The Facts About Salt and High Blood Pressure
Some hypertension risk factors, like age and genetics, can't be controlled, but cutting your salt intake is one way to lower your blood pressure risk.
By Melanie Winderlich
Medically Reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
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Our bodies need salt, or sodium, for proper functioning of muscles and nerves, as well as to manage blood pressure and blood volume. But most of us ingest far more than the recommended amount of salt every day. That's because sodium is in more than the salt shaker sitting in your kitchen. Restaurant meals and canned and processed foods often have extremely high levels of sodium; about 80 percent of the salt we ingest comes from these sources.
When you increase your salt intake, you retain fluids; this can raise your blood pressure by increasing blood volume and can increase the workload on the heart. “Arteriosclerosis, damage to the kidney and blood vessels, heart attack, and stroke are just some of the conditions you risk with hypertension,” says Samuel J. Mann, MD, professor of clinical medicine at New York-Presbyterian Hospital Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City.
Salt Sensitivity Factors
Excessive sodium isn't the only cause of high blood pressure. For many, hypertension is genetic, and the effect of high salt intake on blood pressure is also genetically determined in many people.
Age and race each play a role in how our blood pressure responds to high salt intake. Due to genetic factors, African-Americans are more likely to experience elevated blood pressure, or hypertension, when their diet is high in salt.
As we get older, salt is more likely to lead to an increase in blood pressure. Kidney function also declines as we age, so the body has an even harder time excreting excessive amounts of salt. Weight and lack of exercise are also important determinants when talking about hypertension.
Tips for Skipping the Salt
Most people with high blood pressure shouldn't eat more than 1,500 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day. Even those at low risk for hypertension should keep their sodium intake at less than 2,400 mg per day — the amount of salt in one teaspoon. You can check how much sodium you're taking in by carefully examining nutrition labels. Make sure to note serving sizes, as labels can be somewhat deceiving.
Because most restaurants don't publish nutritional facts on their menus, eating out makes it a little tougher to calculate and limit sodium. Dr. Mann suggests asking your waiter what dishes can be prepared without salt. Even if you decide to order something light, remember that the salt content of items like bread, soup, and salad dressing can be very high.
Other tips to reduce salt intake:
- Eat fresh foods as much as possible.
- Cut back on condiments loaded with sodium.
- Try other seasonings, such as basil, curry, and oregano.
- Buy a cookbook of low-sodium recipes.
- Rinse off all canned foods before eating.
The Importance of Potassium
Another way to prevent hypertension and re-establish the delicate balance your kidneys work so hard to create is making sure you're getting enough of the mineral potassium in your diet. Potassium helps your kidneys remove excess fluid. Many fruits and vegetables are good sources of potassium, such as bananas and potatoes, as are low-fat dairy products.
Finding salt alternatives will not only improve your health, it will also expand your culinary talents and introduce you to a world of new tastes.
Video: The Evidence That Salt Raises Blood Pressure
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