Sodium and the Heart: How much is too much?

All salt is essentially sodium chloride. Sodium is an essential mineral that is regulated by the kidneys. It assists in muscle function, nerve impulses and maintains the body's balance of fluid. With all of these benefits, how can salt be a bad thing? 

Excessive salt intake can lead to electrolyte imbalance, fluid retention, and high blood pressure. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day. But the average American consumes about 3,400 mg per day. Understanding your sodium intake and how it is affecting your health is an important step preventing cardiovascular disease now and in the future.

Why High Amounts of Salt Are Bad for Heart Health

A diet high in salt will often cause you to feel bloated or swollen. This not only affects how well your ring or watch fits, it will also cause your blood pressure to skyrocket. High blood pressure can greatly impact your cardiovascular system: It puts your heart and organs under unneeded stress and pressure with every heartbeats.  This high pressure that your organs feel can, in time, cause various ailments including coronary artery disease (hardening of the arteries), which can ultimately lead to premature heart attacks, kidney disease, stroke, and even death. Hypertension is called the silent killer because most people do not feel ill when their blood pressure is elevated. Therefore, it is vital to understand how the foods we eat impact our body. 

Where Salt Can Be Found

Salt (sodium) is found in almost everything we ingest. If you look closely, it can be found in the foods we eat, beverages we drink, and even in some of the over-the-counter medications we take. It is important to understand that sodium is salt in all forms. It does not matter if it is pink sea salt or routine table salt— all of it is sodium and affects your body the same. 

A common statement that patients make is, “I don't add any salt to my food.” That’s a great start, but we need to understand that plenty of foods come with the salt already packed in.  Foods that contain especially high amounts of sodium are known as the "salty six." They contain astronomically high amounts of sodium and, unfortunately, are a large part of the average American’s diet. These foods include cold cuts, pizza, soup, bread products, cheese, and chicken (depending on how it is prepared). What we typically tell our patients is that if foods do not go bad in your refrigerator or if they come in a can, they likely contain large amounts of salt. Also, if you find that you are very thirsty after eating a particular meal, you likely consumed too much salt. 

Another common difficulty is dining out. Restaurant food notoriously contains high levels of salt. The chef is trying to make the food taste as flavorful as possible, and salt is usually a big component.  This doesn't mean that you can never eat out at a restaurant again, but it does mean that you have to make educated decisions when deciding where to go and how often to dine out. 

What You Can Do 
It all starts by understanding what is in our food. We can limit sodium intake by paying close attention to our diet and consciously particular avoiding foods. In addition, cooking at home provides excellent control over sodium content.  Further, understanding misleading food-label terminology can help. Instead of buying items labeled "low sodium,"choose foods that are “sodium free,” which have less than 5 mg of sodium per serving. 

Foods that naturally contain low amounts of sodium are fruits, vegetables, unprocessed meats, eggs, and items that don’t require preservatives. Also important: You don't have to eat “organic” to eat heart healthy. 

Making deliberate, small, healthy choices throughout your day is the best way to prevent heart disease. For instance, instead of snacking on salty chips, grab a bag of baby carrots or sliced apples.

Are you concerned that you may be at risk for hypertension, heart attack, heart failure, or stroke? Schedule an appointment with North Suffolk Cardiology today at (631) 941-2000 and speak with one of our many highly qualified physicians.

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