Why is too much sodium bad for you?

Have you ever wondered why salt was such a valuable commodity in the spice trade? That is because salt, made up of sodium and chloride, was the first preservative used when humans stored large amounts of meat and dried substances like animal skins.

Even today, sodium is often used to preserve products to have a longer shelf life and taste better. Just read any label and you would often find the flavouring, monosodium glutamate, and preservatives like sodium metabisulphate, sodium benzoate, etc. There are quite a few products on the market that contain lots of sodium, including herbs and spice mixes, sauces, gravies, soups, polonies, viennas and bacon. Our favourite South African meat treat, biltong, won’t taste the same without salt.

What is the function of sodium?

Sodium is an important electrolyte that controls fluid balance in the body. When you consume too much sodium, it acts like a magnet for water. Your heart then has to pump more fluid through the body and that increases your blood pressure. Your kidneys also have to work harder to excrete the fluid.

When your heart is already in bad shape, or your kidneys don’t function well, the extra fluid in your body can make your condition worse. That’s why it is so important that people who suffer from heart failure, high blood pressure or kidney disease should look at the amount of salt and other sodium sources they consume every day.

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How to replace lost sodium

When you exercise and sweat, you are ill and you vomit or have diarrhoea, you need to replace the sodium you lose by drinking an electrolyte mixture. The most common source is sports drinks, like Energade or Powerade. However, we have to be careful not to drink too much of these since they are very high in sugar and may contribute to unneeded weight gain.

Be careful of energy drinks too, since they are not the same as sports drinks and may contain caffeine and other substances, which may be dangerous to your kidneys and may increase your blood pressure.

You only need to drink sports drinks if you have exercised for more than 30 minutes, otherwise, you can use normal water to replace the fluids you have lost. You can calculate the amount of fluids you need to replace by weighing yourself before and after exercise and drinking a millilitre equivalent of the amount of weight that you have lost. For example, 0.5 kg= 500 g = 500 ml).

You can make your own rehydration solution at home by using a cup of boiled, cooled water and adding a teaspoon of sugar and a pinch of salt to it. Stir the mixture and drink small sips of it. You can flavour the solution if you like with lemon juice or sugar-free cool drink concentrates like Sweeto or Drink-o-pop.

As we have seen, salt is important to human life in more ways than one but must be used in moderation. Try to flavour your meals with herbs and spices, rather than using salty products. Limit your total intake of sodium to 2400 mg a day. Get in the habit of reading labels and nutritional content (even for take-aways) and avoid products that list salt or sodium within the first five ingredients.

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