Sodium is an essential mineral that helps to regulate your body's fluid balance. It also supports your muscles and nerves and helps you maintain normal blood pressure. In addition, sodium has a close relationship with potassium. Sodium helps to maintain normal fluid levels outside of cells; whole potassium helps to maintain normal fluid levels inside of cells. This article will discuss sodium's role in the body and share the best dietary sources.
What Is Sodium?
Sodium is a mineral found in many foods. It is an essential mineral, meaning it is needed by the body to function correctly. For example, sodium supports normal muscle and nerve functions and helps keep body fluids in balance.
While commonly mistaken to be the same thing as salt, there is a difference. Salt is made from sodium chloride and is typically around 40% sodium and 60% chloride. So, while sodium and chloride are different, salt does contain a lot of sodium and is one of the most common natural sources of sodium in the diet.
Sodium is also not to be mistaken with sodium bicarbonate or baking soda. Sodium bicarbonate is a salt made of sodium and bicarbonate. It is a highly alkaline compound that reacts when it comes into contact with acids, like buttermilk, yogurt, or vinegar. It is commonly used in baking as a leavening agent. Baking soda is also one of the high sources of sodium in the diet. It contains nearly 1,300 mg in just 1 tsp, which is around as much sodium as the body needs for an entire day.
What Are The Benefits of Sodium?
Being an essential mineral, sodium has many significant benefits for the body. The body needs sodium to conduct nerve impulses, contract and relax muscles, and maintain the proper water balance in cells. Sodium may help with:
- Improving brain health
- Relieving muscle cramps
- Fighting free radicals
- Maintaining pH balance
- Regulating blood sugar
- Controlling blood pressure
Among the most critical functions of sodium, however, is its role in regulating the body's balance of fluids. Our bodies are roughly 70% water. Nearly 40% of this water exists within our cells in an intracellular fluid (ICF). The remaining 60% exists outside our cells in spinal fluid, blood, lymph, and extracellular fluid (ECF).
The balance of water in the ICF and ECF is primarily determined by the concentration of electrolytes in the body—particularly potassium and sodium. Sodium is the main electrolyte in the ECF, while potassium is the primary electrolyte found in the ICF. Sodium determines the amount of water outside our cells, while potassium determines the amount inside our cells.
Under normal conditions, there is a healthy balance between these two electrolytes. However, if there is an imbalanced ratio, water will move to the side with more electrolyte concentrations. This can either result in the shrinking of cells or swelling—depending on whether water is moving into or out of the cells.
For this reason, it is essential to maintain a healthy fluid balance by consuming the proper electrolytes.
Maintaining A Healthy Balance of Sodium and Potassium
Many people are unaware of this, but minerals exist in relationships and have antagonistic and synergistic partners.
A synergist (also called agonist) is a nutrient that enhances nutrient absorption or metabolic function inside your body. An antagonist, on the other hand, is a nutrient that either decreases or blocks the absorption or metabolic function of the nutrient. In other words, certain minerals can inhibit or enhance other minerals' absorption or function.
A typical example of this is copper and zinc. While both are necessary for health, these minerals compete for absorption. Therefore, if there is an excess of one, it can lead to a deficiency of another. For example, too much zinc can deplete copper levels and vice-versa.
This also applies to sodium and potassium. These minerals have such a close relationship that it is essential to keep them in proper balance—and unfortunately, many people lack this crucial balance.
In the standard American diet, most people consume far too much sodium and not enough potassium. Because of this, many people suffer from cellular dehydration—and most are unaware of this.
So many foods today are high in sodium, not because they naturally contain high amounts of sodium, but because they have had so much sodium added to them to enhance their flavor. Most people know that adding a little salt to a dish can bring out its flavor—this is why salt is on every restaurant table. But it is not just that salt is added to culinary dishes. Sodium is added in very large amounts in many packaged and processed foods. Just one look at the nutrition facts on the back of a packaged food can confirm this.
Because sodium is added to many foods, it sneaks its way into our diet in ways we may not even notice. It depletes our potassium levels—likely low to begin with—and leads to cellular dehydration. Potassium is another essential mineral that is much less common in foods. It is estimated that less than 2% of the population is meeting their daily potassium needs.
Most people do not need to worry about getting enough sodium in their diet. Instead, they need to focus on reducing their sodium consumption—especially in the form of added sodium and table salt.
The only people that may need to concern themselves with sodium levels are those that do not eat any packaged or processed foods and do not consume any salt in their diet. Thankfully, there are many food sources of sodium other than salt.
Most people should focus on getting more potassium in their diet. To read more about food sources of potassium, read our article "Best Sources of Potassium."
With most minerals and nutrients, it is ideal for getting them from whole foods or whole food supplements if possible. This is because the body has an easier time absorbing and utilizing nutrients from whole foods and is less likely to result in imbalances than taking a whole bunch of different isolated supplements. Below, we'll discuss the good sources of sodium in our diet.
How Much Sodium Do I Need?
The average American eats, on average, about 3,400 mg of sodium per day. However, the recommended daily intake for sodium is less than 2,300 mg, with an ideal recommendation of no more than 1,500 mg daily. We are estimated to need at least 500 mg of sodium per day to maintain normal body function. So, the optimal range of daily sodium intake is between 500 mg and 1,500 mg.
High Sodium Food Sources
Before we talk about the best natural food sources of sodium, let's first discuss some of the sources of high sodium in the diet. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 40% of the sodium consumed by Americans comes from the following foods:
- Deli meat sandwiches
- Burritos and tacos
- Savory Snacks (e.g., chips, crackers, popcorn)
- Pasta mixed dishes
- Egg dishes and omelets
Remember that the sodium content can vary significantly between similar types of foods. Canned fish, cured meats, and other canned goods also tend to have much sodium. Limiting your consumption of these foods to keep sodium levels at a healthy range is recommended.
Natural Sources of Sodium in Food
While many people get too much sodium in their diet, it is still an essential mineral we want to ensure we are getting in our diet daily. Typical food sources of natural sodium include fruits and vegetables. Below are some of the best natural food sources of sodium:
- Bell peppers
- Sweet potatoes
These foods typically have more than 35 milligrams of sodium but less than 140 milligrams in an average serving. Keep in mind that these numbers are referring to natural sodium content. Canned or packaged varieties of these foods will likely add much more sodium.
For example, 1 cup of canned peas and carrots has 663 milligrams of sodium, far more than a serving of these vegetables served fresh would have.
As mentioned, most people need to watch their sodium intake and focus more on eating potassium-rich foods. The CDC emphasizes getting more potassium-rich foods in your diet, such as:
- Leafy greens
- Sweet potatoes
For more food sources of potassium, read this article (link article).
Sodium is a natural mineral essential nutrient the body needs for various functions. For example, the body needs sodium to conduct nerve impulses, contract and relax muscles, and maintain the proper water balance in cells.
Sodium has a close relationship with potassium. Sodium helps regulate fluid levels outside of cells, while potassium regulates fluid levels inside cells. Unfortunately, these minerals are also antagonistic pairs, which means too much of one can deplete the other.
Most people consume too much sodium and not enough potassium in their diet. As a result, the water in their cells is moving to the outside of their cells, leading to cellular dehydration. Therefore, it is recommended for most people to focus on consuming more potassium-rich foods in their diet while reducing their daily sodium intake.