Salt is a seasoning that can flavor food and act as a preservative. It's about 60% chloride and about 40% sodium. Nearly all unprocessed foods -- think veggies, fruits, nuts, meats, whole grains, and dairy foods -- are low in sodium. The salt that we do eat helps relax and contract muscles, lends a hand with nerve impulses, and balances the minerals and water we take in.
Our body needs only a small amount of sodium. We should get about 1,500 milligrams of it every day. But the average American takes in about 3,400. Too much salt can lead to a stroke, heart disease, and high blood pressure. But how do you know if you take in too much salt?
Bloating -- when your stomach feels swollen or tight -- is one of the most common short-term effects of having too much salt. It helps your body retain water, so extra fluid builds up. Foods don't have to taste salty for them to be high in sodium. Sandwiches, pizza, bagels, and canned soup can be sneaky sources for salt.
There are lots of reasons you might have high blood pressure, but one could be too much sodium. The change in blood pressure happens through your kidneys. Too much salt makes it harder for them to get rid of fluid that you don't need. As a result, your blood pressure goes up.
Swelling can be a sign of too much sodium in your body. Body parts like your face, hands, feet, and ankles are most likely to swell. If you're more puffy than usual, take a look at how much salt you're eating.
If you've been really thirsty lately, it could be a sign that you're eating too much salt. When that happens, you become dehydrated. Your body pulls water from your cells, and you might start to feel very thirsty. Drinking water can help neutralize that salt and can freshen up your cells.
When you retain water, you might gain weight. If you've put on pounds quickly over a week or even a few days, it could be because you're having too much salt. If you gain more than 2 pounds in a day or 4 pounds in a week, think back to the foods you ate during the past few days and try to make changes to cut down on the salt.
More salt could lead to more trips to the bathroom. This could be because salt can make you very thirsty, which might encourage you to drink more water. Later on, you might have to go to the bathroom more than usual.
If you eat too much salt before bed, it can lead to disturbances in your sleep. Signs can range from restless sleep, to waking up often at night, to not feeling rested in the morning.
When there's too much salt in your blood, water gushes out of your cells to thin out the salt. The result? You might start to feel weaker than usual.
If too much salt in your diet makes you dehydrated, your stomach will feel it. You might feel nauseated, or you might have diarrhea. If your stomach is upset or you have cramps, take a look at what you've been eating during the past few days and figure out how to cut back on the salt. Drinking plenty of water can help rehydrate your cells and get you feeling better.
Although there are lots of short-term effects to watch out for, there are also long-term effects of eating too much salt. It might raise your chances of things like enlarged heart muscle, headaches, heart failure, high blood pressure, kidney disease, kidney stones, osteoporosis, stomach cancer, and stroke.
Since 9 out of 10 Americans get too much sodium, chances are, you might take in too much as well.
To help keep your levels in check:
- Choose fresh meats instead of packaged ones.
- When you buy frozen vegetables, choose ones that are "fresh frozen" and stay away from ones with seasoning or sauces already added.
- Read labels and check the sodium content in the foods you buy.
- When choosing spices and seasonings, go for ones that do not list sodium on their labels.
- If you eat out, you can ask for your dish to be prepared without salt.
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- Harvard School of Public Health: "Salt and Sodium."
- American Heart Association: "How Too Much Sodium Affects Your Health."
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Fluid retention: What it can mean for your heart."
- Better Health Channel: "Fluid retention (oedema)."
- Pediatric Nephrology (Berlin): "Is too much salt harmful? Yes."
- Natural Medicine: "The effect of increased salt intake on blood pressure of chimpanzees."
- Hypertension: "Effects of Sodium Reduction on Energy Metabolism, Weight, Thirst, and Urine Volume: Results from the DASH-Sodium Trial."
- Cleveland Clinic: "Too Much Salt Is Bad -- For Your Heart and Your Sleep," "Feel Bloated? 5 Odd Reasons for Your Stomach Pain," "How Salt Can Impact Your Blood Pressure, Heart and Kidneys"
- Poison Control: "Sodium: Too Much of a Good Thing."
- MedlinePlus: "Sodium Blood Test."
- Texas A&M Health: "You Asked: What Happens to Your Body When You Eat Too Much Salt?"
- National Kidney Foundation: "Top 10 Tips for Reducing Salt in Your Diet."