Common salt, also known as sodium chloride, is an omnipresent ingredient used for seasoning purposes in our everyday foods. It is available in a range of diverse forms and particle sizes, depending on the proposed use. Along with its culinary usage, salt is also used as a food preservative.
The salt/water ratio is critical for the metabolic rate of our body. Salt facilitates sending signals in our nerves and muscles and helps sustain the fluid content inside and outside the blood cells. The salt concentration in a solution used by the United States Pharmacopeia (USP) to cleanse wounds is the same as is present in human blood i.e. 0.9% Sodium Chloride. Dietary salt exists in various forms: unrefined salt, refined salt (also known as table salt) and iodine-fortified salt.
Salt offers a variety of health benefits, which are explained below.
Health Benefits of Salt
Iodine Deficiency – Iodized salt is one of the most common sources of dietary Iodine. Iodine deficiency refers to the insufficiency of iodine mineral in the body, which is vital for the manufacturing of the thyroid hormone. It is a very important part of our diet, as the body does not naturally produce iodine.
Without adequate amounts of iodine, the thyroid enlarges in an attempt to keep up with the body’s demand for thyroid hormone. This may result in serious conditions like the development of goiter or hypothyroidism. The body also requires thyroid hormones for the appropriate development of brain and bone structure during pregnancy and the early development years of young children. If the expectant or the lactating mothers are iodine deficient, the children can suffer from mental retardation. An adequate intake of iodized salt can prevent such deficiencies and their sometimes fatal results.
Oral Rehydration Treatment – Salt is essential for sustaining the hydration levels of the body. It is extremely vital to maintain the electrolyte balance for the smooth functioning of the human organ systems. These electrolytes primarily entail magnesium, potassium, calcium, and sodium. For people who work outside and especially those who regularly workout, it is crucial to recover both salt and water shortages that occur through perspiration. When the body is dehydrated and diseases like cholera and diarrhea weakens the system, doctors advise using a blend of water, sugar, and salt to compensate for the lost fluids. This solution is as effective as Oral Rehydration Solution (ORS).
Blood Pressure and Cardiovascular Health – It has been proven that dietary salt determines the blood pressure of the body and has an impact on cardiovascular health, which is primarily related to strokes and heart attacks. High blood pressure or hypertension is a major cause for such events. Inadequate intake of salts like calcium, magnesium, and sodium can cause health issues. Controlling the intensity of your salt intake often affects the blood pressure.
Low Blood Pressure (reading below 90/60) can be treated by consuming more salt and hydrating fluids. This will help boost the volume of blood in the arteries, resulting in a rise in blood pressure. If the blood pressure rises too high (reading above 140/90), then many other organs like the eyes, kidneys, and brain are also at risk. Along with a poor exercise regime, malnutrition, and hereditary risks, salt intake also contributes to high blood pressure. Eating excess salt means that you end up retaining too much water in the body, which can aggravate the fluid upsurge related to heart failure.
Diabetes – Healthy levels of insulin are required to maintain a fit body. Diets with low levels of salt can weaken the body’s sensitivity towards insulin. This reduces the body’s ability to metabolize glucose, providing poor levels of energy to the liver, muscles, and nervous system, possibly leading to Type 2 diabetes.
Intravenous Saline IV Solution– Patients suffering from serious conditions like heart failure or acute diarrhea are given medication intravenously. When it is not possible to consume anything orally, saline IV solution is administered in the hospitals to bring back optimum hydration levels of the body’s cells.
Pregnancy – Pregnant mothers are required to ensure a healthy diet in order to keep their own body and the developing baby healthy. Along with other dietary needs, adequate salt intake is recommended by doctors to maintain good health.
Hyponatremia –Hyponatremia is a condition in which the body suffers from a shortage of sodium (salt) in the fluids present outside the cells. This can be caused by over-hydration with water, perspiration, or diarrhea, and is also known as water intoxication.
To maintain a healthy blood pressure and smooth functioning of your nerves and muscles, the body needs an adequate amount of salt (sodium). When this optimum level of sodium falls, water enters into the cells to compensate. This results in an imbalance of water to salt ratio in the body, causing swelling in the cells because of excess water.
Barring the brain cells, this swelling is not a threat for most of the cells, but the brain cells are restricted inside the skull frame. This swelling in the brain cells leads to Hyponatremia.
Heat Stroke or Sun Stroke – Heat Stroke is a condition that occurs when the body’s heat regulating system falls short. This can occur both by being out in the hot sun for a long duration as well as overheating in the surrounding environment, such as work areas. The body fails to release heat properly in order to attain its normal temperature. As a result, the body temperature becomes too high, which poses a threat to the major organs. In an attempt to cool itself down, the body produces more sweat through the sweat glands, thereby losing essential salt (sodium) and water.
Elderly people and small babies are at greater risk of heat stroke, since their body’s thermostat lacks efficiency. Prevention of heat or sun stroke is always advisable by keeping the body hydrated and consuming adequate amounts of salt in order to maintain the electrolyte balance. A person suffering from heat stroke can be treated by offering water or fluids that contain sugar and salt.
Cystic Fibrosis – Cystic fibrosis is caused by a malformed protein that prevents the optimum movement of salt and water in and out of the body’s cells, resulting in very sticky, salty sweat. This can be tested by diagnosing the salt content of the perspiration. In cystic fibrosis, the body loses more salt than normal. Infants suffering from cystic fibrosis need extra salt as both infant milk and breast milk is low in salt content. The salt content should be cautiously increased only after a discussion with a specialist.
Dental Hygiene – Painful bacterial infections like trench mouth can cause ulcers in the gums, which can be soothed using a salt water rinse. The rinse can be prepared by mixing 1/2 teaspoon of salt mixed with 1 cup of warm water. It helps to reduce swelling and soothes sore gums. As a preventive oral hygiene measure, cleaning the teeth with a mixture of 1/4 teaspoon each of salt and baking soda in 1 qt. of warm water helps to clean plaque, whitens the teeth, and keep the gums healthy.
Sore Throat– Pharyngitis, commonly known as a sore throat, can be alleviated by repeated gargling with a cup of warm water mixed with ½ teaspoon of salt.
Muscle Cramps: Muscle cramps can occur due to various reasons such as alcoholism, exercise, or medications. The intake of fluids and drinks that contain salt can be helpful in providing relief.
Chronic Rhinosinusitis: Some of the health benefits of salt include the treatment of symptoms of chronic rhinosinusitis. Research studies indicate that the use of nasal irrigation using saline or salt water helps in treating nasal and sinus problems.
Other: Soaking your tired feet in warm water mixed with salt helps in relieving pain. Salt is good for skin exfoliation as well, because it removes dead skin particles.
How much daily salt intake is healthy?
Doctors recommend no more than 6 grams of dietary salt (i.e. 2.5 grams of sodium) on a daily basis. This makes it approx. 1 teaspoon of salt per day. A good amount of that (about 75%) is already present in processed meals, breakfast cereals, and breads. Babies less than one year should not consume more than 1 gram of salt, whereas the recommended salt intake for young children changes as they grow bigger.
Some food labels only display the sodium content present in the food item. However, you can calculate the salt content by using an easy formula to find out how much actual salt you are eating in the disguise of sodium. Salt content in the food item = 2.5 * (sodium content)
It is always advised to check nutritional information on the food labels of pre-packaged food to find the exact salt content.
If the amount of salt per 100 gram serving is more than 1.5 grams i.e. 0.6 gram sodium, then it is considered to have a high salt content.
If the amount of salt per 100 gram serving is less than 0.3 grams i.e. 0.1 gram sodium, then it is considered to have a low salt content.
Some foods with a high salt content are tomato ketchup, mayonnaise, pickles, and anchovies.
Salt can either benefit or harm an individual, depending on their age and condition. Recent study suggests that intake of high-salt diet increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases in diabetics so it is advisable to opt for low salt diet in case of diabetics. One needs to be very cautious about its use in order to maintain a healthy body, since both the excess and shortage of salt have their respective consequences.