Is salt good or bad for you? If you read the headlines, you’ve been warned of the dangers of too much salt and the negative consequences it can have on your health. The truth, however, is that your body needs salt to support daily activity. Understanding the function of salt in the body will help you make choices about how to best balance this valuable mineral for the good of your body. 

What is the function of salt in the body?

In short, the function of salt in the body is to maintain fluid levels and support muscle and nerve function. It also regulates blood fluids and prevents low blood pressure. The human body is made of roughly 60% water and the balance between water and sodium is important. Too little sodium in this composition can lead to hyponatremia, dizziness, confusion, muscle twitches and seizures. Too much sodium has been linked to kidney stones, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease. The body is designed to regulate the water/sodium balance naturally by sending cues, like thirst and urination when the balance has slipped. 

Facts about salt

Medical News Today highlights these four facts about salt: 

  • The body needs salt, but too much or too little can cause problems.
  • Sodium makes up 40 percent of salt. If a food label lists sodium instead of salt, multiply the answer by 2.5 for an accurate picture of the salt content.
  • Most Americans take in too much salt, and 75 percent of it is hidden in processed and packaged food.
  • The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends a maximum intake of no more than 2.3 grams (g) or 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium a day, or around 1 teaspoon, and preferably no more than 1,500 mg.

Knowing this will help you better regulate your intake of salt each day. High sodium levels can be avoided by understanding how to read labels, avoiding as many processed and packaged foods as possible, and tracking your daily salt intake. 

What if salt intake is too low?

Low sodium levels can be caused by a variety of factors including fluid retention, diarrhea and vomiting, and an underactive thyroid, drinking too much water, or burns. More serious conditions like Addison disease, a blockage in the small intestine, or heart failure can also cause sodium levels to dip. Sodium deficiency can impact the heart, liver, kidneys, muscle and nerve function, and brain activity. More specifically, you may experience a sense of sluggishness and lethargy. At its most severe, these symptoms progress to muscle twitches, followed by seizures, a loss of consciousness, coma, and death. The function of salt in the body is significant when the severity is observed through this progression of symptoms, which can happen quickly.

How to prevent low sodium levels

The Mayo Clinic suggests these ways to support sodium levels in the body: 

  • Treat associated conditions. Getting treatment for conditions that contribute to hyponatremia, such as adrenal gland insufficiency, can help prevent low blood sodium.
  • Educate yourself. If you have a medical condition that increases your risk of hyponatremia or you take diuretic medications, be aware of the signs and symptoms of low blood sodium. Always talk with your doctor about the risks of a new medication.
  • Take precautions during high-intensity activities. Athletes should drink only as much fluid as they lose due to sweating during a race. Thirst is generally a good guide to how much water or other fluids you need.
  • Consider drinking sports beverages during demanding activities. Ask your doctor about replacing water with sports beverages that contain electrolytes when participating in endurance events such as marathons, triathlons and other demanding activities.
  • Drink water in moderation. Drinking water is vital for your health, so make sure you drink enough fluids. But don’t overdo it. Thirst and the color of your urine are usually the best indications of how much water you need. If you’re not thirsty and your urine is pale yellow, you are likely getting enough water.

Knowing the function of salt in the body is important to keep your balance in the optimal range to prevent negative health consequences when your levels are too high or low. As always, consult with your healthcare provider if you recognize any symptoms of sodium excess or deficiency listed above.