In moderation, sodium is a good thing -- the tasty electrolyte helps maintain healthy muscles, nerves and blood volume. However, when you consume too much sodium, you could jeopardize your health. Most healthy young women should get less than 2,400 milligrams of sodium per day, yet the average American consumes about 3,300 milligrams per day. If you're African-American or have high blood pressure, you should get no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day.
One immediate effect of excess sodium is water retention, which could make you run for your baggiest jeans. An extra 400 milligrams of sodium in your body causes 2 pounds of transient water-weight gain, according to Dr. Jack D. Osman of Towson University. You get that much sodium in 1 gram of table salt. A quick fix for sodium-induced weight gain is to drink more water, which will help flush out the extra sodium through your urine.
For most people, the riskiest complication of high sodium intake is elevated blood pressure. Too much sodium causes blood pressure to spike, which could in turn increase your risk for heart disease and stroke. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 400,000 Americans die each year from illnesses related to high blood pressure. If you already have high blood pressure, limiting sodium in your diet may help you keep the problem at bay. Other ways to lower your blood pressure include shedding pounds if you're overweight, exercising and limiting alcohol consumption to one or zero drinks per day.
Too much sodium can cause dangerous complications with certain diseases, including kidney disease and liver cirrhosis. If your kidneys are not functioning well, your body stores more sodium than usual. This makes you more susceptible to high blood pressure and may also cause swollen ankles, breathing problems and fluid buildup around the heart and lungs. Similarly, liver patients are prone to dangerous swelling and fluid buildup if they eat too much sodium. In these cases, even 1,500 milligrams per day may be too much.
Most of the sodium in the American diet comes from processed foods and prepared meals. For instance, a 6-inch, cold-cut submarine sandwich contains 1,650 milligrams of sodium, and a cup of franks and beans contains more than 1,100 milligrams. Skip the cans and boxes, opting for fresh, whole fare. Fruits and vegetables are typically very low in sodium, as are grains before salt is added. Rice, macaroni and air-popped popcorn are all sodium-free. When cooking, use fresh herbs, garlic, black pepper and fresh chilies to flavor your food instead of salt.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Where's the Sodium?
- The Wellness Corner: Salt, Sodium, and High Blood Pressure
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Sodium: Q&A
- MayoClinic.com: 10 Ways to Control High Blood Pressure Without Medication
- National Kidney Foundation: Sodium and Your CKD Diet: How to Spice Up Your Cooking
- University of Michigan Health System: Liver Cirrhosis -- A Toolkit for Patients
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 16
Nina K. is a Los Angeles-based journalist who has been published by USAToday.com, Fitday.com, Healthy Living Magazine, Organic Authority and numerous other print and web publications. She has a philosophy degree from the University of Colorado and a journalism certificate from UCLA.