The Salty Stuff: Salt, Blood Pressure and Your Health

Posted on April 15, 2010

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 Salt is essential to our body’s fluids. That’s likely why we evolved to enjoy its taste. On the other hand, anyone who’s gotten a mouth full of seawater knows that too much salt tastes terrible. Maybe your body’s trying to tell you something: It turns out that too much salt can lead to a host of health problems.

The chemical name for dietary salt, or table salt, is sodium chloride. Since 90 percent of the sodium we ingest is from salt, it’s difficult to separate the effects of salt and sodium in many studies. However, it’s the sodium part most doctors focus on.

“The best known effect of sodium on health is the relationship between sodium and blood pressure,” explains Dr. Catherine Loria of the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH’s) National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI). Dozens of studies, in both animals and people, have shown that a higher salt intake raises blood pressure. Reducing salt intake, on the other hand, lowers blood pressure.

Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against the walls of arteries as the heart pumps out blood. When this pressure rises — a condition called high blood pressure, or hypertension — it can damage the body in many ways over time. High blood pressure has been linked to heart disease, stroke, kidney failure and other health problems.

There are two blood pressure numbers, and they’re usually written with one above or before the other. Systolic, the first, is the pressure when the heart beats, pumping blood through the arteries. Diastolic is the pressure when the heart is at rest between beats. The numbers 120/80 mmHg are the ones you should aim to keep your blood pressure below.

Some research also suggests that excessive salt intake might increase the risk of stomach cancer. Scientists continue to investigate this possible connection. 
Researchers do know that not everyone is equally sensitive to salt.

Experts recommend that people take in less than 2,400 milligrams of sodium a day — that’s what’s in about 6 grams of salt, or about a teaspoon. People with high blood pressure should shoot for 1,500 milligrams or less — about 3.7 grams of salt. But right now, the average man in the United States takes in more than 10 grams of salt per day and the average woman more than 7 grams.

Beyond salt, a healthy eating plan can help keep your blood pressure under control. Check out NHLBI’s Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan at www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/public/heart/hbp/dash. To access free recipes reflecting the Dietary Guidelines for Americans or for copies of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s recently published “Keep the Beat™ Recipes: Deliciously Healthy Dinners”cookbook, visit http://hin.nhlbi.nih.gov/healthyeating.

Other lifestyle measures can help you keep your blood pressure down, too. Lose weight if you’re overweight or obese. Get regular physical activity. Quit smoking. And manage your stress. The more of these steps you take, the more likely you’ll be to avoid related health problems.

Why not start now? Make small changes at first, and then keep working to gradually lower your family’s salt intake.

This Prevention Corner tip is brought to you by NIH News in Health. For more information, follow this link: http://newsinhealth.nih.gov.

™ Keep the Beat is a trademark of HHS.

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