The Link Between Sodium Intake and Hypertension: Fact or Myth?

Doctors have been waffling for years about whether there's a link between sodium intake and hypertension. So what's the latest word?

Some doctors will tell you earnestly that there's a definite causal link between sodium intake and hypertension; others dismiss the possibility as myth. So who do you believe? It's hard to tell who's right, frankly, because the evidence seems so contradictory.

But it's starting to become clear that there's a third factor in play that sometimes presents and sometimes doesn't: salt sensitivity. About half of us have it; the rest of us don't.

What We Know

If you've got normal BP (as three-quarters of Americans do), then you don't really have to worry much about your sodium intake unless you eat enormous amounts of salt daily. Even then, your BP isn't likely to head into the hypertensive range.

Cutting back really helps only when your BP is higher than normal, and then only when you're salt sensitive. The mechanism that causes the BP to rise is well-understood: if your kidneys can't handle the volume of salt, it ends up in the bloodstream, where it draws water out of the tissues into the blood.

As a result, your blood volume increases, and so does your blood pressure. This is a very simplified explanation, of course, but it's basically how sodium triggers hypertension in those who are sensitive to salt.

The Upshot

Again, only about half of us are salt sensitive, though African-Americans, diabetics, and the elderly tend to be salt-sensitive more often than not. No matter what, it can't hurt to cut back on your sodium intake. Most of us take in about 5,000 milligrams of salt a day, about 10 times more than we need.

It's fairly easy to cut back on obvious sources of salt, but it's easy to miss sodium content in some foods. Make a habit of checking product labels, when you can, and avoid most condiments, pickled products, cheese, cold cuts, sausages, etc. Canned, preserved, or processed foods are often highly salted, too.

Focus instead on fresh produce and fresh meats, and try to cut back to no more than 1,500 mg of sodium daily. Better yet, try to push it down to less than 1,000 mg, because that's all you really need for proper bodily function. Don't go below 500 mg, or you'll make yourself sick.

The Sodium Issue, in a Nutshell

For most people, taking in too much salt won't do much more than give them a stomach ache. But for the sensitive, it can push blood pressure up to dangerously high levels.

Therefore, if you have high blood pressure, it's worth slashing your salt intake to the bone to try to lower your BP a few points; because while it's not always the case, sodium intake and hypertension definitely can be interrelated.

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