Excess Salt Intake and Your Body’s Electrolyte Balance
Excess salt intake is responsible for causing many disorders including high blood pressure. What effects does excess salt have on the body?
Salt intake beyond normal requirements upsets the body’s sodium-potassium balance.
These minerals are involved in many body functions including signal transmission along the nervous system, maintaining the integrity of cells and the body’s energy production. They are essential electrolytes.
Sodium and potassium have a common property — both conduct electricity. Pure water is not a conductor. When sodium chloride dissolves in water, it releases sodium and chloride ions which carry an electric charge. This water can now conduct electricity.
The entire body, including all cells, organs and tissues, resides in a fluid medium. This fluid contains a large variety of minerals, some of which are magnesium, sodium, potassium, calcium and Blood balance phosphates.
Within each cell, there is more potassium than sodium in the fluid. Outside the cell, the fluid has more sodium than potassium. Therefore, potassium is the primary electrolyte within the cells and sodium predominates outside the cells in the intercellular spaces. Chloride acts to assist and complement both electrolytes.
This difference in sodium-potassium distribution is an important part of a complex electrolyte balance that is maintained between the intracellular and extracellular fluid mediums. It affects what are called the osmotic gradients within and outside the cells. That, in turn, impacts the hydration levels in the body, pH levels in the blood as well as the nervous and muscular systems.
The correct ratio is approximately three units of potassium to one unit of sodium. This will allow body processes to go on normally. Incidentally, this ratio if not unique to humans; most animals have the same ratio too.
A normal diet has sufficient quantities of both sodium and potassium, so getting too little of either is usually not an issue. The problem is something else. Many people consume sodium far in excess of what they need.
That can upset the electrolyte balance and cause serious problems.
Here are some examples of the damage this can cause. The cells of the stomach lining secrete digestive enzymes and acids to help digest food. Producing them requires a certain amount of energy. Without the right electrolyte balance, the energy production won’t be normal and neither will the enzyme and acid production.
Transmission of nerve impulses also requires the right sodium-potassium balance. These nerve functions tell the heart to beat and are also involved in reflex actions and other processes. Nerve conduction is impaired with an excess of sodium.
As you can see, having the wrong balance of these minerals can create life threatening problems. Following unscientific diets in an attempt to lose weight quickly can result in such serious imbalances.
Unlike higher life forms, most plants have a different sodium-potassium ratio. Plants usually have ten to twenty units of potassium to one unit of sodium.
This is partly because plants lack a highly developed nervous system and hence don’t have a need for more sodium.
This fact is to our advantage, because when we consume more vegetables, we gain the required potassium without filling up our bodies with extra sodium. This is one reason why eating plenty of vegetables is usually an important part of the diet prescribed for hypertensive patients.
As you can see, high salt intake can have many effects beyond hypertension. A sensible diet and lifestyle can help maintain the right electrolyte balance and good health.