Sodium chloride: The wonders and dangers of the simple table salt

Salt dangers

Last Updated October 11th, 2019

What is sodium chloride?

Sodium chloride is a salt containing sodium and chlorine ions at a 1:1 ratio. It is edible and is commonly called Table salt. It has many useful purposes for the body. The normal sodium levels in the body lies between 135 – 145 milliequivalents per liter (mEq/L).

Sodium is an element, a macronutrient and an electrolyte (can turn into an ion that carries charge upon diffusion into a liquid medium like blood) present in the body. It is vital for electrolyte balance. A good electrolyte balance holds the key to vital functions like the functioning of the nerves, muscles, maintenance of an acid-base balance and water balance.

How can sodium chloride be used in foods?

  • To bring flavour to your food
  • As a natural preservative (for pickles, etc.)
  • Natural food colour enhancer
  • Curing and preserving meats
  • For food marination (to include certain flavours in the food)

How does the body process sodium?

Foods and drinks are common sources from which your body can obtain sodium. The body loses sodium via sweat and urine. Any abnormality in the sodium electrolyte balance can result in dehydration, heart and kidney failures. There are two different conditions that crop from an imbalance in the sodium levels in the body:

  • Hypnoatremia (concentration of sodium is too low)
  • Hypernatremia (too high concentration)

Why does the human body require sodium?

Management of blood volume

Sodium concentration and blood volume go hand in hand. When either of this factor becomes excess, the body signals the heart, blood vessels, and the kidneys for excretion of sodium. This impacts the ability of the kidneys to draw water from the blood and results in fluid retention or increase in blood volume.

If the sodium concentration or the blood volume is low, the signals are directed towards increase excretion of excess water via the kidneys. The kidney cells tend to draw the excess water from the bloodstream and excrete it out. This results in a decrease in the blood volume

Nutrient absorption and transportation

sodium chlorideSodium concentration outside the cell (the body is made up of structural and functional units called cell) is maintained at a high concentration. The potassium concentration inside the cell is maintained at a high concentration. This ionic concentration difference creates an ionic gradient or a membrane potential which is essential for the transport of other ions/compounds in and out of the cell. Here, because of this gradient, potassium ions tend to diffuse readily out of the cell whereas the sodium ions easily diffuse into the cell. Sodium and chloride play an important role in your small intestine. Sodium helps in the absorption of:

  • Chloride
  • Sugar
  • Water
  • Amino acids (building blocks of protein)

Chloride in combination with hydrogen in the form of hydrogen chloride is an ingredient of the gastric juices. Gastric juices are present in the stomach and help in digestion and absorption of nutrients. This is why, people with low blood glucose levels are treated with glucose that contains a pinch of sodium chloride as this helps in a rapid glucose intake and immediately prevents fatalities such as in case of coma.

Maintains energy balance

The membrane potential must be maintained and this is done through certain transporters in the cell. These transporters now use energy to throw the sodium ions out and bring in the potassium ions in order to maintain the electrochemical balance. Sodium and potassium are electrolytes in the fluid outside and inside your cells. This is vital for energy utilization or storage.

Osmoregulation

Osmosis is the process where water is excreted out or taken into the cell. This is the key mechanism by which the cells of your body retain their form and also for maintaining electrolyte balance. The fluid balance is the base for defecation, urination, sweating and sometimes even respiration. Cells tend to swell up if they have low ionic concentration and excrete out water if they have a high ionic concentration in them. This water balance holds the key for nutrient absorption and waste removal. If the water regulation (osmoregulation) is affected, it can either to water accumulation or accumulation of toxic substances.

Side effects of  high sodium chloride intake

Sodium chloride is safe and not toxic but an excess of sodium chloride can cause hypernatremia. It can irritate:

  • Eyes
  • Skin
  • Airways
  • Stomach

You can treat the irritation by drinking water or by washing the affected area with plain water. If the irritation does not stop then it is advisable to seek medical help.

The implications of excess salt are as follows:

  • Your blood pressure will increase due to increased blood volume
  • You will be more prone to heart and kidney disease
  • Your blood volume will increase leading to increased water retention in your body and eventually leads to swelling
  • Dehydration ( due to insufficient water in your body as the cells begin to lose excess water)

Too little sodium

sodium chloride kidneysToo less does not mean “just right”. Insufficient sodium amount can lead to a condition called hyponatremia. Here the sodium level in the blood is abnormally low. This can be due to:

  • Consuming large amounts of water
  • Prolonged vomiting or diarrhea
  • Use of some diuretics (medications that increase the water content)
  • Some kidney diseases

Symptoms of hyponatremia include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headache
  • Confusion
  • Loss of energy, drowsiness, and fatigue
  • Restlessness and irritability
  • Muscle weakness, spasms or cramps
  • Seizures
  • Coma

Dangers associated with too less of sodium

  • Insulin resistance: Insulin is a hormone secreted with the help of sodium to control blood glucose levels. Insulin increase leads to an increase in the sodium to be taken up by the cell. So, low sodium means low insulin secretion. Insulin resistance is a condition where the body’s cells fail to respond to insulin activity. This, in turn, results in more amount of blood glucose. Also, the body starts to think that maybe the insulin secreted isn’t enough to control the blood sugar and it begins to produce more insulin.
  • Salt dangersHeart diseases: Too less of sodium in the blood (below 135 mEq/L) leads to increased water absorption by the cells and decreased blood volume. The blood volume decreases to such an extent that the pressure becomes too low to even be conveyed to the heart. As a result, the heart muscles try to exert extra strain to pump the blood. Moreover, low sodium also impairs the kidney’s function for sodium retention and also impairs other hormonal activity. This eventually leads to fluid accumulation in the cells (cellular edema). Prolonged low sodium levels or hyponatremia can lead to complications like reduced ability to pay attention, increased risks of falls and fractures, permanent disability, coma, and even death of an individual.
  • Cholesterol issues:  Low sodium leads to lesser blood volume and this intensifies the effect of the bad cholesterol in your body. A study conducted in 2017 reported that 3.5% decrease of sodium leads to a 2.5% increase in the bad cholesterol and 7% increase in the fatty acids (triglycerides).
  • Increased mortality risk for diabetics: Here too low sodium levels in the body leads to more insulin resistance or insulin inactivity. This result along with the heart failure and cholesterol intensification aspects put together, increase the death risk in a diabetic individual.

 

Medical applications of sodium chloride

  • As intravenous (IV) drops: To provide sodium and hydration to the body. It is also mixed with other medications and given to the patient. Side effects are not fatal but pain, redness and swelling at the injection site can occur.
  • Saline flush injections: This is to clear any blocks in an IV catheter (a tube used to deliver the IV fluid to the patient) and also to clear off any medicine stuck on the side walls of the catheter.
  • Sodium chloride nasal spray: This saline nasal spray is to treat dryness inside the nose (nasal passages). It moisturizes the nasal pathways and also dissolves the crusty mucus. This makes breathing easier. Infants and young children who cannot blow their stuffy noses can be administered to the nasal sprays to clean off their nasal passage as saline drops are non toxic in nature.
  • Sodium chloride ointments: These ointments are used to minimize the swelling of the eye surface. It improves in treating the discomfort and irritation caused due to eye swelling. This product draws out the fluid and this minimizes the swelling.
  • Saline wound wash: The wounds are usually cleaned with saline washes and then the wounds are dressed to promote healing. The saline washes or cleans the wound surface and it keeps the wound area moisturized.
  • Saline eye drops: They are used to reduce the swelling, irritation and reddening of the eye. It is used to treat dry eye conditions too.
  • Sodium chloride inhalation: In the case of any lung discomforts, sodium chloride inhalations are used to create mucus in order to cough it out. This enhances the lung function.

Food sources of sodium

Foods that contain high amount of sodium: Salted or canned meat, fish or poultry including bacon, sausages, sardines, buttermilk, processed cheese, cheese spreads and sauces, quick breads, self-rising flour, biscuit, pancake and waffle mixes, canned juices, olives, pickles, sauerkraut and other pickled vegetables, soy sauce, marinades, canned and dehydrated soup, broth and bouillon, etc.

How to correctly consume it?

Sodium plays a vital role in maintaining an ion and a water balance. Its role in maintaining blood pressure is so needful that its deficiency affects the vital organs. Eating foods containing sodium is something that we do on a daily basis but monitoring the intake is even more needed. The human body is like a sodium container, the more the sodium, the more will be the water to dilute it and the more will be the pressure on the container.

Knowing the multifaceted role of sodium, the use of sodium in the form of sodium chloride in many medications and the presence of this mineral in varieties of food sources and in varying amounts makes it convenient for you to reach out to grab our share of sodium in the required amount as well as, acts as an eye opener towards the use of sodium in your body.

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