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Ask a Pharmacist: Learn more about sodium

Posted by Blooms The Chemist on 23 Jan 2024

Ask a Pharmacist: Learn more about sodium

Your body needs certain minerals to build strong bones and teeth and turn food into energy. While it's often confused with sodium chloride, also known as salt, sodium is a slightly different but highly important mineral. 

Sodium is needed to balance our bodies' fluids, send nerve signals around, and help our muscles to work. Our kidneys manage the amount of sodium we have; if we have too much, it will just come out in our urine.

We've asked one of our Pharmacists, Aurelia Captari, to explain more about sodium and why it's important for your body.

Balancing sodium and potassium

Sodium is often talked about in conjunction with potassium, another essential mineral. This is because the balance between sodium and potassium is crucial for maintaining good health. The typical Australian diet tends to be high in sodium and low in potassium, which can lead to several health issues, including high blood pressure.

A high-sodium diet can cause the body to retain excess water, increasing blood volume in your bloodstream. This extra fluid can strain your heart and blood vessels, leading to high blood pressure. In contrast, potassium helps to counteract the effects of sodium, promoting healthy blood pressure by relaxing blood vessels.

Sodium in Summer

Sodium is not just about maintaining fluid balance and helping our nerves; it becomes especially important during Summer:

  • Sweat and hydration: As the weather grows warmer, your body’s internal cooling system kicks into high gear. Sweating is your body’s way of regulating temperature, and sodium plays a crucial role. When you sweat, you lose water and essential electrolytes, including sodium. Replenishing sodium lost through sweating helps maintain proper electrolyte balance and prevents heat-related illnesses such as heat exhaustion and heatstroke.
  • Dehydration prevention: Dehydration is a common concern during hot summer days. Getting enough sodium helps your body retain water, reducing the risk of dehydration. This is especially vital outdoors, such as hiking, biking, or enjoying the beach.
  • Muscle function: Summer is the season of increased physical activity, and sodium is an integral part of muscle function. It allows your muscles to contract efficiently, essential for swimming, running, and outdoor sports.

Sodium in your diet

Sodium is found naturally in foods, but much of it is added during processing and preparation. It’s essential to be mindful of where sodium lurks in your diet, as it may not always be evident. Some common sources of sodium include:

  • Processed and packaged foods: Lots of the sodium we consume comes from processed and packaged foods. This includes canned soups, frozen dinners, processed meats, and even some breakfast cereals.
  • Restaurant meals: Many restaurant dishes are notoriously high in sodium, partly due to flavour enhancement but also to increase food preservation. Even seemingly healthy options may contain hidden sodium.
  • Condiments and sauces: Common condiments like ketchup, soy sauce, and salad dressings are sodium-rich. Foods prepared in brine are especially salty, like pickles or olives.
  • Bread and baked goods: Breads, rolls, and other baked goods almost always contain added sodium, which can add up quickly if consumed regularly.
  • Cheese: Certain types of cheese, especially processed and aged varieties, can be surprisingly high in sodium.

The sodium-health connection

High sodium intake is closely linked to several health conditions, with hypertension(high blood pressure)being the most prominent. 

Hypertension is often called the “silent killer” because it can go unnoticed for years while increasing the risk of heart disease and other serious health problems. Additionally, high sodium intake has been associated with health issues, including:

  • Stroke
  • Heart disease
  • Osteoporosis(where the bones become brittle and porous, and more likely to break)
  • Kidney stones
  • Stomach cancer

While sodium is vital for your health, it’s possible to have too much of it, even during the Summer. 

Practical tips for managing your sodium intake 

We've found some practical tips that you can use without compromising your enjoyment of the season:

  • Stay hydrated: Drink plenty of water, and consider drinks with plenty of electrolytes, such as sports drinks, if you do intense physical activities and have heavy sweating. These electrolytes, which include sodium, help replace what you lose through perspiration.
  • Choose low-sodium snacks: When reaching for snacks, opt for low-sodium options. Fresh fruits and vegetables like watermelon, cucumber, and celery are hydrating and naturally low in sodium.
  • Homemade picnics: If you’re planning a picnic, prepare your own snacks and meals. This allows you to control the amount of sodium in your food. Choose sandwiches with low-sodium deli meats and plenty of veggies. Skip the high-sodium condiments and opt for homemade spreads and dressings.
  • Watch for hidden sodium: Salad dressings, marinades, and processed cheese can contain more sodium than expected. Make your own dressings and marinades with herbs and citrus to add flavour without the excessive salt.
  • Moderate alcohol intake: Alcoholic beverages, especially cocktails and some beers, can be high in sodium. Limit your alcohol consumption, and choose low-sodium or sodium-free options if available.
  • Rehydrate smartly: While it’s essential to stay hydrated, be cautious about overdoing it with sports drinks, as they can be high in sugar and calories. Water remains the best choice for most people, and you’ll get enough sodium from your food.
  • Check restaurant menus: If dining out at restaurants, try asking about sodium content or request meals to be prepared with reduced salt. Many eateries are willing to accommodate your preference.
  • Cooling homemade drinks: Create your own refreshing summer beverages at home. Mix water with citrus fruits, cucumber and mint for a tasty, hydrating experience.

Sodium regulates hydration, prevents heat-related illnesses, and supports muscle function. 

With smart choices, such as staying hydrated, opting for low-sodium snacks, and being mindful of hidden sodium sources, you can savour your Summer while ensuring your health and wellbeing is a top priority.

This article has been republished with permission and is available in Health Check Magazine. Visit your local Blooms The Chemist to get your copy today.