to keep your heartbeat steady. Despite this, excess sodium from your diet can raise your blood pressure, which makes your heart work harder. And high blood pressure is a top risk factor for heart disease.

5. It aids in nutrient absorption.

Sodium is needed for the absorption of chloride, amino acids, and glucose in your small intestine. And once absorbed, chloride plays a part in digesting and absorbing other nutrients.

Should you rethink your salt intake?

In short, no. While your body requires sodium to function, the CDC reports that 90% of Americans consume more than the recommended amount. That means you’d likely benefit from cutting down on your salt intake, so the message to consume less sodium still applies.

About 70% of the salt we eat comes from heavily processed foods and restaurant meals rather than the salt shaker. Top sources of sodium in the American diet include bread and rolls, pizza, sandwiches (including fast food burgers), cold cuts and processed meats, and soups. Chips, pretzels, and other savory packaged snacks also make the list.

5 ways to reduce your salt intake

Since about half of adults have high blood pressure — and the risk rises with age — and since just about everyone consumes more salt than recommended, here are five ways to limit your salt intake.

  1. Read food labels. Some foods, like bread, may not taste salty, but the sodium can add up quickly because they’re a big part of our diets. Other foods may not taste salty because they’re processed with ingredients, like sugar, that offset the taste. One of the best ways to reduce your sodium intake is to compare food labels and choose products with the lowest amount of sodium.
  2. Reduce your intake of processed foods. Since the majority of sodium is lurking in processed foods, limiting your consumption of these foods will help you cut back.
  3. Increase your intake of whole foods. These foods help displace less nutritious, higher sodium foods on your menu.
  4. Eat more fruits and vegetables. Produce supplies potassium, another mineral involved in fluid regulation and blood pressure balance. We tend to eat a lot of sodium but fall short on our potassium needs. Increasing your potassium intake can help excrete more sodium and relax your blood vessel walls, thereby helping to manage blood pressure.
  5. Cook more meals at home. When you cook at home, you’re in charge of the amount of sodium you use. Chances are, you’ll use less than the exorbitant amounts typical of restaurant and fast food meals.