Why Restricting Sodium Is Worse Than You Think

Sodium, the main component of table salt, contributes to high blood pressure, which is a risk factor for heart disease. However, most adults get about 3.4 grams of sodium per day, which is more than double the recommended daily limit, notes the American Heart Association (AHA). When consumed in excess, this compound promotes kidney stone formation and can lead to renal disease. A high-sodium diet may also put you at risk for osteoporosis, stomach cancer, heart failure, and stroke. On top of that, it can encourage your body to hold water, resulting in weight gain.

These aspects aside, our nerves and muscles need sodium to function optimally. This mineral plays a key role in nerve transmission, muscle contractions, and fluid balance, per the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Most people need around 500 milligrams of sodium per day, but athletes and other groups may require larger amounts.

Along with potassium, calcium, and magnesium, sodium is one of the primary electrolytes in the human body. Athletes lose these minerals through sweat, which can lead to dehydration and affect recovery. For this reason, they need more electrolytes than the general population, says sports dietitian Marita Radloff. Some reach for sports drinks or electrolyte beverages, while others prefer to snack on salty foods like popcorn or beef jerky.

However, the average person needs less than a quarter teaspoon of salt per day, explains the AHA. What can happen if you consume too little sodium?

Could a low-sodium diet affect your health?

A low-sodium diet can be just as harmful as consuming too much sodium, suggests a 2014 review published in the American Journal of Hypertension. After analyzing 25 studies, researchers concluded that eating too much or too little sodium can increase the risk of cardiovascular events and premature death. A 2016 study published in The Lancet, which included more than 133,000 people from 49 countries, had similar findings. Low sodium intakes were linked to a higher risk of death and heart disease in both healthy people and individuals with hypertension.

Sodium restriction may also lead to hyponatremia, especially in those who drink large amounts of water or take certain drugs, such as diuretics. This disorder is characterized by low sodium levels in the bloodstream, which may cause muscle cramps, mood changes, low energy, confusion, nausea, and fatigue, explains Healthline. If left unaddressed, it can result in seizures, coma, or even death. Some studies indicate that low-sodium diets may also affect blood lipids and hormone levels, according to 2003 research published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.

While there's no doubt that cutting back on sodium can benefit those with high blood pressure, you still need this nutrient in your diet. Your best bet is to follow AHA's guidelines and consume at least 500 milligrams of sodium per day, but no more than 2,300 milligrams. If you're an athlete or doing physical work, you might need more salt to function at your peak.