Whenever I hear the word ‘sodium’, I automatically think about ‘salt’. So, before I continued I had to double check to confirm that sodium is not salt, it is in fact one of the elements that combine to make salt. Sodium is actually a reactive metal that is the eleventh element on the periodic table. While we need it to stay alive, it reacts violently (by exploding) when exposed to moisture.
Although sodium is not the (table) salt we use in our foods, it is 40% of each serving of salt that we intake. It is for this reason that many persons believe that sodium is one of the main causes of high blood pressure, since the doctors usually recommend that we lessen our salt intake once we are diagnosed with high blood pressure. Although there is some element of truth to it, this is not entirely so. This then begs me to ask, what does sodium really do?
The body uses sodium to control blood pressure and blood volume. It is also needed for your muscles and nerves to work properly. Many processes in the body, especially in the brain, nervous system, and muscles, require electrical signals Although sodium is often maligned as a cause of high blood pressure, it also plays several essential roles in the body. Sodium helps control blood pressure and regulates the function of muscles and nerves, which is why sodium concentrations are carefully controlled by the body. However, most people consume far more sodium than their bodies need.
Sodium is dissolved in the blood and plays a key role in maintaining blood pressure. Sodium attracts and holds water, so the sodium in the blood helps maintain the liquid portion of the blood. Excess sodium (such as that obtained from dietary sources) is excreted in the urine. This mineral also regulates the total amount of water in the body and the transmission of sodium into and out of individual cells also plays a role in critical body functions. On the contrary, if you consume too much sodium, your body may hold on to extra water, increasing the volume of your blood. Since your blood vessels cannot expand to accommodate this increased blood volume, your blood pressure will rise. High blood pressure is a risk factor for many diseases, including heart problems and stroke.
Sodium also plays a key role in muscle and nerve functions. Both muscles and nerves require electrical currents to function properly. Muscle and nerve cells generate these electrical currents by controlling the flow of electrically charged molecules, including sodium. For muscle cells, these electrical currents stimulate contraction of the muscle. Nerves, on the other hand, need electrical activity to communicate with other nerves. Cells use molecular pumps to keep sodium levels outside the cell high. When an electrical current is needed, cells can allow the positively charged sodium ions into the cell, generating a positive electrical current. The movement of sodium is critical in the generation of these electrical signals. Too much or too little sodium therefore can cause cells to malfunction, and extremes in the blood sodium levels (too much or too little) can be fatal.
Since sodium is an integral part of nerve and muscle function, it is not surprising that too little or too much sodium in the body can affect organ systems. Low levels of sodium, called hyponatremia, can cause muscle spasms, cramps, headache, irritability, restlessness, nausea and fatigue. More serious signs of hyponatremia include confusion, hallucinations, decreased consciousness and coma. Too much sodium, also known as hypernatremia, can make you lethargic or restless. Hypernatremia may also cause increased deep tendon reflexes, muscle spasticity and seizures.
The long and short of it, sodium is like a knife – the same instrument that can do unthinkable levels of harm, is very effective in peeling fruits or in the kitchen. It is maintaining an optimal level that is important. Our body already regulates sodium levels carefully to prevent levels from getting too high or too low. We just need to be more aware of the amount to ensure we reap the maximum benefit from this mineral.