Too much salt can affect our brain, kidneys, arteries, stomach, bones, and heart.  The overuse of salt can also cause chemical imbalances that can lead to death.

What is salt?

Table salt sometimes referred to as ‘common salt’ or sodium chloride, is the chemical compound NaCl.  Salt occurs naturally as a mineral in seawater, saltwater lakes or in underground salt deposits.  You also can manufacture or produce salt.

Does our body need salt?

Yes, salt plays an important role in the body.  Salt contains sodium that regulates muscle contractions, nerve function, blood pressure and fluid balance.  For example, the loss of sodium through sweat or fluid can contribute to muscle cramps in athletes or waking up at night with a cramp in your foot or leg.

However, South Africans often use too much salt.  The World Health Organisation recommends an intake of less than 2gm per day (about one teaspoon).  Based on this estimation, South Africans are known to use on average at least twice the recommended maximum level of intake.

Our bodies react negatively when we consume too much salt.  Too much salt can affect our brain, kidneys, arteries, stomach, bones, and heart.  The overuse of salt can also cause chemical imbalances that can lead to death.

What are the negative effects of too much salt on health?

Too much sodium increases your risk of a stroke, heart failure, osteoporosis, stomach cancer and kidney disease.  Salt is the major factor contributing to stroke and heart attacks in South Africa.  Too much salt leads to increased blood pressure and blood vessel damage.  When you eat too much salt, your body holds on to water to dilute the extra salt.  This extra water increases your blood volume, that in turn means your heart works harder, because it’s pushing more liquid through your blood vessels.  More strenuous pumping by the heart puts more force on the blood vessels.  Over time, this increased force can raise blood pressure and damage blood vessels, making them stiffer.  This increases the risk of dementia, stroke, heart attack and heart failure.

Research shows that a higher intake of sodium (salt, salty or processed foods) is linked to an increase in stomach cancer.  High sodium intake appears to change the viscosity of the protective mucous barrier and to increase the colonisation of Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori), a type of bacteria.  These germs can enter your body and live in your digestive tract.  After many years, they can cause sores (called gastric ulcers) and for some people result in stomach cancer.

The amount of calcium that your body loses via urination increases with the amount of salt you eat.  If calcium is in short supply in the blood, it can leach out of your bones.  A diet high in sodium can cause osteoporosis as it thins your bones.  Reducing salt intake causes a positive calcium balance, that slows the loss of bone calcium that occurs with aging.

Your body removes unwanted fluid by filtering your blood through your kidneys.  From the kidneys any extra fluid is removed from the blood and put into the bladder to be removed as urine.  Eating salt raises the amount of sodium in your bloodstream reducing the ability of your kidneys to remove the water.  A high sodium diet causes your body to retain water.  The extra water not only raises your blood pressure but also puts strain on your kidneys, arteries, heart, and brain.  This can damage your kidneys (kidney disease and failure), causing fluid retention (oedema) and triggering congestive heart failure.

Also, eating too much salt may mean that blood pressure medicines (such as diuretics) don’t work as well as they should.

New information link high sodium intake with a higher incidence of cataracts.  Still, we need more supporting evidence.

How can you reduce salt in your diet?

  • If we add more fresh, whole, and natural foods, such as fruit and vegetables, to our diet, we reduce our salt intake quite easily.
  • Another tip is to read food labels. Salt is added to processed foods, sauces, ready meals, snacks, and other condiments as both flavouring agent and food preservative.  Most of the salt we eat every day is “hidden”.  Roughly 80% of the salt we eat hides in processed foods and only 20% comes from the salt we add while cooking or eating food.
  • Make your own meals, rather than purchasing premade items. It gives you more control over how much salt is in your diet.
  • Instead of adding salt, opt instead to season food with lemon juice, herbs or non-salt containing spices.