Salt: WHO recommends a maximum of five grams per day

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Too much salt can cause many unhealthy symptoms, leading to high blood pressure, affecting the immune system, and weakening bones. Why is too much salt harmful? And how can you manage to eat less salt?

The World Health Organization(WHO) is currently demanding maximum values and labeling of the salt content of food. Canteens should be obliged to avoid high-salt food. But until such regulations are implemented, we should be careful ourselves.

Why is too much salt unhealthy?

Many people with high blood pressure react to excessive salt consumption over a long period, which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. The kidneys, which excrete excess salt, are also put under strain. And the composition of the bacteria in the intestine, the microbiome, can also change due to too much salt.

Most people have a high salt intake

In Germany, the average consumption of table salt (sodium chloride) in the diet is ten grams. This is well above the recommendation of the German Society for Nutrition of six grams per day. The WHO recommends that adults consume no more than five grams of salt per day.

Too much salt: Different disease symptoms

Researchers are still asking many questions about the effect of salt on the body. A study has shown that too much salt over a long period disrupts the mitochondria, the powerhouses of human cells. The sodium ion that enters the immune cells leads to a lack of energy and changes the cells. The result is overactivation. This can be a positive reaction for fighting bacteria, but it may also mean an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

Long-term excessive salt intake can damage the body:

  • High blood pressure: Too much salt in food is a risk factor that is often underestimated. How sensitive someone is to salt varies greatly from person to person. People who are sensitive to salt store more salt in the body, which means more fluid gets into the cardiovascular system – blood pressure rises. Around 20 million people in Germany suffer from high blood pressure. According to the WHO, blood pressure values ​​of more than 140/90 mmHg (millimeters of mercury) are high blood pressure (hypertension).
  • Obesity: As a flavor enhancer, salt stimulates the appetite and can thus promote the development of obesity. Chips, for example, consist of a specific mixture of carbohydrates, fat, and salt, enriched with flavorings and colorings, sugar, and spices. Also called “eating formula”, this mixture does not stop us from eating because it affects our feeling of satiety and activates the reward system in the brain.
  • Intestine and the immune system: An excess of table salt also affects the composition of the intestinal microbiome. Too much table salt significantly reduces the number of lactobacilli in the intestine, while at the same time the number of so-called Th17 helper cells in the blood increases. These immune cells are suspected of raising blood pressure and promoting inflammation and autoimmune diseases. The fact that the number of Th17 cells increases so massively indicates an increased inflammatory response in the body. The microbiome appears to be an important factor in salt-affected diseases.

One in three is “salt sensitive”

Experts estimate that every third person belongs to the “salt-sensitive” group. Limiting salt consumption to less than six grams per day reduces blood pressure in these people by an average of five mmHg. That’s about as much as a blood pressure drug can achieve. But the effect of salt reduction is different: While every second patient reacts with a significant reduction in blood pressure, others do not benefit from it.

Background to salt sensitivity: Normally, the vessels are covered with a protective layer that binds salt. In the case of salt-sensitive people, this layer is thinned out and therefore cannot absorb salt well. The salt then circulates in the body until it is deposited in the kidneys, heart, and brain. A blood test can determine whether a person is sensitive to salt. The test can warn those affected and motivate them to eat as little salt as possible.

There is a lot of salt in these foods

One Study shows salt substitutes, called pan or blood pressure salts, may reduce the risk of stroke and death. However, this knowledge applies to the “self-salting” of the food. After all, salting the pasta water or adding more salt when eating only accounts for a maximum of 20 percent of our consumption. Most of the salt – about 80 percent – is in processed foods such as butter biscuits, cornflakes, bread, cheese, sausage, ready-made sauces, and, above all, ready-made meals such as pizza. The problem is that it’s hard to measure and estimate how much salt we’re consuming.

Potassium-rich diets can lower blood pressure

The salts sodium chloride (table salt) and potassium chloride have opposite effects on blood pressure. While sodium chloride increases blood pressure, a high-potassium diet can lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of stroke in people with high blood pressure. However, increased potassium intake is not suitable for people with severe kidney disease.

Prefer foods high in potassium

To prevent high blood pressure and stroke, the German Society for Nutrition recommends eating more foods that are naturally low in sodium but high in potassium :

  • Vegetables and fruits are generally high in potassium and low in sodium, whether fresh or frozen. Apricots, bananas, carrots, kohlrabi, and tomatoes contain a lot of potassium.
  • The potassium content is even higher in concentrated form, for example in tomato paste or dried fruit.
  • There is also a lot of potassium in potatoes, hazelnuts, cashew nuts, almonds, and peanuts.
  • Types of flour rich in potassium are spelled, rye, and buckwheat wholemeal flour.
  • Dark chocolate is also high in potassium.

Tips for a low-sodium diet

Salt consumption can be reduced with simple measures. How to succeed in a low-sodium diet:

  • Avoid processed foods.
  • First season the food with spices and herbs to save on salt.
  • Salt consumption is a matter of habit: it takes a while for low-salt dishes to taste pleasantly spicy.

No absolute avoidance of salt: Some salt is essential for life

You can’t do without salt: it regulates the body’s water balance and is important for digestion and muscle work. The body needs the electrolytes sodium and chloride to maintain water, electrolyte, and acid-base balance.

  • Sodium (just like potassium) plays a crucial role in the function of nerves and muscles: They enable the build-up of electrical voltage on the cell membranes and thus the transmission of nerve impulses – important for muscle contractions, heart function, and blood pressure regulation.
  • Sodium is also involved in active cell transport.
  • Chloride is part of gastric acid.
  • The body also needs salt for fluid balance, digestion, and bone structure.

What are the symptoms of sodium deficiency?

A salt intake of fewer than three grams per day poses a health risk, especially if sodium is lost at the same time. With fever, vomiting, and diarrhea, the body loses water and salts. However, the most common cause of sodium deficiency is medications such as water tablets, antihypertensives, antidepressants, and antiepileptics.

If the sodium content in the blood falls below a critical value (hyponatremia), dizziness, balance, and disorientation occur. The movements are slowed down, and the risk of falling increases. It is not uncommon for the symptoms of sodium deficiency to be confused with the onset of dementia. A simple blood test can reveal a dangerous sodium deficiency.

Older people are particularly affected: They eat and drink less and therefore consume less salt.

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